With Britney Spears heading to her next hearing to address her conservatorship on July 14, the importance of this case extends far beyond a group of “Toxic” fans or the Framing Britney Spears documentary, it’s representative of a cultural shift, with a legendary superstar as the face.
“You can tell people are uncomfortable, people in the industry are uncomfortable,” Dr. Tamar Salibian, a member of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies told Yahoo Canada. “It can't be swept under the rug.”
One thing that’s important to identify is that the #FreeBritney movement isn’t just about Spears fans seeking justice for their favourite pop star. While her fandom is extensive, this movement also includes people who weren’t even particularly die-hard fans of the artist, which speaks to how this is really a case about power, profit, human rights, disability rights, reproductive rights and the entertainment industry as a whole.
“I think this is an opportunity for everyone involved, especially those in the entertainment industry and those who cover the entertainment industry, to say look, this doesn't have to be this way anymore," Salibian said.
‘The media took advantage’
Around 2007, in particular, the world soaked up headlines that read that Spears was “out of control,” “a mess” and labelled her as “insane” as media outlets chronicled the rise and fall of one of the world’s most infamous pop stars. Paparazzi hunted her down to get the first photo of her “crazy” antics, with society ready for the new tabloid cover or new piece of personal gossip revealed on celebrity news sites.
Media and cultural experts agree that there is a level of responsibility related to the media circus around Spears, linked to how her life story has panned out. This is especially true when media coverage of a person’s life can drive a story in a particular direction, and shapes what the public can and will consume.
I do think that in those years of her ascendancy into stardom and then those unfortunate years when this conservatorship was put into place, the media took advantage of something for their own benefit, which is sale of magazines, of press packages and so on and so forth, without really taking time to think about the human being involved in this situation.Tamar Salibian, Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies
“I believe that the genius of Britney Spears herself is that she did understand that it's a business, but at some point that just took a turn, I would say in the mid-aughts, and it needs to change, media itself needs to change.”
Dr. Samita Nandy, director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies, told Yahoo Canada that she is seeing a “very slow shift” to more concern about the ethics of representation in the media.
“Britney Spears is not just any artist...she is a tabloid star,” Nandy said.
“Now I think fans are not just passive consumers, they are actively supporting her, which is good. But I think a cause like this would be successful if the audience at large could take more responsibility to support all women, all female artists, make sure that they have the financial control, the creative control that they deserve.”
We often see headlines that state something to the effect of “celebrities, they’re just like us,” referencing whatever these stars happen to be doing or wearing on any given day. That mindset can also extend to the kind of abuse Spears is alleging in her conservatorship case.
“I will say that this movement is not stopping with Britney Spears," Salibian said. "Part of the daily conversations on social media and otherwise is about lots of famous people who are under abusive guardianships, but also your grandma, my aunt or even myself who could potentially be put into a position where our rights are taken from us.”
How will the Britney Spears conservatorship story end?
Looking toward Spears’s next hearing, there are certainly some legal questions at play in order to push toward an end to her conservatorship.
Legal analyst and head of strategy for Esquire Digital, Aron Solomon, explained that a conservatorship is “a way for someone to assume legal guardianship over another adult.”
“This is generally done when there's a fear that, that person isn't in a mental or emotional state that they can have control over their life and make the decisions they need to make,” Solomon said.
“Sometimes these people are feared that they're going to physically harm themselves, but in the Britney Spears situation, basically family members felt that her decision-making capacities were impaired to the point that she couldn't deal with her own affairs.”
At this point, Solomon characterized the case a “mess” and it strikes him as something that will be looked back upon “with some real tragedy.”
“There's a lot of stuff that's going on now that really bodes poorly for Britney Spears,” he said.
Last week, the pop star's court-appointed lawyer Sam Ingham requested to resign from his position, this is in addition to Bessemer Trust filing a petition to remove itself as co-conservator for her finances. Spears’s manager, Larry Rudolph, also resigned.
One core aspect of the case that is particularly important to note is that the celebrity's camp has not actually filed a motion to remove the conservatorship. In terms of the process, Solomon explained that after her new counsel files there would be an investigation, which will be reported back to the court. Spears would also have the opportunity to come in front of the court and state why she feels the conservatorship should be dropped.
“If I were looking at this from kind of a celebrity and a social lens, I would also want to see what she chooses to do and say, and not to do and say, from now until the time that we're getting close to court," he explained. "Because again, with the court sending someone to basically look at her life and see how she's doing, this may be a really opportune time to kind of lay low and not make a lot of public statements.”
“And if she is making public statements and trying to sway public opinion, but doing so at the peril of her own case, that's something the court’s going look at.”
Case could progress at 'Britney Spears' speed
In terms of next steps, if the motion to stop the conservatorship is filed, Solomon said there could be a “Britney Spears speed” to how it will proceed. He explained it could possibly be within four to six months, opposed to two or three years, because this is not a case that anyone wants sitting on the back burner for years.
Solomon added that while Spears claimed she didn’t even know she could actually file to end her conservatorship, that won’t have any legal impact on her case moving forward.
“From a legal perspective, knowing your rights or not knowing your rights doesn't affect your rights,” he said.
“That’s what concerns me, she clearly needs some people in her life who she would listen to, who are able to give her good counsel, to say things like, you know you can get rid of this guy and get your own lawyer.”
While there are still questions about how much oversight there was or should have been for her father and her conservatorship as a whole, Solomon identified that much of this comes down to how good someone’s lawyer is.
“There's absolutely supervision by the court over the conservator, but there has to be formal motions by the person under conservatorship, their legal team, to say, 'you've got to stop this,'...and that hasn't been the case over 13 years,” he said.
“We've seen a lot of public outcry of Britney being under conservatorship but I don't remember a lot of motions that asked to check Jamie Spears’ supervision, and what he was doing.”
Now, in documents filed in a Los Angeles court on July 9, Jodi Montgomery, who was named Spears's temporary personal conservator, claimed that the pop star's father spent “more than [US$2 million] of his daughter's money” to remain conservator of her estate.