Britney Spears is a liberated woman. On November 12, nearly fourteen years after being placed in a conservatorship that reportedly put limitations on her own reproductive rights, restricted her access to her own money, and allowed the most trusted people in her life to drug her as they saw fit, Judge Brenda Penny terminated the arrangement. With the exception of some clerical work, Spears is, effectively, now allowed to live her life like any other adult might. And the world is ready to celebrate with her. In the days since the announcement, Lady Gaga and Mandy Moore have sent Spears well wishes, saying things like “you never deserved this treatment.” Page Six is applauding her “cheeky thong” pic on Instagram. We’re even being flooded with strange, tertiary information, like the fact that Lance Bass is distantly related to her.
Everyone wants a part in the revelry, no one of the blame. I’m not sure this story will allow that. In 2021, we’ve decided who the enemies are: TMZ and Perez Hilton, that dastardly Jamie Spears, and Judge Penny. But what about the rest of us? Where do we, the good people of the hot take internet and the social media machine, land when it comes to the history of Britney Spears? As we exalt her independence and swear to never let an injustice like this happen again, it’s worth looking back.
For my history, I’d start in 2003. Spears had just released her fourth studio album In The Zone, which included her megahit “Toxic,” as well as “Me Against the Music,” AKA the soundtrack to her infamous kiss with Madonna at the VMAs. It was arguably the moment that Spears “confirmed” she was exactly the sexpot we’d insisted she be. It fulfilled our own prophecy that she was a thing to ogle, not admire. But the oft-overlooked third single from the album, “Everytime,” is the track that struck me hardest. Watching it now, nearly 20 years removed, it hits even harder. In the music video for the song, Spears plays a character who gets beaten down by paparazzi, locked into a bum relationship, and pushed to the precipice of a suicidal breakdown. Her character in the video drowns herself in a bathtub. If only we had listened then.
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I was an eighth grader at the time. There was this guy in my class named Thomas who I’d known since kindergarten. That same year, he started wearing black clothes and black eyeliner. He told everyone he was atheist. While I listened to Britney, he listened to System of a Down. He was the kind of kid you were supposed to be wary of, so we stopped being friends. That same year, he nearly got me expelled because I wasn’t “tolerant” of his atheism, he alleged. Teachers advocated for me, and the whole thing ended up being brushed aside. Thomas did not listen to Britney Spears. Thomas sat in the back of every class and drew sketches in his textbook, and we didn’t talk again for about five years. But Thomas is important to how I see Britney’s story.
The Britney Spears fame bubble burst in 2007. The most infamous year of her career, her mental wellbeing unraveled to the tune of flashbulbs clicking in her face. We wanted more, and they kept shooting. We remember Perez Hilton and TMZ making sport of her most vulnerable moments clearly. Britney was, as is convenient to recall, a tabloid story, with headlines like this one from People: “Britney Spears Acting Crazy, Shaves Her Head Bald.” Or this, from The New York Post: “Britney A Bust.”
But prestige publications dined out on the tragedy just as well. The Atlantic secured an interview with the photographer whose car Spears attacked with an umbrella. In the piece, they refer to Spears’s spiral as “history’s best-publicized meltdown.” The publication describes the pap as “sweet-faced.” When Spears was eventually committed into involuntary psychiatric care and subsequently bound to a conservatorship in 2008, Rolling Stone ran a story titled “The Tragedy of Britney Spears.” In the opening few paragraphs, the author refers to her as an “inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails… and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters” before alleging that she enjoys “the chaos she is creating.” In 2009, The Los Angeles Times ran a story about a beleaguered Jamie Spears, positioning him as a father desperately trying to protect his daughter from herself.
