#FreeBritney made headlines recently. But the popstar’s case mirrors the reality that faces disabled communities across the world. In fact, disability rights activists have been saying that the #FreeBritney campaign is, or should be, a disability rights campaign, for years. Britney Spears’ story—and hopefully eventual justice—should pave the way for more to come. Indeed, #FreeBritney is just the beginning.
What happened to Britney Spears, and what is #FreeBritney?
You might know Britney Spears from her music that dominated the charts in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Or her being a pop culture icon. But fans and activists have known the dark history behind her famous career and life. One that starts with a conservatorship (more on what this means in a bit) that dates back to 2008. #FreeBritney, hence, is a social media campaign. Fans launched it to bring awareness to Spears’ situation. And to eventually free her from the legal binding, and return to her control of her own life.
The campaign has been around for a while now. But it has recently come back into the spotlight because new facts about the extent of her conservatorship came to light. Spears, who testified in open court about it, made headlines as her audio leaked almost immediately. “I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive,” she said. “And now we can sit here all day and say… ‘oh, conservatorships are here to help people’. But ma’am… there’s a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well. I don’t feel like I can live a full life.”
Among other alarming details, like her manager’s lies, her father’s ongoing exploitation of her (her fame, etc.), Spears revealed that she doesn’t have control over much of her life. Her career. Finances. Reproductive choices. And even down to her own mental healthcare.
A history of control and exploitation
The truth is that this recent news is part of a long history of Spears’ life of exploitation and lack of control. Despite the glitz and glamour on the surface.
How did it start? Following a very public breakdown in 2008, Spears was put under a “5150 hold” in a psychiatric hospital. Her father petitioned courts for an emergency “temporary” conservatorship. On the grounds that Spears couldn’t care for and manage herself. Because of her mental health struggles. From then on, her father gained legal rights to oversee and make decisions for her. Regarding her finances, career, health, and personal life. (He has also been profiting off of the conservatorship, in the millions.) He was her conservator, until 2019. In 2019, he stepped down due to health issues and appointed Jodi Montgomery instead.
Unfortunately, Montgomery has allegedly been involved in a history of conservatorship abuse. Presently, after audio of Spears’ recent testimony leaked, the two—her father and Montgomery—have been busy shifting the blame on each other. In any case, amidst all the public statements back and forth claiming that they want the best for Spears? Nothing much has changed. Spears still doesn’t have agency.
Meanwhile, Spears’ fans have been fighting for her case for years. In 2009, they launched the website FreeBritney.net. They penned the following statement explaining why Spears doesn’t need a conservatorship. “During the twelve years of Spears’ conservatorship she has repeatedly toured the world, released multiple albums, and worked on a variety of television shows,” they said.
“Her conservators decide whether or not she works, as she cannot enter into contracts for herself because she is legally not her own person. Britney Spears needs permission from her conservators to leave her house or spend any of her own money.” In support of the pop star, the fans have compiled various pieces of evidence building Spears’ case on the site. They’ve also, over the years, gone out on the streets to protest on Spears’ behalf. Spears’ social media page has also been a site of contention. Fans suspect it’s not all it seems on her page. And on every post, you’ll find #FreeBritney comments. (It’s almost like a conspiracy. Except it’s very much real.)
The #FreeBritney campaign continues to fight for Spears’ independence and rights. And while Britney Spears’ case continues to make headlines, disability rights activists have been tirelessly reminding us of one crucial part of the picture. That #FreeBritney is a Disability Rights issue.
How is #FreeBritney a Disability Rights issue?
As Haley Moss, autistic lawyer and author, highlights there are two key parts of the Britney Spears narrative that often get left out. That “Britney was essentially deemed disabled in some way by the court, and conservatorships and guardianships happen far more frequently to disabled adults than is often discussed.”
To the former point, Project LETS, a US-based grassroots organisation and movement, explains more in an Instagram post. “What is happening to her is only possible if are considered Disabled by law. Then you can have your autonomy, self-determination, and freedom taken away from you. That is why this was so easy. Once you are declared incompetent, or not of sound mind, you are no longer considered a person.”
