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Protesters attend a #FreeBritney rally at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on July 14, 2021, in Los Angeles.
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Britney Spears is finally free

Explaining Britney, one more time.

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.

Britney Spears is finally free.

At a court hearing on Friday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny ruled that the conservatorship that has run Spears’s life since 2008 should end, effective today. The news comes after two years of increasing controversy about Spears’s conservatorship — and after an explosive six months of revelations about just what was happening inside the conservatorship and what Spears thought of it.

For a long time, it was possible for many people to imagine that Spears more or less liked the conservatorship. Or at least that she didn’t mind it.

There’s a moment toward the end of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times and Hulu documentary that launched an avalanche of conversation about Spears earlier this year, in which the camera focuses on enigmatic footage of Spears swimming silently through a turquoise pool.

Underwater, Spears dives, touches the bottom of the pool, and spins. Her face is obscured in a cloud of bubbles.

“It’s impossible to know her,” muses former MTV VJ Dave Holmes in voiceover. “We never knew her. We know her even less now. She is unknowable.”

For the past 13 years, the fact that we don’t know Britney Spears has been one of her defining traits. We don’t know what she wants. We don’t know how she feels. We haven’t been able to know, because our access to her and hers to us has been so curtailed.

From the time that the conservatorship began in 2008 until November 12, 2021, Spears has had no control over her financial life or her personal life. All the shots were called by a team led primarily by her father, Jamie Spears. Until very recently, few details about how the conservatorship operated or how Spears felt about it had made it into the public view.

Before this year, Spears almost never discussed the conservatorship publicly, and the interviews her team granted came under tightly controlled circumstances. Few reputable news outlets investigated the conservatorship, so worried fans had to scavenge for scraps from unverified gossip posts on the far corners of the internet. Britney isn’t allowed to have a phone or access the internet, some claimed. Britney wants to get married and have another baby and she’s not allowed to, others said. Britney is being held captive by her family against her will, said another.

Britney Spears performs during her “Piece Of Me” summer tour on August 4, 2018, in Brighton, England.
Dave Hogan/BCU via Getty Images

None of those rumors were officially confirmed by reputable sources. So when news outlets discussed Britney Spears, everything had to come with caveats. The only person who knows the truth of all of this for sure is Britney, we said, and she isn’t talking. Maybe she likes the conservatorship! Maybe it’s helpful for her. Maybe she feels safer that way. We just don’t know. We can’t know.

Now, we do know.

There’s been a series of revelations in the Britney Spears saga over the past few months. A June 22 article in the New York Times revealed damning new evidence of how controlling the conservatorship has been, and showed that Spears has been actively trying to get out of it since 2014. A July 3 article in the New Yorker painted a picture of Jamie Spears as an emotional abuser obsessed with the control he has over his daughter’s life, with Britney a hapless victim forced to play out spy-movie-style heists just to gain access to an unmonitored cellphone from time to time.

Most explosively, on June 23, Britney Spears spoke before the court in public for the first time. Spears made shocking claims about her conservatorship: She has an IUD she’s not allowed to take out, she said; she’s been put on lithium against her will; she’s been forced to perform against her will.

She made it very clear, once and for all, that she is not happy living in her conservatorship.

“I’m so angry it’s insane,” Spears told the judge.

The world appears to have taken notice. For most of the conservatorship, Spears has worked with a court-appointed lawyer. But on July 14, the court ruled that she would finally be allowed to retain her own. Spears hired former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart, who called on Jamie Spears to voluntarily step down from the conservatorship in accordance with his daughter’s wishes. On August 12, Jamie complied, filing papers announcing his intent to work with the court to “prepare for an orderly transition to a new conservator.” Then, on September 7, Jamie filed a petition to permanently end the conservatorship, citing “recent events” that have “called into question” whether grounds for the conservatorship still exist.

“As Mr. Spears has said again and again, all he wants is what is best for his daughter. If Ms. Spears wants to terminate the conservatorship and believes that she can handle her own life, Mr. Spears believes that she should get that chance,” the filing said.

