As Britney Spears celebrates an end to the conservatorship that controlled her life for almost 14 years, this extract from ‘Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon’ by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike investigates how the pop star helped shine a glaring light on the fight over women’s bodies in America.
Shades of [Margaret] Atwood’s terrifying classic [A Handmaid’s Tale] came to mind when Britney Spears spoke in court in June 2021 as part of her conservatorship trial. It was as though she were reading from an updated, 21st-century, autobiographical version of the story. For Spears, her worth is as a money-making machine, rather than a baby-making one. Instead of being a vessel for producing offspring, Britney has been a vessel for producing cash, with the conservatorship forcing her to take part in tours, performances and other profitable deals. Deemed legally incapable of making any decisions on her own, Britney had been stripped of the right to control even her most intimate physicality.
As Spears made her statement, her voice was audibly shaking with rage. She seemed completely alienated from her own being, as though – somewhat fittingly – it belonged to someone else. “My precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past f***ing 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty… so perfect… when he works me so hard,” Britney said. From the beginning of the conservatorship, it has been claimed that Jamie Spears “understood his role as conservator to require prioritising not his daughter’s mental health so much as her Barbie-doll public image”. A crucial part of this was taking control of Britney’s body. Just days after the mandate was put in place in 2008, family friend Jacqueline Butcher said she witnessed a startling exchange between father and daughter, which she recounted in an interview with the New Yorker: “Jamie said, ‘Baby…’ – I thought he was going to say, ‘We love you, but you need help’ – but what he said was, ‘You’re fat. Daddy’s gonna get you on a diet and a trainer and you’re gonna get back in shape.’” Butcher also alleged that, when anyone questioned Jamie about a decision made on behalf of Britney, he would scream, “I am Britney Spears!”
In her testimony, Britney went on to talk about being forced to sign contracts, not being able to choose her own choreography, being placed on lithium by a therapist after she said no to performing at a show in Las Vegas, and not feeling heard or believed – all while her father was her conservator. “The control he had over someone as powerful as me – he loved the control to hurt his own daughter, 100,000 per cent,” Spears proclaimed, voice trembling with anger. While all of Britney’s allegations were shocking, one statement in particular felt like it could have been lifted directly from Handmaid: “I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby, I have an IUD 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.” She concluded by saying, “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does, by having a child, a family, any of those things and more.”
However, as much as American women are led to believe that they have control and choice over their bodies, in legislative terms, they do not. Every year, more and more rights are being chipped away, Handmaid-style… In 2021, Arkansas banned all abortions except in medical emergencies, regardless of whether a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Meanwhile, Texas outlawed abortion after the detection of a foetal heartbeat. (This typically happens at about six weeks – often before a woman even realises she is pregnant.) Finally, Republican governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed an outright ban on abortion. With the Supreme Court stacked with a 6–3 conservative majority after Donald Trump’s presidency, right-to-choose groups are fearful that parts of the 1973 ruling could be overturned, further restricting access for women to terminate pregnancies. Spears’s account of being forcibly denied the freedom to control her own body outraged many. However, it also raised a valid question: why does it take a pop star in an unacceptable situation for the world to object?
Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is out now RRP £20 (Nine Eight Books)