“Yes this happened to Britney because she has money (which is appealing in the eyes of abusers). And because people wanted to control her and take advantage of her wealth. But they were able to do this… precisely because she is considered to be Disabled.” In other words, #FreeBritney is a disability rights issue. “It’s about who we see as human enough to be granted the rights of personhood.” And Spears, as “disabled” in the eyes of the courts? She’s not granted these rights.
Britney Spears’ case is unique in some ways, but not entirely
This brings us to the latter point: that Spears’ case mirrors the many others around the world. Certainly, Britney Spears’ case is unique. In that there’s so much money, wealth, fame, involved. But in the US, for example, Spears is one of an estimated 1.5 million adults under a conservatorship or guardianship. “According to the ACLU,” Moss writes, “people only end up under conservatorships if they are assessed as having some type of disability, making Britney’s case a disability rights issue.”
And Britney’s testimony makes clear the extent to which conservatorships, guardianships and loss of legal capacity can be harmful and violent for the disabled person involved. Britney’s testimony shows, Moss shares, “how little disabled people are truly heard… When Britney took the stand and talked about how she felt she wasn’t “heard on any level” during her last appearance, it resonated with me… Britney’s own desires have been seemingly dismissed over the years because she was deemed disabled in some way and seen by the courts as unable to be in control of her own life. After being placed under a conservatorship, and therefore seen as disabled, her words were automatically devalued.”
Emina Ćerimović, Senior Researcher at the Human Rights Watch’s Disability Rights Division, highlights that just like Spears, being in such a state of lack of control can lead to “a range of abuses, including forced medical treatment, forced contraception and coerced termination of pregnancies, involuntary confinement, forced living arrangements, and limited freedom of movement.”
#FreeBritney, some of its various aspects, and how it relates to wider issues within disability justice
To further explain how #FreeBritney is a disability rights issue, it’s worth digging into a few aspects of the case. And how these reflect wider concerns within the disability justice movement.
Key to the entire case is the placement of Britney Spears under a “conservatorship”. What is a conservatorship? According to the California Courts official website, it’s where a judge appoints an individual or organisation to care for another adult who is deemed unfit to care for themselves or manage their own finances. Moss further explains that in this situation, “disabled adults face restrictions on a wide variety of rights”. On “Where they live, when and where they work, money management, and healthcare decisions.” Often, people assume that conservatorship involves only elderly folk, or people with terminal illnesses. But it also affects people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Sara Luterman, disabled journalist who covers disability policy, politics and culture, adds in an episode of the What Next podcast that “it’s actually very difficult to end the conservatorship or guardianship under any circumstances”. Luterman explains the case of a man named Ryan King. King’s parents were told that because of his intellectual disability, he needed to be put under guardianship. King turned out, “unexpectedly”, to be a functional, independent adult. His parents spoke to King. And they all mutually agreed that the guardianship was no longer necessary. Yet, the court disagreed. It took them ten years, plus lawyers—and hefty fees no doubt, to reverse the decision.
“Because once someone is determined to be under guardianship,” Luterman says, “you don’t have the opportunities to really prove your competence.”
The logic underpinning conservatorships
Conservatorships and guardianships are extreme measures. There are other less restrictive options for disabled folks. But there are still millions of poeple around the world in these situations of extreme control. It’s worth asking: what is the logic underpinning conservatorships?
That disabled persons are not able to make decisions for themselves? That their actions are indicative of their ability to govern themselves? Or that there are situations where they shouldn’t be able to govern themselves? That others can and should have power over them? At the core of conservatorships: that other people, and sometimes the state, can have a say over disabled people’s bodies? There’s a bigger issue here that we need to talk about. And that’s the rights to personhood, as alluded to earlier by Project LETS. Who do we grant these rights to? Why do we feel like it’s okay to revoke rights to personhood, to autonomy?
