As a human story about the descent of a talented young woman, the American documentary released this week about former pop princess Britney Spears is tragic.
As a record of societal attitudes in the last 40 years, it is truly horrifying.
The ugly warts on the face of society are all too evident – misogyny, media invasion, the stigma of mental health…
Post-“Me Too”, post-Leveson, post-mental health awareness campaigns, the sheer cruelty and inappropriateness of the archive footage takes the 2021 watcher’s breath away.
There she is, little 10-year-old Britney, pert and bright-eyed, performing on television. Was it ever acceptable for a white-haired compere, old enough to be her grandfather, to tell a child that she has “amazing pretty eyes” before asking if she has a boyfriend?
To suggest himself if the post is vacant? Is there a woman alive who wouldn’t recognise the shiver of fearful confusion that passes through those pretty child eyes?
Or what about the interviewer who asks teenage Britney if she’s a virgin? Her eyes widen in shock. “Yes.” Or the interviewer who asks her ex, Justin Timberlake: “Did you – beep – Britney?” to which Timberlake’s blokey riposte is: “Oh, man – OK, I did.”
Right there lies the absurdity of sexual attitudes – to retain her credibility Spears must insist she’s a virgin, to retain his Timberlake must insist she’s not.
In those early days, it looked like Spears could handle fame, manipulate it even. Those she worked with appear on the documentary (currently available on YouTube) to say the Britney they knew was creative, focused, and in control of everything.
How did it happen, then, that for the last 12 years she has been the subject of a legal conservatorship, normally reserved for the elderly and infirm, which gives all control of her financial estate – against her will – to her father, Jamie?
The answer is complex. We see in the documentary the descent from the little girl who loves performing, to the young adult who has to combine all-American wholesomeness with slutty sexiness (try that and remain sane), to the fully grown woman whose brittle smile dissolves, Diana-like, into tears when hunted by the paparazzi.
The same woman who finally descends into a raging, out-of-control mum who snaps, shaves her head, seizes an umbrella and beats it violently against a photographer’s car. The photographer is unperturbed, because the footage of her rampage would buy a dozen new cars.
Public reaction to that level of mental turmoil? Laughter. Family Feud, the US equivalent of Family Fortunes, asked: “What has Britney lost this year?” The “correct” answers included her dignity, her children and her mind. Brutal stuff.
Perhaps there was a stage when Spears – and her estate – needed protection. But 12 years? And why her father as conservator when she asked for an independent organisation? Kim Kaiman, ex-director of Jive records, only recalls one thing Jamie said to her: “My daughter is going to be so rich she’s going to buy me a boat.” “And that,” says Kaiman, “is all I have to say about Jamie.”
A “Free Britney” campaign asks why Spears has become largely voiceless – no interviews, almost no social media presence. At first, she had continued working but has now refused unless her father is replaced. The courts insist she can’t make that choice. But how can someone be professionally competent enough to record, tour and earn, yet be so totally personally incompetent they can’t manage their own life? Or even say who they want to help them do so?
In a brief documentary interview, her brother, Bryan, contributes little except to say that the women in his family have strong opinions and “want to do what they want to do”. And as one of the two men in the family, “that sucks”. Women doing what they want? Gee, Bryan. Ain’t life a bitch?
Legal papers for Spears say she is “vehemently opposed” to her father’s efforts to “keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet”.
She is in the nonsensical position of paying the conservator, the conservator’s lawyers, and her own lawyers to oppose the conservator’s lawyers, from an estate she has no control over.
Hard to imagine any 39-year-old male artist being told daddy will hold the cheque book and dole out pocket money. But then, all that misogyny, all that mental health discrimination (and God help you if you’re female AND mentally ill), it’s not really a past age. It’s right here and now.