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  • Shree Bhattacharya

Framing Britney Spears: The State of Mental Health

Britney Spears—generational sweetheart, American it-girl—has remained a pop superstar for over two decades, leaving her story on display to the world. After Spears’ role as a Mickey Mouse Club cast member in the 90s, her hit song “Baby One More Time” pioneered her rise to stardom at age fifteen. She has since recorded thirteen top 10 hits and remains one of the most influential female pop artists of all time. With paparazzi consistently threatening her privacy, however, Spears has lived under high scrutiny from a young age.

Unbearable pressure from the public and constant hypersexualization led Spears to public meltdowns, addiction, loss of custody of her children, and mental health struggles. To manage her image, Spears was placed in a conservatorship in which her father Jamie Spears and a legal team handled all of her assets. In February 2021, the "Framing Britney Spears'' episode on Hulu’s The New York Times Presents revitalized recent public interest in her conservatorship. At a remote court appearance four months later, Spears finally spoke out: “I just want my life back… It’s been 13 years and it’s enough. It’s enough and it makes no sense at all. I’m done.” Then, on November 12, 2021, in a court hearing to dissolve her conservatorship, Spears listed a series of grievances against her father and his team, which included her fearing her father who had to approve all of her actions, her worth being equated to her performance, her father controlling all of her financial assets, and her father coercing her to leave in her IUD.

Under Spears’ conservatorship, her father was able to prevent her from getting married, maintaining custody of her children, and having another child. Denying these personal–yet inherently bureaucratically-determinant social rights–is disturbingly reminiscent of eugenics history; more than 60,000 individuals in institutions were forcibly sterilized under thirty-three state laws by the 1970s. While Spears’ lack of autonomy and choice in removing her own IUD reflects a much less severe version of forced sterilization of institutionalized individuals, her circumstance can show that the liberty to exercise autonomy and free-choice can be denied by health systems and legal systems, ultimately keeping those in psychiatric care debilitated. Her father also had legal rights to control other aspects of her health and career. This included forcing her to take medication while sick so that she could still perform on tour. Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory” relays a raw expression of the role of sick people and reveals that Americans live in a society where sickness, chronic illness, will always be seen as weak and undeserving. The sick have been scripted to either be productive members of society–to work, to perform on tour–or to stay invisible–unseen. Since Spears cannot be unseen, having a spotlight on her at all times, she has been forced to remain productive despite her health struggles.

Jamie Spears, as conservator of Britney Spears, also forced her involuntary admission to rehab, mirroring a societal process in which physical displays of madness lead to imprisonment. A lack of de-escalation literacy in police task forces and judicial precedent (ie.: Matthew Rushin’s case) has led to the incarceration of around 1.2 million individuals living with mental illness and divergence. Spears’ forced treatment brought focus to the efficacy of “rehabilitation” and pushed people to explore the reality of carceral mental health when people are wrongfully imprisoned. According to social psychologist Craig Haney, harmful conditions in institutions can lead exonerated inmates to “emotional suppression, social withdrawal, exploitative and/or violent behavior, and post-traumatic stress responses” among other negative outcomes. The previously unassuming majority were thereby hit with questions of whether those with mental illnesses be mandated into centers, be it correctional facilities or psychiatric hospitals. Or does that devalue them as autonomous people?

Ultimately, the spotlight on Spears’ conservatorship led people to begin uncloaking social guidelines that have been constructed to oppress the non-typical–the folkways and mores constructed by the privileged–and the real consequences caused by these frames: forced medication, forced rehabilitation, forced conservatorship, forced loss of autonomy. The rise of the #FreeBritney significantly increased mainstream attention to carceral mental health, incarceration due to mental madness, and autonomy-based rights, turning her psychiatric health from a vacuum, personal subject to an institutional one.


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