Britney Spears' Court Battle is More than Pop Culture
The pop star was granted the right to hire her own attorney in a court hearing yesterday, a development that could mark a major shift in how her 13-year conservatorship case has been handled.
I am a fan of Britney Spears and have been for a long time. I don’t feel the need to spend much time defending my musical taste — I am confident in what I like and proud that my tastes are exceptionally broad-ranging from Blackpink to Beethoven. I will also tell you that I saw Ms. Spears perform in concert in Las Vegas during her Circus tour in 2009, well before she began her residency there, and that show was nothing short of spectacular. (I mean so spectacular, that a label of chronically incapacitated would have been astounding.)
My appreciation for Britney Spears has always been fairly superficial up and to this point. I remember rolling my eyes when she said, “I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that,” after the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2003. Her foray into politics and support of George W. Bush was irksome, but it was tempered by the understanding that a pop music star is not supposed to be the world’s biggest authority on national security.
I also remember feeling very worried for her after the public meltdowns began in 2007 in the same way I would be worried for any overwhelmed young woman that I saw struggling. She appeared to live her life under tremendous pressure and scrutiny, and had just had two babies in the span of two years, something that can wreak havoc on anyone’s physical and mental state.
Just like black men and women risk being abused or even killed by law enforcement every day, so too is the threat for a woman of being dismissed with the label “crazy.” While mental illness is a stigma that disproportionately affects the black community, it’s also important to note that rapper Kanye West has exhibited far more erratic and dangerous behaviors trying to manage his bipolar disorder, yet his legal rights have never been taken away.
Crazy is just the modern evolution for an outdated medical diagnosis called “Hysteria,” a “condition” that was rampantly used by men to suppress women who were thought to “cause trouble,” and was determined to be a chronic condition only for women. The term and subsequent “diagnosis” came from the notion that a hysterical woman was dangerous.
Any woman who displayed symptoms synonymous with normal functioning female sexuality: anxiety, shortness of breath, fainting, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, irritability, loss of appetite for food, decreased sex drive, increased sex drive, sexually forward behavior or "tendency to cause trouble for others,” could easily be diagnosed with Hysteria in the 18th and 19th centuries. In some cases, women were forced into insane asylums and underwent surgical hysterectomies without their consent.
While “Hysteria” is technically no longer recognized by medical authorities in general, the concept of suppressing and dismissing women with the stigma of mental illness continues today. It has just morphed into a modern “condition” with new buzz words to justify it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified this disproportionate condition and explains the reason why women suffer from the “crazy” label at much higher rates than men:
“Gender determines the differential power and control men and women have over the socioeconomic determinants of their mental health and lives, their social position, status and treatment in society and their susceptibility and exposure to specific mental health risks.
Gender differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders - depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. These disorders, in which women predominate, affect approximately 1 in 3 people in the community and constitute a serious public health problem.”
Thanks to the recent New York Times documentary “Framing Britney,” it is now much easier to understand the unique pressures Ms. Spears has been under from a young age, and how she has been taken advantage of by the system put in place to “protect her.”
When Britney Spears’ conservatorship was imposed in 2008, a judge declared the singer unfit to hire her own counsel and a court-appointed attorney was named. This extreme measure was done by the court after the singer had suffered a very public breakdown that year following erratic behavior—such as shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo's car with an umbrella.
Ms. Spears was put under a "5150 hold" in a psychiatric hospital for a mental health evaluation and Samuel D. Ingham III, was brought in to represent her in the courts. Last month, Ingham announced that he would be stepping down in his role as Spears’ lawyer.
Ingham’s exit followed an emotional court hearing on June 23, where Ms. Spears raised questions about whether Mr. Ingham had done enough in his position with regard to educating her on her legal rights and supporting her pursuit of legal justice. To the shock of everyone, Ms. Spears told the court that she was never advised that it was possible for her to petition to terminate the conservatorship.
Under US law, a conservatorship is a drastic measure of appointing a guardian or a protector by a judge to manage the financial affairs and daily life of another person due to cases of severe intellectual disability, mental illness, or dementia. It is one of the most restrictive legal remedies that exist in the American judicial system and it disproportionately affects women.
In 2008, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge granted a petition filed by her once-estranged father, Jamie Spears, to assume full control of his daughter’s life. Jamie Spears receives a salary of “about $16,000 per month, plus $2,000 a month for office space rent” to act as Britney’s conservator. It’s also been reported that he receives a percentage of the profits from Britney’s tours and other deals.
According to the New York Times, “In 2014, [Jaime Spears] was granted 1.5 percent of gross revenues from the performances and merchandising tied to her Las Vegas residency, ‘Piece of Me,’ which went on to earn a reported $138 million across nearly 250 shows,” according to the New York Times.
Last month, Britney Spears made a point to speak out about her situation to the court for the first time, telling the judge that she had felt intimidated to conceal what was happening. “I didn’t know I could petition the conservatorship to be ended,” Ms. Spears told the judge. “I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I honestly didn’t know that.” She added,
“My attorney says I can’t — it’s not good, I can’t let the public know anything they did to me.” Spears continued, “He told me I should keep it to myself, really.” The singer also explained, “I want to be heard. I’m telling you this again so that maybe you understand the depth and degree and the damage…I want and deserve changes going forward.”
“I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby,” Spears said. “I have an I[U]D inside of myself right now so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the IUD out so I could start trying to have another baby, but this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children, any more children.” Sound familiar?
During Wednesday’s hearing on the issue of new counsel, Britney Spears said her issues with her father went back years, from when her parents left her alone in their trailer multiple times a week. Spears said she used to fear that Jamie Spears would "show up drunk and embarrass her," referencing her father's past issues with alcoholism.
“I’m here to get rid of my dad and charge him with conservatorship abuse,” said Spears. She also added that she wanted him investigated and that “this conservatorship has allowed my dad to ruin my life.” She reiterated to the court that every part of her life has been controlled, down to her diet, and that she worked 70 hours a week. "Their goal was to make me feel crazy, and I'm not," Spears said. "And that's not OK."
The argument that Ms. Spears’ condition is much worse than is known publically, and that her erratic nature continues to make her a danger to herself is also easily debunked by a recent statement from the singer’s mother, Lynne Spears, who testified on Wednesday via a court filing. "Her capacity is certainly different today than it was in 2008, and Conservatee should no longer be held to the 2008 standard,'" Lynne Spears' motion said.
For anyone who feels concerned that Britney Spears should not control her own money because she might lose it all due to her mental illness, I would argue that this is her right, considering she made all of it. We allow rich men to spend their money however they see fit and when that spending gets dangerous or erratic we call it “eccentric” and they are admired for it and gain more notoriety. I hope Kanye West is having a lovely summer in his Wyoming ranch, where he maintains the freedom to reproduce and spend lavishly, just as he should.
Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines, and analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.
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