On November 12, it all finally ended. Britney Spears’s conservatorship has finally terminated.

Like Jamie, the rest of us no longer have the excuse or the luxury of ignorance when it comes to Britney Spears and what she wants. We have a clearer idea of what happened to her and how she feels about it, and the way we talk about her can never be the same.

Here’s what we used to know, what we’ve recently learned, and how it changes everything.

“A collapse on a scale that we’d really never seen”

Britney Spears was not always a mystery. At the beginning of her career, she tended to be candid with the public to a fault.

“Part of the Britney narrative and part of the persona that seems to be authentic — and you always have to be careful about this,” media studies professor Moya Luckett told me in 2020, “is that she seems to want to speak directly to her public because she thinks they’ll understand what she’s going through.”

Britney Spears appears on TRL with Carson Daily on November 6, 2001.
KMazur/WireImage via Getty Images

Luckett pointed to Spears’s infamous 2006 interview with Matt Lauer, for which Spears did her own makeup and during which she broke down in tears, as well as her 2008 documentary and her short-lived reality TV show with then-husband Kevin Federline. In those moments, Spears appeared confessional, authentic. She wept when she told Lauer she wanted the paparazzi to leave her alone. One critic called her reality show “disturbingly intimate.” She appeared to be an open book.

After the conservatorship was established, when Spears no longer did interviews or reality shows, she still seemed to be, more or less, candid on her social media. She filled her Instagram with selfies and videos of herself dancing and joyous, emoji-laden captions. And all those posts were, depending on whom you asked, either very obviously blandly happy or riddled with hidden darkness.

“Because the videos are a kind of art brut expressionism, empty of context, they fill viewers with questions,” wrote Caity Weaver of Spears’s Instagram videos for the New York Times in 2019. “What does she want us to feel when we watch? Is she to be viewed as an innocent girl playing dress-up? An empowered stylish woman stomping across marble floors she bought herself? A sexy human Barbie with an infinite closet? Regardless of intention, the clips are illegible, generating primarily a voyeur’s guilty, mystified confusion.”

“We either can never think what she’s thinking, or we know exactly what she’s thinking,” said the hosts of the Britney-centric podcast Britney’s Gram in their inaugural episode. “That’s the enigma of Britney.”

The confusion over Britney, and the question of what, exactly, was going through this girl’s head, began in 2004 when she married her backup dancer, Kevin Federline, to widespread mystification from her fans. The pair divorced in 2007, following the birth of their two children, and Spears began to act erratically. And because she was constantly tailed by paparazzi, most of her erratic behavior was made very public immediately.

The paparazzi followed her around for upskirt shots. She started yelling at them in a British accent. She shaved her own head, allegedly telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair, while paparazzi photographed every angle through the windows of the hair salon. She attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She went in and out of rehab. She sleepwalked through her performance at the 2007 VMAs so badly that Perez Hilton lectured her for being “disrespectful” to her fans.

Gossip coverage of Spears became even more pantingly furious as her appearance changed. She went brunette, and then lost her hair entirely and turned to wigs. After injuring her knee, giving birth to two children, and taking a multi-year break from live performances, she’d gained weight, which the press treated as a salacious betrayal: ABC News’s postmortem of those 2007 VMAs quoted a celebrity publicist describing Spears as “heavy” before bracingly noting that an anonymous internet commenter had said of the starlet, “I’d hit it.”

“It was a collapse on a scale that we’d really never seen,” Luckett says. “And it was clearly abetted by the fact that gossip blogs had established themselves as very popular. With cameraphones, there was more access to this kind of information than we’d ever had before — both in terms of receiving the information and in terms of how many people could get on their phones and sell their pictures to the likes of TMZ.”

Britney Spears drives through a crowd of photographers on her way to the street outside the Family Court building in Los Angeles, on October 26, 2007.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

In January 2008, Spears was twice placed under a psychiatric hold. A month later, her father petitioned the courts for emergency “temporary conservatorship” over his daughter. The order was granted.

