Britney’s free. Now comes the real test — not for her, but for us

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

I couldn’t help but think of a lyric from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode when the verdict came in last Friday. Judge Brenda Penny had just ruled that “the conservatorship of the person and estate of Britney Jean Spears is no longer required,” thus ending a nearly 14-year battle between the pop phenom and her father, Jamie Spears. The lyric, sung in the musical’s finale, goes like this: “The battle’s done/And we kinda won/So we sound our victory cheer/Where do we go from here?” The use of “kinda” signifies a despondency at a peaceful future when “battle-worn” has become the default for existing for so long.

The #FreeBritney movement was organized in April 2019. The podcast Britney’s Gram released a now-infamous voicemail from an anonymous source claiming to be a former member of Spears’ legal team. In it, the source stated that Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, allegedly forced his daughter to take medication. Jamie even went so far as to put her in a mental health facility against her will. For some, this was enough to corroborate years-long rumors that Spears was not in control of her career, finances or personhood. Thickening the plot, that September, Britney’s ex-husband and the father of her two sons Kevin Federline was granted a restraining order against the elder Spears. Allegedly, a physical altercation occurred between Britney’s eldest son, Sean Preston, and Jamie. 

June 2021 marked the first credible reporting on the matter when the New York Times published a story claiming that Spears had quietly pushed to end the conservatorship for two years. Things came to a crescendo weeks later when we heard Britney’s side of the story for the very first time. Spears addressed the court and called the conservatorship “abusive,” comparing her father to a sex trafficker. “I’ve lied and told the whole world, ‘I’m OK, and I’m happy,” she explained. “I’m not happy. I’m so angry. It’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”

Now, nearly five months later, Spears is crying happy tears, reclaiming a life stolen from her for well over a decade. But where do we go from here? After months of reflection, meditation and re-evaluating the way the media once covered celebrities — acutely, young women — now is a point of inflection. Faces down, pencil’s up – pop quiz: what did we learn? “It is a very good thing that we are finally talking about [the] objectification, infantilization, gaslighting, ridicule and invasions of privacy she’s suffered — and about our own complicity in that suffering,” wrote Time‘s Judy Berman in an essay titled From Britney to Buffy, We’re Suddenly Rethinking Postfeminist Pop Culture — and Nothing Could Be Healthier. “But that doesn’t mean we should pat ourselves on the back for finally showing this woman the empathy she has always deserved. Nor should we get too excited about how far we’ve come as a culture since the heyday of Perez Hilton and Us Weekly.”

About that invasion of privacy: “Britney has been spotted for the first time driving her car as a newly FREE woman … this makes me so happy,” read a now-deleted tweet from @GodneyBitch, accompanied by three paparazzi photos of Spears at the wheel. The visual was especially striking given the fact that among the many terms of Spears’ conservatorship was her inability to get behind the wheel. It conveyed a simple message: She’s not just free; she’s free-free. And yet it harkened back to another era, images from 15 years ago that the paparazzi captured of Spears at the wheel with her son, Sean, in her lap. At that time, Spears was lambasted by the media. If the “now-deleted” status of @GodneyBitch’s post is any indication, many fans have pushed back at these new photos circulating, sighting it as an overstep. Discerning fans saw it as a specter of what’s to come: a media landscape still fixated on her, even if it’s to her own detriment.

One of the thrills for many Britney fans over the last few months, as the #FreeBritney movement gained steam, has been the constant barrage of Spears-centric headlines. Many of which presented forward motion in the fight for her freedom — the freedom that many felt a vested interest in. Beyond that, Spears herself has shifted her Instagram presence. Britney has confirmed that she writes her own posts — giving a window into a less filtered version of herself and sometimes posting multiple times a day. 

Just compare Britney’s answers to fans’ questions on Instagram as time has progressed. In April, she answered questions about the red rose emoji she often posts on Instagram (“Honestly, I just thought it was cool.”). These days, she’s not mincing words when asked about her conservatorship: “I’m used to keeping [the] peace for the family and keeping my mouth shut … but not this time,” stating that her family “should all be in jail… Yes, including my church-going mother.”

There’s also the prospect of a potential sit-down with Oprah Winfrey, which would be Spears’ first televised interview in years. All to say, Spears’ hypervisibility has helped satiate fans’ worries. But there’s also the looming possibility of Spears shying away from the barrage of coverage she’s received in the last two years, wanting to focus on her fiancé, family and newfound freedom. If this is the case, will the media landscape relinquish its grip? What happens if Spears “messes up”? She arguably has more goodwill built up than any other celebrity, but still, what if? Will she be ridiculed all over again?

One of the many dichotomies of Britney as a pop culture figure is our collective obsession with someone who, for much of their career, has sought privacy. “We just want the best for her,” many of her fans proclaim, but what if the best means she’s out of the public eye? What if her past unchosen reclusion because of her conservatorship’s overreach extends into reclusion by choice?

The battle’s done, and we kinda won, so we sound our victory cheer. 

This much is true. Yet still – where do we go from here?

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