The cultural reckoning we faced during #FreeBritney is already dead
The way we talk about mental illness has regressed since the end of Britney Spears' conservatorship
On January 25, the Ventura County sheriff's office conducted a wellness check on Britney Spears, whose fans called the police concerned about her. Their concern? She had suddenly deleted her Instagram profile, which fans and the public have intrusively analyzed for years.
Britney is no stranger to this kind of surveillance — her mental health has been at the centre of an enormous and unforgiving media circus for nearly two decades. Despite being released in November 2021 from the conservatorship she had been under for 13 years, she continues to endure often-malicious speculation about her sanity.
The seemingly sudden deletion of her Instagram came after months of "peculiar" posts, including the memed-to-death videos of Britney dancing, which seemed to evoke both confusion and disgust in viewers. On Twitter, she said that her privacy was invaded by the wellness check and "things went a little too far." Britney's Instagram is back up as she regularly posts outfit-of-the-day videos, inspirational quotes, and AI-generated art — but the comments are turned off.
When they were still on, people cast vicious judgments framed as genuine concern for her, ranging from outright shaming to a patronizing kind of pity. The worst comments went so far as to question if she should still be under a conservatorship. It's no wonder she decided to delete her Instagram altogether — all the comments showed that little seems to have changed in the year and a half since the #FreeBritney movement.
The discussion about Britney's Instagram posts frame her perceived mental illness as uncomfortable to even look at — as though the public's discomfort, which comes out of sheer ableism, is more important than Britney's autonomy and freedom. It proves that we didn't meaningfully learn the ways that both misogyny and ableism worked in tandem to hurt Britney. The current perception of Britney Spears is just one example of our societal failures when it comes to the treatment of mad and disabled people — and if this is how we view Britney, one of the most successful pop stars in history, what hope is there for ordinary mad people?
We need to #FreeBritney again — for real this time.
I've lived with mental illness for as long as I can remember. Despite disability and mad justice being so integral to my own understanding of madness and my experiences, sometimes I'm still made to feel like something is wrong with me. This feeling has come out of disrespectful interactions in almost every personal, academic, and professional space; I've encountered endless evidence of the fact that our societal infrastructure actively works against people like me to make us feel like mental illness is something to be ashamed of. This especially comes out when I talk openly about my mental health and reach out for support. Since ableism has touched every aspect of my life, I hide.
When the documentary Framing Britney Spears brought attention to the fan-led #FreeBritney movement in 2021, it seemed to cause a cultural reckoning that made me hopeful. It felt like the conversation around mental illness was changing. As fans brought the reality of Britney's conservatorship into the public eye, people looked inward and assessed how quickly they believed — and contributed to — the narrative of a "crazy" female celebrity.
"We were all complicit. I know I was," Anne T. Donahue wrote for CBC Arts, reflecting on how the media's mistreatment of Britney trickled down to everyday people also normalizing a misogynistic and ableist attitude toward her. "I was far from the only one who indulged in the perverse speculation and judgment … As the decade progressed, so did the prevalence of outlets like TMZ and Perez Hilton, whose payroll hinged on ripping apart famous people in a bid to leave them powerless and to fuel our own resentments."
It appeared as though there was a burgeoning understanding that the media and public's ridicule of Britney was a key factor in her mental health deteriorating. Journalists and media personalities were criticized after interviews resurfaced of them humiliating Britney on television; Perez Hilton and Justin Timberlake publicly apologized for mistreating her years ago. The 2000s tabloid stories about Britney got a 2021 treatment, and reviewed with a new perspective, it seemed clear to everyone that the media failed her.
But this reckoning has already lost steam, as factions of the media and everyday people are back to making assumptions about Spears that are unsubstantiated, voyeuristic, and wildly ableist — enough to make her want to avoid the comments altogether. When you Google "Britney Spears Instagram," you'll find many articles mocking the pop star for posting "alarming" videos online. "Britney Spears Posts Bizarre and Animated Video, Fans Concerned," reads one TMZ headline. In another article, Ken Seeley from the A&E reality show Intervention says, "Everybody is getting to see the consequences of releasing that conservatorship." As insensitive as that comment is, it unfortunately echoes what many people have said about Britney in recent months — that she was "better off" under a conservatorship.
If this is how we view Britney, one of the most successful pop stars in history, what hope is there for ordinary mad people?
Though I can't relate to Britney's specific experience, I know how it feels to not be taken seriously when you are honest about your mental health needs. In a series of since-deleted tweets after fans called the wellness check, she shared, "I shut down my Instagram because there were too many people saying I looked like an idiot dancing and that I looked crazy. Honestly I was doing my best but it disturbed me to see people freely talk about it on TV ... yep it hurt my feelings."
Honestly, I was doing my best. I hear the frustration in those words. Britney is aware that those who look at her as an insane person think they know her better than she knows herself. They would rather scrutinize her social media with the same twisted fascination of true crime enthusiasts than just let her be mad. Because, of course, we can't be crazy and in control of ourselves. Autonomy is for the sane. We must be controlled until we prove we're no longer crazy.
Comments suggesting that there is something "wrong" with Britney, and that she deserves the abuse of a conservatorship, are beyond callous. They prove that we can't fathom someone being mentally ill and still deserving of agency.
The people who want Britney to stop "embarrassing herself" online when she posts dancing videos or scantily clad photos only see her as sick, not as a woman who may be trying to reclaim her personal expression after spending 13 years under the total control of others. In fact, given the reaction to her freely expressing herself, it's clear that people view a noncompliant woman as unhealthy, and neurodivergence itself as embarrassing. They wanted to "free" Britney, but only the version of her that they felt was palatable to them.
A person with mental illnesses shouldn't have to measure up to arbitrary standards of respectability in order to deserve empathy. So what if she's mad? It doesn't make her any less deserving of freedom.
They wanted to 'free' Britney, but only the version of her that they felt was palatable to them.
What Britney deserves is to be fully and openly mad and whatever else, instead of having to live with people casting their own projections of who they want her to be. She doesn't deserve to have her behaviour constantly dissected just because she's in the public eye.
If we can't imagine something else — something better — for Britney, we continue to fail all the mad people in our communities. We continue to have to free Britney, again and again.