More than a decade later, Spears is still under conservatorship. And that is about all the public officially knew about how she got there, up until the summer of 2021.

“She has to ask permission, as if she were a child”

“If you’re an adult, there is a legal presumption that you are competent to make decisions about a range of things, good, bad, or indifferent,” says Josephine Gittler, a law professor and the author of “Reforming Iowa’s Guardianship and Conservatorship System: An Introduction.” “Your decisions can be good or bad, but you are entitled as an adult to make decisions about your finances and your property and your medical care. But all states have laws that recognize that some people have diminished decision-making capacity.”

Conservatorship is designed to be the solution to the problem of a legal adult who has a brain injury or mental health condition that renders them unable to properly care for their lives — so the courts assign someone else to do so for them. (Some states distinguish between conservatorship as covering financial matters and guardianship as covering personal matters, but California, where Spears lives, calls both conservatorships. Spears’s conservatorship covers both her finances and her day-to-day life.)

Proving that an adult is no longer competent to run their own life is a long and drawn-out process. Someone has to file a petition with the court, often Adult Protective Services or its equivalent. (In Spears’s case, it was her father who filed.) The courts will send an investigator to observe the subject’s life and to see whether there’s really enough evidence to warrant a conservatorship, and the judge assigned to the case will hear testimony from experts to see if the subject’s behavior meets the criteria for that state’s statutes. In California, in cases where the stated reason for the petition is mental health concerns, as it was for Spears, a psychiatrist would have to testify that the subject has a DSM-recognized diagnosis.

Once the conservatorship is in place, the conservator assumes final control over the subject’s decisions, which is where Spears is now.

“Anything she wants to do, she has to ask permission, as if she were a child,” says Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse. “She doesn’t have the legal right to engage in a contract. That has to be done through a conservator.”

Britney Spears performs onstage at Wembley Arena on October 10, 2000, in London.
Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images

The exact details of Spears’s conservatorship were private for a very long time. It was hard to know how far, exactly, her conservators were pushing their control. Most of what we knew was that the New York Times reported in 2016 that her financial conservators — at the time, her father Jamie and lawyer Andrew M. Wallet — kept track of “her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes.”

Putting someone under conservatorship means giving someone else enormous power over them. So the potential for abuse can be high. “The check on that can and should be court monitoring of the conservatorship,” says Gittler. “Routine monitoring occurs through reports that the conservator has to make to the court, which the court has a very high responsibility of reviewing in detail. Not all courts always do what they should do, and that’s been a concern that’s led to reform of guardianship.”

There’s another aspect that makes court monitoring of the conservatorship vexed, which is that in many states, people under conservatorship aren’t guaranteed the right to hire their own lawyers. Under California conservator law, conservatees have the right to be represented by an attorney, but not necessarily the right to choose that attorney. And although Spears tried to select her own, until recently the court ruled that she did not have the capacity to do so. So for most of her conservatorship, Spears has worked with the lawyer Sam Ingham, who was appointed for her by the court. Although she was not allowed to choose Ingham, Spears was required by the terms of her conservatorship to pay him an annual salary of $520,000. Ingham resigned from the role on July 6, shortly after Spears’s explosive testimony.

Her lawyer wasn’t the only person on her payroll. Spears is also required to pay her conservators. According to the 2016 New York Times report, Jamie makes an annual salary of $130,000 and took home 1.5 percent of the gross revenues from the Las Vegas residency that Spears held from 2013 through 2017.

Under her father’s supervision, the Britney Spears financial empire flourished. After releasing four studio albums, doing a stint as a judge on the The X Factor, and playing nearly 250 performances during her Vegas residency since her father took over running her life in 2008, plus establishing multiple lucrative merchandise deals, Spears is now worth $59 million — and none of the money she has earned, or the life that it funds, is under her control.

For much of the past 13 years, that fact has not seemed to particularly trouble the world. On the contrary: Spears appeared to be a success story. After publicly and dramatically spiraling, she now seemed stable and healthy. Up until 2019, she was producing so much music, performing so constantly, making so much money. Didn’t that obviously mean the conservatorship was a good thing?

