In Britney Spears’ 2009 concert tour, ‘Circus’, the pop star opened her act within a gilded cage, dressed as a ringmaster, performing several songs from this cage while acrobats and dancers performed around her. Her 2009 tour was the first tour she had undertaken in five years and it was part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate her image and celebrity following her public breakdown of 2007. The events leading up to her breakdown in 2007 and her subsequent hospitalisation, including a 51/50 involuntary hold, would lead to her psychiatrists diagnosing her as ‘gravely disabled’, meaning that she was considered a danger to herself and others. Significantly, having a ‘grave disability’ is also a legal status. Her father, Jamie Spears exploited this diagnosis, and pursued a conservatorship of Britney’s estate. While this arrangement was considered temporary at the time, the status of ‘grave disability’ stripped Britney of her personal agency, as she was not even entitled to her own legal representation whilst under the care of her father. She has been, in effect, under the control of her father and her managers since 2008, with the court upholding the terms of her conservatorship as recently as this year. Given the wider context of Britney’s personal life and legal status, as well as the creative influence she had had throughout her career, we might read her performance and the spectacle of the cage as a visual commentary on her lack of agency in 2009.
As a child of the ‘90s, I grew up with Britney Spears. Her first album, …Baby One More Time was the first cassette I bought with my allowance (I know, I’m really aging myself here). Britney Spears was a pop star that resonated with so many young women because of her perceived confidence, agency, and autonomy in her early work. This was especially fascinating as a young person growing up in the southern United States, just like Britney (a Louisiana native) where the sexual mores and expectations were decidedly chaste. The fallout of her mental health crisis of 2007 did not immediately strike me as troubling. I took in the salacious gossip around Britney’s public divorce, and then public breakdown without questioning the narrative that was being put forward or what any of that might have to do with feminism (I was a teenager). However, the ongoing legal struggle she has had with overturning her conservatorship and the #FreeBritney movement, present an interesting intersection with my research into medieval women’s agency and legal capacity.
Modern law regarding conservatorship, at least in the United States, is not all that dissimilar to laws of wardship that we see in the Middle Ages. The law of wardship in Scotland, as prescribed in Regiam Majestatem, aligned more or less with English Common Law in how guardianship and wardship was to be handled. A minor’s estates and property were placed into the custody of their guardian until they reached a legal age of majority. This differed based on sex. For elite men, this was linked to their ability to perform military service, and they were able to inherit their property at twenty-one. For elite women, their age of majority was lower (fourteen) and tied to an age deemed legally acceptable to marry. The legal expectation was that their guardians would keep their inheritance safe and were expected to restore the inheritance to their ward. For elite women, the laws of wardship had further coercive possibilities, as their guardian controlled who they could marry, and if they were sexually incontinent, they risked losing their inheritance. Thus, wardship was twofold. There was guardianship of the person and guardianship of their estates. This could be controlled by one person, or multiple people, and I emphasise it here to underscore the limitations that wardship imposed on an individual’s personal agency and access to resources. It is perhaps not surprising that these relationships were exploited.
The conservatorship of Britney Spears functions basically along the same lines, although some of the moralising aspects of medieval wardship have been dropped from discussions of her father’s control over her estates. Jamie Spears makes the decisions regarding his daughter’s recording schedule, album release, and performances. He pays himself a salary out of her financial estate to cover the ‘cost’ of his administration of it. What was intended to be a temporary fix, while Britney received professional help, is now a twelve-year-long engagement with no end in sight. This is particularly troubling given the fact that Britney and her father have always had a strained relationship. And we might look to her early career for examples of her attempts to gain autonomy from her father. For instance, she bought her mother a new house in her hometown following the success of her first album with the expectation that this would give her mother the freedom she needed to leave Jamie.
The conservatorship of Britney Spears presents us with an important contemporary example of the ways in which patriarchal legal systems work against women. Because a judge ruled in her father’s favour after she was deemed ‘gravely disabled’, Britney Spears has not had an independent legal status for twelve years. It has affected her ability to use legal representation independently from her father. The celebrity of Britney and the high profile of her case is likely to set legal precedent and influence rulings in cases like this in the future. The title of this post, ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ comes from her first studio album, and the first cassette I bought, …Baby One More Time. It implies a liminality, an existence in between two categories, and may have commented on Britney’s sexualisation while still a teenager. It also hints at her current liminality within her current conservatorship, in which her free will and autonomy is seriously curtailed. We might also think about the liminality of women more generally in legal systems, both historical and contemporary and the ways in which these systems, written by and for men, benefit men at the expense of female agency and autonomy. The Equality Act (originally conceived of in 1974 and currently a bill in the US Congress) continues to be debated and remains contested even though passage of it would provide more concrete prohibitions on discrimination that would benefit a number of marginalised groups that are not currently protected by law. Britney’s case shows us the importance of feminist interpretations of the law and the worrying continuities between women’s historical legal capacity and the way in which current legal systems can be exploited to continue to disempower women. It lays bare the insufficiencies of patriarchal legal structures that continue to leave women, and others, in the margins.
All discussion of Scots law and the Regiam Majestatem reference Thomas M. Cooper (ed.), Regiam Majestatem and Quoniam Attachiamenta (Edinburgh: 1947).
Bianca Betancourt, ‘Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans are Demanding to #FreeBritney’
Barbara Ellen, ‘Whips with Everything’
Constance Grady, ‘Why Britney Spears’s fans are convinced she’s being held captive’
Wondery’s Even the Rich Podcast, #FreeBritney four-part series