Britney Spears is 'speaking her truth.' Are we listening?
It's said speaking your truth will set you free. It's what Britney Spears is hoping for.
The 39-year-old pop star pleaded to a judge Wednesday to end the legal conservatorship run by her father, calling the arrangement "abusive" and revealing to the court she is forced to use an IUD, to take lithium without her consent, and has performed concerts against her will – a work arrangement she likened to "sex trafficking."
This was Spears' first known time addressing the court in more than two years. Her last address was sealed, but Spears requested Wednesday's statement be open to the public, making this the first time the world heard directly from the star about what the past 13 years in a conservatorship have been like.
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"The last time I spoke to you … made me feel like I was dead – like I didn’t matter, like nothing had been done to me, like you thought I was lying," Spears said in her emotional statement. "I’m telling you again because I’m not lying. I want to feel heard. And I’m telling you this again so maybe you can understand the depth and the degree and the damage that they did to me."
Feminists and sociologists say the public witnessed a woman fighting for autonomy – over her body, her career, her finances, her future. While many facets of the Spears case remain opaque, including clarity around any existing mental health issues, experts say her decision to speak boldly and publicly is one many abuse survivors make as they attempt to reframe their stories and reclaim power over their lives.
When legal and cultural systems fail women, laying themselves bare is often the only recourse they have.
"It sounds like she has been finding the words to name what she's experiencing and feeling and to communicate that is a huge step," says Kate Mason, a gender studies professor at Wheaton College. "While there are elements of her experience that are somewhat unique, the dynamics of what she's calling out as abusive … can give others language to name things they feel are wrong but couldn't find the words for themselves."
Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says Spears' speech can be understood as a penumbra of the #MeToo movement.
"The #MeToo movement was premised on healing but also the political and resistive power of speaking your truth," she says. "And we don't actually know how far that movement can or needs to go, but what we saw with Britney speaking out is that the silencing of women for sure governs the realms of sexual assault and sexual harassment, but is not limited to those domains."
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Spears' statement is 'piercing that bubble of denial'
Spears has been under a conservatorship – meaning she's not in total control of her finances and other important life decisions – since 2008. Her father, James "Jamie" Spears, 68, was appointed her co-conservator along with lawyer Andrew Wallet, who has since resigned. Jamie Spears temporarily stepped aside, apparently due to his own health issues, but still handles Spears' finances while professional conservator Jodi Montgomery now handles everything else.
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Conservatorships are typically used for people who are seriously disabled or for elderly individuals who lack the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves. Spears' arrangement was notable because of her young age, her fame and the fact that she continues to work.
Over the years, some legal experts speculated Spears may not have wanted out of her conservatorship, but the star spoke directly to that Wednesday when she said, "I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to end it."
Williams says Spears' statement underscores how difficult it can be for women to find their voice in a legal and medical system that discredits them with respect to their health, their money and their lives. Her revelations contradict the narrative that our society is past a time when women were dismissed as hysterical or controlled by their fathers.
"Post-feminism is the idea that that's the past and we live in a different present," she says. "What was shocking yesterday was piercing that bubble of denial and reckoning with the fact that we are still living under the legal and medical regime governed by the gender assumptions of the 19th century."
'I am traumatized': Read Britney Spears' full statement from her conservatorship hearing
'This happens all the time, just usually not to famous people'
On social media, many people, including high-profile celebrities, remarked how stunned they were by Spears' disclosures, including that she has been forced to use an IUD even though she wants to have more children.
But women's rights advocates say many U.S. women are denied reproductive freedom, live in patriarchal families and are stripped of autonomy because of the perception that mental health issues make them incompetent. Variations of these scenarios are happening every day to women with less power and visibility than Spears.
"I was reading one comments section and people were saying, 'This is horrific, I can't believe this is legal, I can't believe this is happening.' I wanted to respond with, 'This happens all the time, just usually not to famous people,' " Mason says. "There is this huge history of involuntary sterilization and long-term birth control in the U.S. legally done, sometimes court-ordered."
This country has a history of racist and sexist forced sterilization policies targeting people of color and those with disabilities.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, after the Food and Drug Administration approved the contraceptive implant Norplant at the end of 1990, "judges and legislators attempted to mandate its use by certain individual women or groups of women," including "women on welfare" as a condition of receiving aid.
'People can actually see Britney's oppression but they can't see the oppression of everyday women'
Williams says while Spears' case deserves attention, people might inaccurately view her situation as an anomaly, too sensational to be relatable.
"We can see the spectacular demonstrations of wrangling over control. It's easier to see it in her case than it is in the mundane micro-politics of domesticity and workplace subordination that women are subject to," she says. "The danger now is that we can make a correction so that a Britney situation doesn't happen again, but that's not actually going to reach the women who really need it."
As long as power and privilege remain a condition for redress, famous women's grievances will continue to be heard sooner and more loudly than women with less power and prominence.
Mason says while there is power in speaking out, the Spears case reminds her of #MeToo founder Tarana Burke's observation that there are always pros and cons to women telling their stories.
Naming abuse can be an important step in healing, but it's also critical the public not demand Spears continue to replay her trauma.
There's a complicated tension, she says, between telling your story and being asked to continually relive it.
"We need to create space for her to define what's happened to her," she says, "and if the conservatorship gets changed or revoked, for the public, the media and the people in her life to let her move on and not be defined by what happened to her."