The world is full of former child stars who ran wild as adults and ended up living brief and tragic lives: the Judy Garlands, the Michael Jacksons. Shouldn’t someone have done something to help them? And wasn’t Spears’s family, whatever their personal shortcomings might be, stepping up and actually doing the work that the Garlands and the Jacksons failed to do, and taking responsibility for their kid?

“Typically when a pop star as big as Spears sinks as low as she did, there’s little that can be done to rescue them,” opined Elle in 2013. “But Britney Spears is nothing if not a fighter: Only months after being slapped with the conservatorship, she was back looking healthy and vocally stronger than ever. … In the past few years, Britney Spears has slowly but surely regained her role as America’s pop-music sweetheart.”

This conservatorship could help Spears at last escape the inevitable doom of the child star! Didn’t it seem like she was benefiting from having someone else control her life?

Wasn’t it just possible that she was glad the conservatorship was there?

“Disturbing, to say the least”

While the outside world remained largely indifferent, Spears’s fans have been suspicious of her conservatorship for as long as it has existed. Many of them point accusingly to all the work Spears has done over the past 13 years: If she is so unstable that she can’t be in control of her own life, they say, why was she guest-starring on How I Met Your Mother just two months after the emergency conservatorship was established? Doesn’t that seem to suggest the conservatorship exists less to safeguard Spears’s well-being than to maximize her income and, by extension, the income of those in control of her life?

Conservatorship reform advocates, too, have eyed Spears’s situation with a suspicious gaze. “The public has the right to know that the state is taking care of the citizens that need help,” says Renoire. “Everything’s so quiet with this case that it’s very disconcerting.”

Supporters of Britney Spears gather outside the County Courthouse in Los Angeles during her conservatorship case hearing on June 23, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Despite those conversations occurring in the fringes of the internet, however, the Free Britney movement did not take off in earnest until April 2019. That’s when comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, hosts of Britney’s Gram, received a voicemail from someone who said he used to be a paralegal at the law firm handling Spears’s conservatorship.

Earlier in the month, a post on Spears’s Instagram had announced that the singer had checked herself into a mental health facility for “a little ‘me time.’ :)” Months before that news broke, Spears had canceled her planned second Vegas residency, ostensibly to spend time with her gravely ill father.

“What is going on is disturbing, to say the least,” the former paralegal said in the voicemail on Britney’s Gram. He alleged that Spears had been committed to a mental health facility against her will and that there was no timeline for her release. The trigger, he claimed, was that Spears had been seen driving with her boyfriend to pick up some fast food, even though her conservatorship forbids driving. Moreover, he said that she had begun to refuse to take her medication. Jamie Spears had decided to take drastic action and blame his own illness for it.

Barker and Gray have said they spoke to the paralegal separately and found him credible. It appears that no other outlet was able to verify his claims.

Meanwhile, Spears’s camp maintained that the conservatorship remained necessary to keep Spears’s life on track. “The conservatorship is not a jail,” Spears’s former manager Larry Rudolph told the Washington Post in 2019. “It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.” Those successful Vegas residencies, for instance, were courtesy of the conservatorship: Part of Spears’s contract demanded that she remain under conservatorship for as long as she was in residency to ensure that she wasn’t a flight risk. Without the security of the conservatorship in place, the thinking went, Spears would go off the rails again, and she would surely lose the business advantages and the stable, happy life she had worked so hard to build.

In September 2019, Jamie temporarily stepped down as conservator of Spears’s person, though not her finances, after a physical altercation with one of Spears’s sons. Jodi Montgomery, Spears’s longtime caregiver, assumed the role on a temporary basis. In August 2020, Spears asked that Montgomery become her permanent conservator. Jamie Spears had heretofore remained in control of Spears’s financial affairs, but Spears also requested in August 2020 that he step down and be replaced by a “qualified corporate fiduciary.” The court declined to remove Jamie from either of his roles.