In the podcast episode Luterman features in, host Mary Harris points out that Luterman has written before about how when abled adults make harmful decisions, they don’t risk losing their civil rights. But it’s different for disabled adults. If they make bad decisions, others can step in. And “all of a sudden lay claim to so many aspects of their life”. Luterman elaborates that in disability service provision, there’s a concept called “the right to eat too many doughnuts and then take a nap”.
The right to eat too many doughnuts and take a nap, and how we collectively judge disabled persons
Luterman shares that “if a non-disabled person decides ‘I’m going to skip work and have a couple of drinks and eat a whole bunch of doughnuts and then take a nap, and I’m not going to do the things I’m technically supposed to do today because I feel like it’. That person isn’t going to have any of their fundamental rights taken away. Like that’s a thing that normal people are allowed to do. But if you have a disability, and you do those things… that’s seen as further evidence of your incapacity and inability to responsibly manage your own life.”
In the same way, Luterman asks, coming back to Britney Spears: “why do we get to decide what’s good for Britney Spears? Why does Britney Spears’ family get to decide what’s good for Britney Spears? If she does stop having this framework and if she has another mental health crisis… why is she not allowed to do that? Why is she not allowed to struggle? To have difficulties? To make bad decisions? If those are all things normal people do all the time?”
All of this is to say that Spears’ conservatorship, and the campaign to free her from her situation, provide us with a lens. A lens through which to view and question the way the current system judges and punishes the disabled community. If we’re angry about Spears’ situation, we ought to be angry about these wider issues too.
On reproductive rights
One of the most prominent and disturbing aspects of Spears’ case that came to light recently concerns Spears’ reproductive rights. Or rather, her lack thereof. In her testimony, she revealed that she was not allowed to get her IUD (intrauterine device) removed. Even though she wanted to marry her boyfriend and have a baby.
Spears being denied reproductive rights, again, could happen because she was considered disabled. And it’s absolutely worth mentioning that this is the (one of the) extent(s) to which disabled folks can lose rights. Project LETS shares in the comments of their Instagram post that reproductive rights and disability rights are very intertwined. “There is a long history of eugenics that perpetuates the ideology (and puts it in practice) that Disabled folks should not or cannot give birth or raise kids. The Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell (1927) legalized forced sterilization of Disabled/mentally ill folks — with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. saying “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”” Buck v. Bell was never overturned, and so it still stands.
This article by Firstpost adds that the Spears case has “brought into focus how forced temporary and permanent sterilisation is imposed on women across the globe, especially those who live with disabilities or have marginalised identities.”
Like Spears, too many face denial of reproductive rights around the world
Today, voluntary sterilisation, involving birth control, or methods to permanently end fertility, is an option that’s celebrated in some parts of the world. It’s an option, in parts of the world, that signifies female empowerment. And yet, at the same time, forced or coerced sterilisation is a violent reality in other parts of the world. This is a reality for those closer than you might think. Such sterilisation is imposed on those in our communities, who live with disabilities.
Firstpost adds that sometimes, it’s imposed in ways that are more subtle, and more insidious. These include financial incentives, misinformation, intimidation tactics, and more. “Oftentimes, the lines between voluntary and involuntary sterilisation are blurred due to incentives promised, or the lack of adequate information — such as the belief that sterilisation is the only form of contraceptive available.”
And as the UN states, forced sterilisation “is an act of violence, a form of social control, and a violation of the right to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”. Yet, it continues to be a reality for those with disabilities or other marginalised communities. Like “trans and intersex individuals, ethnic minorities, individuals who have HIV-AIDS, and the poor”.
“The idea that these individuals are incapable of taking care of and assuming responsibility for themselves as well as those who may come into their care is what has driven this discriminatory practice,” Firstpost explains. “This notion of fitness — or rather the lack of it — has also been applied along the lines of race, driven by the theory of eugenics.”
