Toxic: What the #FreeBritney Movement Tells Us About Our Media Consumption

Popstar, teen-idol, and global spectacle, Britney Spears has captivated audiences since the release of Baby One More Time in 1998 at just sixteen years old. Britney has recently reappeared on people’s screens as the subject of the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears, which was produced by The New York Times. Released in the UK via Sky Documentaries on the 16th of February, the documentary has reportedly broken viewing figures with 220,000 views on the night of its release. Having been at the centre of many a news piece, Britney is no stranger to the harms of the press. But what does this new insight into Britney’s life tell us about our own consumption of media?

The documentary presents a detailed timeline of Britney’s career and the conservatorship that has restricted the star’s agency since her battle with mental health began in 2007. A conservatorship is a legal concept used in the US that grants a guardian or ‘protector’ the authority to manage an individual’s financial affairs, amongst other everyday decisions, due to physical or mental illness. A conservator may have control over an individual’s person, making daily decisions about what they consume and how they behave, or an individual’s estate, whereby they have control over their finances. As Britney’s appointed conservator (against her own wishes), Jamie Spears has had control over both since 2008, and has recently sought to exert greater control over her finances.

The #FreeBritney Movement was birthed in 2019 after ‘Britney’s Gram’ podcast hosts Tess Barker and Barbara Gray noticed that she had been M.I.A for several weeks. After numerous public appearances and the announcement of a new residency in Las Vegas, Britney was reportedly committed to a psychiatric hospital where she had been recovering for several weeks. The #FreeBritney Movement took off on social media as a response to fears that she was being held there against her will, signalling the restrictive nature of her conservatorship.

Whilst Britney has not publicly spoken out against her conservatorship, she was reported saying in 2008, “Even when you go to jail, there’s always the time that you know that you’re gonna get out”. Viewers of the 2008 documentary Britney: For The Record glimpse a candid moment in which Britney says she would “feel so liberated” if she wasn’t a part of this conservatorship. Such insights suggest that the legally binding conservatorship, despite being agreed upon to protect Britney from harm, is exploitative. Britney has recently attempted to appeal her father’s role as conservator but the courts have ruled that for now at least, he will remain in this position. Since its conception, fans have been staging multiple protests to keep the #FreeBritney Movement in the public eye in an attempt to aid Britney’s appeal.

Britney brought discussions on mental health into the public sphere with her heavily publicised spiral in 2007. Framing Britney Spears exposes the tabloid press era and the role of the paparazzi in this spiral, who are characterised by a vulture-like fascination with famous figures, picking apart intimate moments and tearing at the wounds hidden within private life. Figures such as Perez Hilton, who has since issued both a public and private apology to Britney, were at the centre of this harmful culture, building a business on the business of others. Yet whilst Britney’s life in the spotlight has been marred by the obsessive invasion of her life by cameras, she has continually connected with fans that had experienced their own battles with mental health. Thankfully since 2008 the tools we have to discuss mental health in the public sphere have grown rapidly, and awareness of the fatal impact of the tabloid press has dimmed their influence over public media consumption. Despite this, Britney’s downward spiral demands a public reckoning over our complicity in this style of reporting.

The Framing Britney Spears documentary was, at times, harrowing to watch. As viewers, it was difficult to extrapolate ourselves from the harm caused by the tabloid press and the way we consume celebrity media. We have a responsibility to interrogate how news stories have been sourced and what impact they have on the subject. Despite this, what emerged from the documentary was the positive way in which Instagram can be utilised. Much speculation surrounds her account, but Britney has managed to connect to fans through cryptic posts that suggest her true feelings about the conservatorship, which restricts what she speaks about publicly. In a recent post, Britney addresses these concerns by saying “I know a lot of you have been talking about me and are concerned about me but I’m the happiest I’ve been in my life”. Fans have sought deeper meaning from this post by analysing her tired facial expression and insincere tone as proof that she was not the orchestrator of the post, with one user citing a look to the right as proof. Whilst we cannot say conclusively whether these speculations hold any truth, it is through interactions like this that the #FreeBritney Movement was conceptualised and brought to the public via social media.

The #FreeBritney Movement exists within a wider debate about the treatment of women in the media. The movement has garnered support from a range of celebrities, including Rose McGowan and Jameela Jamil, two women who have been outspoken about the harmful role the media plays in demonising women. Under a post a group of stories labelled ‘gaslighting’, Jameela Jamil writes, “We forgive men more easily and set the bar higher for their cancellable mistakes because we see them as irreplaceable. But women are seen as more disposable”. This dynamic can be recognised time and time again in high profile cases such as Jade Goody and the tragic death of Caroline Flack. Britney holds a particular fascination as the girl next door that fell from grace. The media’s fascination with Britney’s virginity, and her subsequent demonisation when she admitted publicly that she had slept with Justin Timberlake, is a prime example of the way media prescribes limited roles as either pure virgin or sexual deviant. If we can learn anything from this situation, it is that when people are put on a pedestal it ultimately spells their downfall.