Starting with that August 2020 hearing, things appeared to be changing rapidly in the world of Britney Spears, and the public was beginning to pay attention. The attention would come roaring into focus in February 2021 when the New York Times/Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears made the case that the world owed Spears an apology for the way it treated her in 2008 — and that it should also be looking into everything that had happened with her conservatorship since. The documentary was a sensation, and the public sat up and took notice.

Months later, the New York Times and the New Yorker would publish their articles. And Spears would, at last, speak in public.

“It’s my wish and my dream for all of this to end”

The revelations came in rapid succession: First the New York Times report, the next day Spears’s testimony, and a few weeks later the New Yorker article. Together they paint a disturbing portrait of Britney Spears’s life. They rewrite it as a sort of gothic novel, with Spears trapped by her father in the mansion she paid for with her own money, unable to control anything, including her own body.

Britney Spears performs onstage during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards at Madison Square Garden.
Kevin Kane/FilmMagic via Getty Images

In the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino reported that as Spears appeared to spiral in 2007, she was apparently under severe stress because of her custody battle with Federline, and experiencing what her companions at the time now suspect was postpartum depression. The infamous time when she shaved off her hair and the time she beat a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, they reported, were both preceded by incidents of Spears driving to Federline’s house, tailed by paparazzi, and then being refused access to her kids.

The kids were also apparently at the center of Spears’s first involuntary commitment. At the end of one custody visit, Spears, in tears, took her youngest son into the bathroom with her and said she wouldn’t come out. Federline’s lawyer called the police, and Spears was placed under emergency psychiatric hold. Those who were close to Britney at the time have maintained to the New Yorker that the children were in no danger. Spears just wanted to spend more time with them.

Jamie Spears, meanwhile, comes across in these new narratives not as his daughter’s savior but as an abuser. Liz Day, Samantha Stark, and Joe Coscarelli reported in the New York Times that Jamie went to rehab for alcoholism in 2004, and court documents reveal multiple sources who suspect that he has relapsed while serving as Britney’s conservator. But when Britney shared similar suspicions with the court through her lawyer in 2014, and suggested that he take a series of random alcohol tests, Jamie’s lawyer condemned the request as inappropriate. “Absolutely inappropriate,” the judge agreed. “And who is she to be demanding that of anybody?”

According to the New Yorker, Jamie seems to have understood his role as conservator to require prioritizing not his daughter’s mental health so much as her Barbie doll public image. In the article, family friend Jacqueline Butcher recalls witnessing an exchange between father and daughter in 2008, in the first days after Britney was released from the hospital into her father’s care.

“Jamie said, ‘Baby,’” Butcher recalled, “and I thought he was going to say, ‘We love you, but you need help.’ But what he said was ‘You’re fat. Daddy’s gonna get you on a diet and a trainer, and you’re gonna get back in shape.’”

Butcher added that Jamie repeatedly told Britney she was a whore and a terrible mother in the early days of the conservatorship as he pushed her to come to terms with the new shape of her life. He was adamant that it would be he who called the shots in the new world order, and whenever someone questioned his edicts, he took to shouting, “I am Britney Spears!”

“The control he had over someone as powerful as me — he loved the control to hurt his own daughter, 100,000 percent,” Spears said in her testimony.

Under Jamie’s regime, Spears’s control of her cash was severely restricted. No matter how much she earned, she was limited to a weekly allowance of $2,000, which meant her annual living expenses were smaller than the stipend she paid Jamie or the salary she paid Ingham. She found herself at dinners with friends and unable to cover her share. When she asked for more money to refinish her kitchen cabinets, Jamie denied her request.

While Spears wasn’t allowed to spend her own money as she pleased, she was obliged to keep making it. The New York Times reports that according to court documents, she was forced to perform with a 104-degree fever, leaving her in fear for her life. In her court testimony, Spears compared her working conditions — performing seven days a week, with no passport and no way of escaping — to sex trafficking.