As this tweet by user @daisyholder adds, beyond just imposing forced sterilisation to prevent pregnancy and hence reproduction, “hormonal IUDs have often been a first choice contraception for carers because it makes Disabled people easier to handle and tolerate [with the lack of periods and its associated “bad moods”, bleeding, etc.].” She adds that “It will often be explained as “avoiding distress”, particularly in people with learning disabilities and mental illness but mostly it’s for the convenience of the caregivers and that alone.” And yet, she reminds us, these IUD insertions are very painful.
The point of all this is to say that society uses disabilities, and the status and perception of disabled people, to discriminate against disabled folks. And not just discriminate against them. But take away their rights, and enforce violence upon them. Spears is but one famous example of this happening.
Why #FreeBritney being a Disability Rights issue doesn’t take away from Britney Spears
A viral Instagram post by @feminist resharing a Twitter thread by Liz Plank, talking about how the Britney Spears case in relation to the disability rights movement, has attracted comments criticising the comparison.
The original thread was a reminder that while it’s important to acknowledge Spears’ struggles, it’s also important to see how similar struggles that impact the disabled community don’t get nearly as much airtime because they don’t involve someone famous. It was an attempt to bring in people who are speaking up about Spears’ case to care about others in the same situation too.
In response, comments like these have emerged. “we shouldn’t compare and contrast them”. “Y’all are just invalidating Britney to prove your point”. Even ones accusing Plank of making an “all lives matter” argument. But the truth is that it’s not a competition. Disability rights activists certainly aren’t trying to make it into one. #FreeBritney is a Disability Rights issue. Because she is disabled—at the very least, in the eyes of the court. And that’s why her case is a mirror of many others.
And yes, as Moss points out, “Britney is a privileged piece of a much larger disability rights issue. She is a white woman, does not seemingly have an intellectual disability, and has fame and the attention of a now-adoring public (that once scrutinized and ridiculed her over a decade ago).” But Moss herself acknowledges that that’s not the point. The point, again, is that Spears’ case is a mirror. Disability rights activists want Britney Spears to be free. They’re, as Moss puts it, saying that “Everyone should be able to control who has a say in their life, and to make decisions on their own terms. To free Britney is to free all of us.”
Why we should care about disability rights issues
What “To free Britney is to free all of us” gets at is this idea that the ableist courts, the ableist capitalist system affects Britney Spears. Affects disabled communities everywhere. And everyone else too. Even abled folks. (Speaking of which, check out this video essay on disability and capitalism.)
July is Disability Pride Month. It’s high time we understood that disability justice is not a niche cause that’s not relevant to larger social justice contexts. It’s inextricably intertwined with environmental justice. With racial justice, gender justice. Queer justice, migrant justice, and everything in between.
It’s all connected
As queer disabled femme writer, organiser, performance artist and educator Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha quotes Sins Invalid co-founder and executive director Patty Berne in the Preface of their book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice: “Disability Justice activists, organizers, and cultural workers understand that able-bodied supremacy has been formed in relation to other systems of domination and exploitation.
The histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined, both forged in the crucible of colonial conquest and capitalist domination. One cannot look at the history of US slavery, the stealing of indigenous lands, and US imperialism without seeing the way that white supremacy leverages ableism to create a subjugated ‘other’ that is deemed less worthy/abled/smart/capable.
We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Each system benefits from extracting profits and status from the subjugated ‘other.’” And as Instagram account @iwritefeminism sums up… “It’s impossible to dismantle any form of oppression without also addressing the way society dehumanises disabled people… It’s disability justice or no justice at all.”
So this Disability Pride Month: let’s not be ableist by seeing #FreeBritney as a standalone issue. It’s a Disability Rights issue. So it’s disability justice or no justice at all. It’s #FreeBritney, and free all of us.
FEATURED IMAGE: via the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A scan of a film photo taken of Britney Spears, in full stage makeup and costume, while someone, unidentified, is adjusting her costume; behind her is a mirror, partially blocked by her, with bright lights around it; Spears is staring into the camera with a solemn expression
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