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Britney Spears wasn’t wrong to think people would mock her for telling the truth

How we all failed Britney Spears.

A sign that reads, “Britney Spears is a human being / #FreeBritney,” in pink and purple letters.
#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021, in Los Angeles, California.
Rich Fury/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

During Britney Spears’s explosive remarks about her longstanding conservatorship, made before a Los Angeles court on Wednesday afternoon, one of the most heartbreaking moments came toward the end.

Spears devoted much of her 20-minute statement to outlining her problems with the restrictions of the conservatorship: how she has an IUD she’s not allowed to remove; how she has been forced to perform against her will; how she was forced onto lithium against her will.

Then Spears took time to explain why she had never spoken about her conservatorship in public before. She offered a very simple reason: She thought people would make fun of her if she did.

“I didn’t want to say it openly, because I honestly don’t think anyone would believe me,” Spears said. “That’s why I didn’t want to say any of this to anybody, to the public. Because I thought people would make fun of me or laugh at me.”

Spears doesn’t need to say why she assumed people would laugh at her if she told them that she was having a hard time. We already know why she was concerned about that: because it happened to her before, in the 2000s. That’s part of what landed her in her conservatorship in the first place. When Spears shaved off all her hair and hit a paparazzo’s car with her umbrella, she was very clearly struggling, and the world responded by mocking her viciously.

“Britney Spears Needs A Makeover Almost As Bad As She Needs A Lobotomy,” said Jezebel in 2007. Perez Hilton drew sperm on photos of Spears’s face and declared her 2007 VMAs performance “disrespectful.” ABC quoted a bunch of publicists who called her fat.

So of course Spears expected that if she made herself vulnerable to the public, the public would respond by pointing and jeering. That’s how her life has always worked. So she hasn’t spoken about her conservatorship or about the strictures under which she is living for 13 years.

Since the release of Framing Britney Spears earlier this year, it has become a talking point that the culture has changed. We’ve gotten better about how we talk about famous women. Perez Hilton has stopped doodling semen over the faces of the women he blogs about. It’s become unthinkable that a major network news site would run a story about how a famous woman is now fat.

What Spears’s testimony made clear, however, is that the world has not changed as much as we would necessarily like to think it has. She describes being photographed by paparazzi as she walks crying out of her therapist’s office — not when the paparazzi were at the height of their power in the ’00s, but now, today.

“Yesterday, paparazzi showed me coming out of the place literally crying in therapy,” Spears said. “It’s embarrassing, and it’s demoralizing. I deserve privacy when I go and have therapy.”

In the wake of Spears’s testimony, the dominant media narrative is full of support for her. Planned Parenthood spoke out against her unwanted IUD, and her fellow celebrities are up in arms on her behalf. Even Ted Cruz tweeted out a #FreeBritney. But that doesn’t mean the mockery Spears dreaded isn’t happening, too.

While the comments on her social media pages are filled with fans offering her their support and crying out to #FreeBritney, they’re also filled with people making fun of her hair and makeup. “Is she allowed to wash her hair …?” one says. Some comments mock the videos Spears frequently posts of herself dancing, although it’s increasingly come to seem that the reason Spears posts them so often is that there isn’t much else she’s allowed to do with her life. “Reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld when Elaine dances,” says one.

The fact that making fun of women is no longer considered acceptable behavior in respectable media outlets does not mean our culture is no longer interested in making fun of women, or in invading their privacy, or in harassing them. It means that the harassment and mockery has become diffuse. People no longer need ABC to write an article about how Britney’s fat now because they can log on to Instagram and tell her that they think she’s fat themselves.

Britney Spears was not wrong to assume that people would make fun of her for telling the world what happened to her. People are still making fun of her because the mainstream media set a narrative for years that she was someone it was fun and entertaining to mock, and because we live in a culture that loves to make fun of women.

The world has been taught to think of Britney Spears in a particular way. The mainstream media has changed the way it talks about her — but will the world ever fully change its mind?

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