Fans of Britney Spears hold posters and rally outside the pop star’s scheduled hearing at the Los Angeles County Courthouse on July 14, 2021.
Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

At all turns, it seems Spears has been isolated from people she is close to and surrounded by those loyal to her father. Jamie fired her household staff and hired his own loyalists, who would alert him if Spears got hold of contraband, like a cellphone. He apparently orchestrated her breakup with one of her boyfriends after he purchased a video of the man kissing another woman and showed it to Spears. He forbade her from spending time with old friends unmonitored.

In part two of Framing Britney Spears, released in September, a former employee for Spears’s security team says that her father mirrored her phone to an iPad and tracked her activities that way. He added that he put surveillance cameras in Spears’s bedroom. The New Yorker article also quotes figures who’ve found themselves wrapped up in extreme spy-movie-style heists to get Spears a cellphone: someone slipping one to her in the steam room of her gym, or letting her sneak in a call at a doctor’s office.

The new reports have corroborated other rumors that have been floating around in Free Britney circles for years. Much of the infamous paralegal’s call to Britney’s Gram has been vindicated: In her testimony, Spears said that she was committed against her will in January 2019. (She maintains, however, that she did not refuse her medication.)

Most shockingly, Spears said that her control over her own body was severely, viciously limited. Although she would like to have more children, she said she has an IUD she is forbidden to remove. She said she was put on lithium against her will. Even that involuntary psychiatric hold, Spears said, was precipitated by a minor bodily rebellion: She said she didn’t want to do a specific dance move during rehearsal, and that’s why she was put away.

But perhaps the most important thing to come out of all of these revelations is the sure knowledge that Britney Spears did not want to keep living under a conservatorship. The New York Times reports that she has been expressing opposition to the conservatorship in court since as early as 2014. According to the New Yorker, on the day before her 2021 testimony, she called 911 to report herself as a victim of conservatorship abuse.

“I’m not lying. I just want my life back. It’s been 13 years,” Spears said in her testimony. “And it’s enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve owned my money. And it’s my wish and my dream for all of this to end.”

It is impossible any longer to say we don’t know what Britney thinks of her conservatorship, because she has made herself very clear.

“My precious body has worked for my dad for the past 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty”

With the past few months of revelations, much that was mysterious about Britney Spears becomes clear. The reason she looked so lost and trapped in those Instagram videos is that she did feel trapped. The reason there were so many disturbing rumors about the conservatorship is that disturbing things really were happening within the conservatorship.

In all of Spears’s 23-minute testimony, one moment is exceptionally striking. After observing that the younger generation of pop stars faces much looser expectations than she herself did, she notes that Miley Cyrus is allowed to publicly smoke pot without getting stuck in a conservatorship. Then she turns back to herself, her voice goes viciously angry, and she seems to step outside of her own body for a moment.

“But my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect,” she says. “When he works me so hard.”

Spears does not seem to understand her body as belonging to herself. Which makes sense because under the terms of her conservatorship, it does not seem to have belonged to her. She was not allowed to control what medication her body took, or what birth control was inserted into it. She was not allowed to control how fat her body can get. She was not even, apparently, allowed to decide what dances her body did.

Britney Spears performs at Six Flags Darien Lake on June 23, 2000, in New York.
Liaison via Getty Images

The question of how much control Spears has over her body and her sexuality has been central to her image from the beginning of her career, when she danced down the corridors of a high school in her sexy schoolgirl outfit, age 16, and sang, “Hit me, baby, one more time,” in her signature sexy baby coo. The play of that moment depended on the idea that Spears didn’t know, couldn’t possibly know, how sexy she was.

“All I did was tie up my shirt!” Spears told Rolling Stone of the video. She was incredibly hot, was the narrative Spears and her handlers were selling, and she was also unaware of her hotness because she was still a child. That meant her body was no threat to the presumed male viewer who watched her. She could not use it to manipulate them. It could be appreciated and desired without fear.

In 1998, the idea that Spears was unaware of what she was selling was used to discount her as an artist. “Seventeen-year-old actress Britney Spears couldn’t land more than a role in an off-Broadway update of The Bad Seed until she scored a contract with the Backstreet Boys’ record company,” begins a capsule review of Spears’s debut album, ... Baby One More Time, in Rolling Stone that year. But then mega-producer Max Martin got his hands on Spears and transformed her “into a growling jailbait dynamo.”