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As Spears settled into her conservatorship, the headlines became less interesting, or rather, less lucrative. As such, they also became less frequent. The media stopped reporting on Spears’s day to day, presumably because legal documents garnered far fewer clicks than rogue umbrellas. Coverage from the years that followed suggested that, following a suspiciously speedy recovery, Britney’s world was relatively normal. (This was most convincing if viewed from a distance.) She joined the X-Factor judging panel, released two platinum-certified albums, and launched one of the most successful Vegas residencies in history. All the media had to riff on was that she might not be singing live out in Sin City.
As we know now, that narrative was wrong. And it’s not hard to imagine that the coverage that just-wouldn’t-stop made it very easy to get court orders passed very quickly that robbed a young woman of freedoms so mundane you haven’t thought about them in ages. Taking cash out from an ATM. Driving a car. Ordering Starbucks. Spears is hardly the first celebrity to be stripped of her dignity in her most vulnerable hour. Hell, that’s a Great American Pastime at this point. It’s something we’ve done over and over again, with Amy Winehouse and Anna Nicole Smith. Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan. We run their darkest moments on loop until the clicks run dry, and if they survive it—which they don’t always do—we reimagine our own place in their lives. Weren’t we always rooting for them?, we ask. We forget the memes. We throw away the “I Feel Like 2007 Britney” tee shirts hiding in our hampers. We rewrite reality, and then earnestly ask where it all went wrong.
In 2019, when a canceled second Vegas residency and subsequent rehabilitation stay piqued the interest of the public, then, and only then, was Britney offered a new lens. Optimistically, I’d like to believe it was our own education, thanks to the influence of the #MeToo movement as well as Time’s Up and an evolving and more sympathetic understanding of mental health issues that helped us to see Spears differently. It might also have something to do with the fact that we found a new villain in Jamie Spears, who wasn’t alleging anything too different from what he used to place Britney in a conservatorship over a decade before when our view of him flipped. Either way, Britney wasn’t saved by the media or the justice system or even the doggedly loyal fans who advocated to #FreeBritney since 2008. (Though the last group certainly deserves credit for actually having been on her side, all along.) Britney survived because of her resilience. She held on long enough for the rest of us to find a newsworthy reason to course correct.
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The media is currently delighting in Britney’s new found freedom. She’s driving her car again and decorating for Christmas early—common things that we take for granted. It’s great news. But we don’t deserve any of the credit. The media is culpable in this saga, in the over sexualization of her when she was a teen and the slut-shaming of her when she dared to grow up. She was made a mockery in her toughest times, as a young mother dealing with some very real health problems. And while apologies are nice, they do very little. It’s the path we take moving forward that reveals what we’ve learned.
Thomas never became a big fan of Britney Spears, but he and I ended up going to the same college, where we eventually became pretty good friends. In general, we didn’t discuss middle school. But one day after graduation, a whole decade removed from our college years, we met up at a bar in Washington D.C. and I finally said, “I’d really like to apologize for what I did in middle school.”
The truth is that I harassed Thomas. He was alone, and a group of kids I wanted to be friends with told me that we were going to corner Thomas in the hallway of our Tennessee middle school and mock him by saying, “Jesus loves you.” And that’s exactly what I did, but when I opened my mouth to deliver my taunt, my voice was the only one heard. Everyone else dispersed, and it was me, standing in front of someone just trying to figure things out, kicking them when they were down because it might—might—have benefitted me. And when I realized that I was in trouble, I used every clue that Thomas was hurting and leveraged it against him. It worked.
I never had a real friendship with any of those kids, by the way.
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I spent a long time convincing myself that none of that was my fault. I was simply doing what other people told me they were going to do anyway. It didn’t matter if I joined in. But that isn’t true. And the hardest thing to address is that ugliness in myself. Delivering lessons like that shouldn’t come at the expense of Thomas, but I’m grateful all the same. When I apologized, all those years later, he said: “I appreciate that, but what I really needed was you to help me then.”
I’ll never forget that. I can’t go back and rewrite the role I had in Thomas’s history, but I do have the power to never have that play a similar one for anyone else.
The same goes for you, no matter who it is.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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