#FreeBritney: A disability rights issue
The movement reveals a popstar dehumanised by the perception that society has of disability
Considered incapable of decision-making, Britney Spears was categorised as ‘disabled’ in 2008 by the California courts. Stripped of her rights, she was unable to drive, reproduce or manage her own assets or healthcare for the next 13 or so years. And like a show pony, she was ‘allowed’ to go on tour but not stay in control of the money her music made.
Conservatorships are meant to protect those who are regarded as incapable, due to disability, of making their own financial and health-related decisions. And this is where the potential for misconduct lies. “America’s guardianship system is “an open invitation to potential abuse”, says business professor and author T.S. Latham.
In the States, around 1.3 million guardianships are active at any given time, with assets totalling around $50 billion, and whilst not every conservatorship is abusive, Britney’s case is evidence that they can so often be exploited.
“There is this general assumption that everything that is being done for the conservatee, financially or medically, is in the conservatee’s ‘best interests’, as is stated in the legal documentation”, says lawyer and #FreeBritney advocate, ThatSurpriseWitness, who goes solely by their username for protection.
“But in some cases, this is simply not true. It seems that it’s an easy justification to place the conservator’s interests over the conservatee’s, and all throughout this process, the conservatee is often helpless and unable to speak out.”
Meanwhile, Disability Activist and YouTuber Jessica Kelgren-Fozzard claims, “Individuals are often stripped of their personal liberties, without a choice in the matter, as it is considered what is best for them.
“There have been cases where the individual has not even been informed of the arrangement being made”, says Jessica.
Such is the case of the North family in Nevada. They claim to have been woken up one day to a knock at their door by a woman named April Parks, a so-called professional guardian who claimed now to be theirs.
It is understood that both the husband and wife were given three options, move into an assisted living facility, be sent to a psychiatric facility, or go straight to jail. It took two years to get April out of this innocent couple’s lives, and by the time it had ended, she had sold their house and stolen most of their money.
“I really do think that the main obstacle many face”, Jessica continues, “is the inability to hire their own counsel — as their lawyer has to be court-appointed, they have no say in the matter.” And as we know in the case of Britney, “often the lawyer doesn’t act in the conservatee’s best interests, often siding with the conservator.”
Whilst there are pushes for legal change to happen, it takes time, and many are stuck in an impossible situation, unable to voice their concerns to the court. Particularly when, like Britney, a conservatorship is under the guise of help — something that provided Jamie Spears with the perfect cover-up in the face of Britney’s public breakdowns.
When mental illness is weaponised against women
Britney Spears is not the first woman to be persecuted because of possible mental health issues, as classic feminist literature often shows. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story set in a time when women with any sort of mental illness were considered hysterical and as a result, were often placed under the control of a male guardian such as a husband or father.
This attitude towards women with mental health issues has barely changed in the last 120 years since this story was first published. According to a 2020 study, researchers found that participants taking part rated people with mental illness “as being significantly less human”.
“This is 100% related to perceptions of disability”, says Jessica. ”And I’d argue mental disabilities are weaponised against the conservatee, and the inability to hire counsel is a reflection of this. “Even if someone has clarity of mind, once they’re declared incapable, that’s it. Their opinion doesn’t matter, every word they say is completely disregarded in court.”
The idea that someone can be legally “voiceless” is quite frankly terrifying and highlights the flaws that need to be repaired in the corrupt court system in the US. “From my research,” says Jessica, “at least in Britney’s case, it does not take much to place someone in a conservatorship, but it is extremely difficult to get out of.”
Lyssa, a young woman who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, tells me she finds this particular aspect of conservatorship terrifying. “The Britney Spears story scares me because it is an example of how people can justify abuse by blaming it on the fact that, “oh, she was just being crazy.”
For Lyssa, the hysterical label was something that she felt could easily be applied to women, and the fact that this can lead to isolation is dangerous in itself. “A lot of people suffering from mental illness have a huge problem with loneliness - it is a dangerous thing for a mind that is already unwell.”
In addition to isolation and personal controls, Lyssa regards Britney’s financial restrictions as “patronising” and a reflection of the common stereotype that Bipolar individuals are bad with their money, something she strongly disagrees with.
For Lyssa, Britney’s treatment was undeniably a disability rights issue but also a reflection of misogyny too. As one person tweeted, ‘Britney Spears goes through a mental health crisis publicly, and she loses her rights. Kanye West goes through a mental health crisis publicly, and he runs for president.’
The way forward
With her recent liberation, Britney is now shedding light on the need to make changes to conservatorship laws and help others in the same position.
A proposed bill, the Free Act, could make way for public conservators who would be taxpayer-funded, with no financial incentives within their role. However, what really seems to be the turning point for her is a proposed bill that will allow conservatees to be able to choose their own counsel. “This is bound to be the greatest change to conservatorship law if it passes”, says ThatSurpriseWitness.
The fact that Samuel Ingham, Britney’s lawyer, kept her in the dark regarding her ability to petition to end her conservatorship is a violation of his duty as her legal representative, which “I really do think it speaks to the way America views disability” claims ThatSurpriseWitness. “Spears’ personal liberties and civil rights were stripped away, and the Court simply agreed to all of it.”
Rosie Clear, who lives with Cerebral Palsy and is a strong advocate for disability rights, having taken part in BBC’s Children in Need, remarked that she often finds that those with any type of disability are often “talked about and not talked to”, stating that “you have to have your wits about you because it’s thought you can’t make your own decisions so they have to be made for you.”
In Britney Spears’ case, Rosie recognises an unhealthy damsel in distress stereotype that is often placed upon women. “Disabled women are often perceived to be in need of rescue, for a male to step in and help them.”
While there are obvious legal changes that need to happen regarding conservatorship abuse, Rosie makes an important point, “Britney Spears’ situation was terrible. However, some conservatorships are necessary — it all depends on the severity of someone’s disability and how it affects their lives.”
It is clear that a delicate equilibrium needs to be met, legally and socially. We need to let people have a say in their care while also providing help in areas they struggle in. Conservatorships are not inherently bad, but the patronising perceptions of disability that drive society are.
The idea that Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, was able to get away with what he did under the guise of helping her is a direct testament to the way in which the legal system is broken, but primarily how we often see disabled people as incapable, or too unstable, to hold a valid opinion.
As ThatSurpriseWitness explains, “change will take time, legal proceedings are often slow and taxing, but what matters is making sure other abused conservatees, who don’t have the fame that Britney has, are equally heard by the court system.”
The question arises; if it has to take a whole movement to ensure that a woman like Britney Spears is heard legally, what does this mean for those who do not have the power of fame?