For Britney Spears, Jan. 3, 2008, was the day everything went wrong. After a string of defiant acts, which included shaving her head and swinging her umbrella at a paparazzo's car, she refused to surrender her then-year-old son, Jayden, to ex-husband Kevin Federline's bodyguard amid a custody dispute over her two children. Photographers swarmed Spears' Los Angeles home after Federline's lawyer called police — snapping photos as the star was hoisted into an ambulance, wig askew, after firefighters moved in to place her on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Thirteen years later, America's queen of pop is still paying for that day — financially, physically, emotionally and psychologically.
In the 2021 Hulu documentary "Framing Britney Spears," her mother, Lynne, speculated that the cause of the star's behavior was postpartum depression; but in court documents from 2008, her estranged father, James P. "Jamie" Spears, claimed it was dementia. Citing concerns over the singer's mental health, Judge Reva G. Goetz granted her father a permanent conservatorship order, which gave him authority over his daughter's person, as well as her financial assets, including her property, bank accounts and credit cards. Spears would not only lose custody of her children but of herself.
“I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive,” the 39-year-old pop star said in a chilling courtroom statement delivered June 23. “I want to end the conservatorship without being evaluated.”
The contours of Spears' long conservatorship, as well as conventional attitudes regarding women living with mental illness, recall female hysteria: a Victorian-era pseudo-malady that pathologized women who exhibited signs of psychological stress, trauma or unconventional sexual desires. Hysteria became a go-to diagnosis for mothers, daughters and wives who showed resistance to society's expectations — "even just talking back to men," says writer and disability justice advocate s.e. smith — giving their doctors and families license to commit them indefinitely.
With the next hearing in Spears' conservator fight coming Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, it's not just fans and celebrity observers watching with interest.
"Britney is a figurehead for an untold number of people the world will never hear about [who are] fighting for their civil rights," says Patrick Hicks, an attorney and head of legal at Trust & Will, an estate planning firm in San Diego.
Though Spears’ medical history remains private, she doesn't fit the profile of a typical conservatee. Of the estimated 1.3 million Americans living under conservatorships, "most are elderly individuals with cognitive impairment and adults with disabilities, groups who [may be] indefinitely unable to provide for themselves," says Hicks. On the contrary, Spears has released four albums, embarked on four world tours and performed 248 shows as part of a four-year residency in Las Vegas, which grossed $137.7 million.
In her first open court hearing, the singer described a draconian arrangement in which she was allegedly forced to work seven days a week, given lithium when she refused to work, denied a lawyer of her choice and not permitted to marry or remove her IUD to bear children. A recent report in the New Yorker revealed that, just before sharing her public testimony, Spears called 911 to report conservatorship abuse.
"I'm not here to be anyone's slave," Spears told Judge Brenda J. Penny last month. “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things."
Spears’ case, says disability justice advocate smith, is inextricably tied to a culture of ableism that has been used to justify the confinement and abuse of people living with mental illness and disabilities.
"The Americans With Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and there's this pervasive attitude that we don't deserve civil rights," smith says. "It doesn't help when people argue, 'Britney's not crazy. She's not disabled.' Whether we think so or not, the court decided that she is. There are countless mentally ill people who work and have families in this country. How do we protect them?"
A 2017 study by the U.S. Justice Department in Minnesota, found that statistically, half of conservatorship exploitation victims are under age 65 and that women are disproportionately exploited under conservatorships. "They tend to outlive men and can be [targeted] when they live alone," says Hicks. "You also have an entire generation that not so long ago committed women to the asylum for being 'hysterical.' You'd think we'd be so far removed from that."
"Until 1979, California was No. 1 in the country for sterilizing women who were institutionalized, most of them women of color," says smith. "Restricting the reproductive autonomy of the disabled or mentally ill is still very common, whether it's by IUD or forced sterilization, which also happens to women in prison. Britney not being allowed to remove her IUD is in line with the country's eugenicist past."
Spears spent the 2000s pushing back against the relentless media scrutiny and surveillance that shaped her teen years. The exposure only heightened after she became a mother, a wife and divorced by age 26. Aftershocks reverberated in magazines like Star and OK!, which framed Spears' open rebellion and then brutal comedown with headlines like, "Insane!" "Meltdown!" and "Lock Her Up!" Gossip columnist Perez Hilton referred to Spears as an "unfit mother," and shortly after actor Heath Ledger died of an overdose in 2008, Hilton sold T-shirts that read, “Why wasn’t it Britney?”
In the wake of Spears' recent public testimony, Hilton has apologized, and many celebrities, including exes Federline and Justin Timberlake, have issued statements in solidarity. "Death to the greedy patriarchy that has been doing this to women for centuries," Madonna posted of Spears on Instagram stories. "This is a violation of human rights!"
“She is not exaggerating or lying,” rapper and collaborator Iggy Azalea tweeted last week, referring to an unpleasant interaction with Jamie Spears. “I saw her restricted from even the most bizarre [and] trivial things: like how many sodas she was allowed to drink... Her father conveniently waited until literally moments before our [Billboard Music Awards] performance when I was backstage in the dressing room [and] told me if I did not sign an NDA he would not allow me on stage.”
Under the banner of #FreeBritney, Spears' most diehard fans have long rallied support for the singer's release. Among them is an anonymous team of lawyers, hackers and cyber-sleuths who've maintained a paper trail of court documents and decoded them for the public. "The #FreeBritney movement, with their laser-like focus, deserve a lot of credit for educating people on conservatorship reform," says smith.
"People should know there are numerous steps one can take before a conservatorship, like long-term treatment and supported decision making" — a legal process in which a person chooses their own trusted supporters to make decisions should they be incapacitated, says smith. "How many of those steps did [Spears' family] blow over?"
The needle seems to be moving already: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) have called on the U.S. government to collect data on those living under conservatorships and to increase federal oversight of the system. Republican members of Congress have invited Spears to speak on the House floor.
"As a society, we have reached a point that we are more willing to talk about mental health," says Hicks, nodding to a new generation of pop stars — from Selena Gomez to Ariana Grande — who've helped destigmatize mental illness by disclosing their own struggles and encouraging fans to seek help.
"Everyone deals with it on some level," adds Hicks. "Some people get therapy, but others get put into a conservatorship, and suddenly they no longer have legal rights. Where is the line?"
In the wake of Spears' testimony, her case is growing more complex by the day. Her father requested a court investigator to validate her claims; meanwhile, wealth management firm Bessemer Trust has resigned as coconservator of her estate, and Spears' court-appointed counsel, Samuel D. Ingham III and attorneys from the law firm Loeb & Loeb, have resigned from their posts. Spears' mother has filed a petition with the L.A. County Superior Court, asking for her daughter to seek her own private attorney. "Her capacity is certainly different today," reads the document, "than it was in 2008."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.