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Courtesy Instagram / @britneyspears

#FreeBritney and the problem with ‘well-meaning’ fan activism

Even after the success of the #FreeBritney movement, many still believe that Spears’ life is ours for consumption – it’s time to free her from the impossible demands of narrative

Britney Spears is an icon. I mean this not in the sense that she is beloved by gay men and has some popular songs, though this is of course true. I also mean it in the more orthodox sense, in the same way that icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary decorate Italian roundabouts and Irish hedgerows, or every British coin is marked with the Queen’s profile. Britney Spears’ image stands for something more than herself; more than the twice-divorced mother-of-two from the Bible Belt, posting her way through life in an LA enclosure. But what does it stand for now?

Watch an early video of Britney Spears dancing on a mall tour, and she is a symbol of the confidence of 1990s American capitalism. The effectively functional activity of going shopping, and the transcendental cultural release of the concert, become fused as one. Later, her breakdown would be just as (grimly) iconic. Millennial office staff would reassure themselves after a mild inconvenience: “If Britney could get through 2007, I can get through Wednesday”, as if the woman’s severe and public meltdown were a balm for their PMC problems. 

If it would be trite to say that Britney’s boom-and-bust eerily mirrored the nation’s, it’s less so to say that her story is one of capitalism’s more grotesque metaphors. Even the rich, famous and beautiful can be locked into a profit-making dynamic that makes them profoundly unfree. The specifics of her abhorrent conservatorship are well-covered: forced contraception, entire tours under duress, commandeering of the profits of her name, with vanishingly little say in her own career, barely herself able to go shopping.

Spears’ recent wedding seemed a happy ending in that long saga. Castigated at the hands of the celebrity press, forced to the brink, it took the public upsurge in #FreeBritney to shed light on her state-sanctioned captivity. After years of vigilante fan activism, even national politicians got in on the act. Or at least, so went the story in Framing Britney Spears, then in Netflix’s Britney vs Spears. The impression one gets is of an utterly contemporary social media struggle – of good against evil, of grassroots against corporations.

The investigative work of the #FreeBritney fans is not to be doubted. They smelled a rat where others simply acquiesced with the arrangement, assuming it a grim necessity for a mad woman. Spears herself has profusely thanked them online. They shed light on the wider injustices of the conservatorship system, which leaves the elderly and disabled deeply susceptible to financial exploitation. But sometimes it feels like the mythos of Britney has been jazzed up for a contemporary age, rather than toned down as privacy and normalcy should demand. 

It is as if the internet, having celebrated her exit from a formal legal conservatorship, continues the surveillance by other means. When Spears posts home-edited nude pictures of herself, which she does frequently, followers debate it as a sign of liberation, or as worryingly erratic. Each adoring post from Spears about her husband is flooded with insistent demands from strangers: “have you made him sign a pre-nup??” In a recent, deleted Instagram post, Spears poses the question herself: “Is it honestly legal to do that many documentaries about someone without their blessing at all ??!”. Even where the culture has shifted the rhetoric from demonising to emancipatory, the expectation remains that her life is ours for consumption, that fans have something meaningful to contribute to her healthcare plan or finances. Even in the celebrity surveillance age, it is a desperately overfamiliar practice.

It would be wrong to equate Spears’ once-severe deprivation of liberty with the belligerent protectiveness of online fans. But the effect of thousands of strangers coddling and debating your every move as a 40-year-old mother, is surely still a grosser imposition on your private sphere than any of us normal people can fathom. Spears’ fans, older now and steeped in the contemporary online language of social justice, come across now as just the next in a group of people jostling for control of this woman’s narrative. 

Perhaps more than any other icon, Britney has always been that sort of blank slate. This is no comment on her ineffably listenable voice, or her electrifying music, from the magnum opus Blackout to the underrated hyperpop-blueprint Femme Fatale. It is just to point out how she works as a star. Even her most obviously personal songs – think “Piece of Me”, the mid-breakdown kiss-off to a baying mob – were entirely written by other people. 00s British pop fans will remember Rachel Steven’s “Sweet Dreams My LA Ex”, which – in a testament to Britney’s gravitational pull as a muse – was actually written for her as a riposte to Justin Timberlake, then rejected. It has always been about the mythos, and what the world’s biggest tabloids and songwriters can add to it, rather than the woman herself. 

That the ‘real’ Britney eludes us, even now, is admittedly part of what makes her so fascinating as a star: the woman who is an electric orb of charisma, and then every inch the slightly-too-online suburban mother. I am a devoted Britney fan, hopeful that she has more music to come on her own terms, constantly nostalgic about her heartstopping VMA performances. But the constant coverage leaves me cold now. To hunt for her private reality is an impossible and invasive task, better suited for paparazzi standing outside a hairdresser or chasing her car down the streets, than for fans hoping to see her make the most of her freedom. Part of freeing Britney must mean returning her own private, domestic sphere to her, driving down the furious well-meaning speculation, freeing her from the impossible demands of narrative. She has given enough to me.