Who controls the narrative? Britney Spears and misogyny in the music industry

Britney Spears is a pop icon. The Grammy winner has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. However, she is remembered by many as the woman who shaved her head amidst a very public mental health crisis. More recently, Spears has become known as the woman held under conservatorship by her father or as the subject of the increasingly popular #FreeBritney movement. Amid The New York Times’ release of a new documentary exploring this fascinating if concerning saga, important questions are raised over who controls the narratives of successful women in the music industry. 

In 2008, after a series of stints in hospital and mental health facilities, Jamie Spears placed Britney Spears under a conservatorship. This meant he was in control of both her person and her assets. Conservatorships are granted when the conservatee is no longer in a position to make their own decisions. As Britney continued to have a successful and lucrative career over the following 12 years, the extent to which Britney still adhered to these conditions was questioned, giving rise to the #FreeBritney movement. The conversation over the conservatorship was reignited in August 2020 when Britney requested her father be removed from control, telling courts she was afraid of him. She lost her case, and Jamie remains co-conservator.

Over the past 20+ years of Spears’ career, she has been the subject of much intrigue and fascination. Portrayed as both a pop princess, not afraid of her sexuality, and a struggling mother who attacked the paparazzi with an umbrella, various narratives have been thrust upon the star in the ultimate pursuit of profit. Throughout the dramatic saga, magazines, media organizations and even her father were able to profit off her suffering and the more she suffered, the more magazines sold perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

What is clear is the rampant misogyny that exists within the music industry. This misogyny is reflected on the front pages of magazines and tabloids. Britney Spears was not a woman struggling with mental health, but a pop star whose public outbursts were met gleefully by those who could manipulate the story to be sold to the highest bidder. Some media figures have apologised in light of the documentary. For example, Sarah Silverman has expressed sorrow for the lack of recognition of the human behind the star. 

Britney Spears is just one example of the music industries hostility towards successful women. Taylor Swift has spoken out about the pressures from label executives to be a “nice girl”. The press has documented various women’s attempt to distance themselves from this restrictive trope such as Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan. It is unfortunately a reoccurring struggle for women in the media to attempt to reclaim their narrative and control the artist they are or want to be.

But what has changed? In the 12 years since Britney’s conservatorship, important conversations about mental health have become less stigmatized. The rise of social media has also shifted the power balance as celebrities now have more control over what they share with the world. This has massively impacted the dominance of the tabloid press and their monopoly over the narratives they project. The #FreeBritney movement has gained momentum in the last few years with high profile stars pledging support such as Rose McGowan and Miley Cyrus. Many who support the movement have taken to Spears’ Instagram to search for coded clues regarding her wellbeing. Despite good intentions, concerns have been raised that #FreeBritney is only the latest narrative to be projected onto Spears. 

This new documentary offers a chance to reflect on the behaviour of the past as well as draw attention to the ongoing battle over control of this woman’s life and livelihood. However, one important voice remains absent in the documentary and that is of Britney herself. Until she manages to tell her story, in her words, free from control or manipulation, her narrative will remain unknown. What this documentary has done is reawaken fans, the media and the public, not only to Britney’s situation but the suffering we all allowed her to be subject to. The suffering that was normalised every time a magazine was sold, a joke made, or a blind eye turned. Perhaps that is what will be taken forward, an agreement we will not allow this to happen again. 

Isobel Broadhurst

Image source: Wikimedia Commons