Over the past decade, there’s been a growing attempt from other critics to reclaim Spears’s narrative on her own behalf, and to make the case for her as a legitimate artist, rather than the product of her producers. That reclamation has often involved the argument that Spears was in full control over her displays of sexuality as a teen.

Spears, those critics note, was the one who came up with the iconic Catholic schoolgirl and cheerleader motif in the “... Baby One More Time” video. And she exuded such confidence and control when she danced. Part of the argument of Framing Britney Spears is that the teenage Spears was naturally expressing her vision of herself, and the vision she was expressing happened to be extremely sexy, and America responded with a puritanical backlash.

For her part, Spears has suggested a certain ambivalence about her teen-sex-bomb image. In a GQ interview in 2003, she brought up a Rolling Stone photo shoot in 1998 that showed Spears, provocatively dressed in bra, shorts, and cardigan, standing next to a doll collection.

“I was back in my bedroom, and I had my little sweater on and he was like, ‘Undo your sweater a little bit more,’” Spears said. “The whole thing was about me being into dolls, and in my naïve mind I was like, ‘Here are my dolls!’ and now I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell?’ But he did a very good job of portraying me in that way. It certainly wasn’t peaches and cream.”

“Even young women who are not megafamous have typically picked up on what makes them appear valuable by the age of 15,” Tavi Gevinson wrote in an essay on Spears for The Cut shortly after the release of Framing Britney Spears. “There is no need to believe it’s either Everything was Britney’s choice, and therefore she was always a sex-positive feminist or Nothing was Britney’s choice, and the evil adults made all her decisions. Both assertions sound desperate to protect her respectability — another version of her purity, in fact — as a prerequisite for compassion.”

We don’t know how much control over her own body Spears felt she had as a teenager. That is, perhaps, one of the things about Spears that we still can’t know. We know that Spears looked like a woman in complete control of herself as she danced. We also know that she was under immense pressure to embody a certain standard of sexuality that was designed to appeal to men first. We don’t know which of those two things seemed more important to her.

In her 2021 testimony, Spears seemed to still be stuck on those same two irreconcilable ideas. She described rehearsing for a new show, that second Vegas residency that would never happen, and assured the judge, “I take everything I do very seriously.” She taught her dancers all the new choreography. She led them through it. “I wasn’t good,” she says fiercely. “I was great.”

Spears knows that she is still a great performer, a star. She’s absolutely positive of that. She even allowed herself a touch of flair in her testimony, an echo of the sizzle that used to come out of Spears when she drawled, “It’s Britney, bitch,” over a dance beat.

But it’s hard to hold on to the idea of Britney, bitch, when you also have the knowledge that Jamie Spears was in the habit of yelling, “I am Britney Spears,” whenever anyone questions his decisions.

How far did Spears’s dancer’s acumen actually take her when she wasn’t even allowed to choose her own dances? When her precious body has worked not for herself for the past 13 years, but for her dad? When it was trying to be so good and pretty, so perfect, with the full knowledge that the person defining “perfect” is Jamie Spears?

For years, we’ve been using our collective, one-sided image of Britney Spears to work through questions about girls and sex and control and who is allowed to control the ways in which they think about sex. But the fact is, we don’t know who was in control of Britney Spears when she first got famous. We do know who’s been in control of Britney Spears for the past 13 years, and it wasn’t her.

As of November 12, that fact has finally changed. Britney Spears is walking free, in control of her own body at long last.

A man waves a “Free Britney” flag during a rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial protesting the conservatorship of Britney Spears on July 14, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Update, November 12: This story was updated on November 12 to reflect the end of the conservatorship. It was previously updated on September 8 to reflect Jamie Spears’s petition to end the conservatorship, and on August 12 to reflect Jamie Spears’s announced intent to step down from the conservatorship.


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