If Britney Spear's much-dissected foray back into public light proved anything it's this: the American public is not a huge fan of context. Vitriolic headlines broke last week when she appeared at the upfronts alongside Simon Cowell to promote her upcoming turn as a judge on The X Factor. As was vociferously reported her voice shook, her soundbites were wobbly and she ripped off her nail extensions. She was called a "train wreck." She seemed, in a kinder word, nervous. And quite understandably. Britney has far more than her career at stake in convincing the public that she is okay. Maintaining access to her children depends on it. And then, of course, there's her freedom.
In 2008 Britney was placed under a conservatorship controlled by her father, James Spears, making her one of the only people, if not the only person, in the United States, to be a conservatee who isn't in a state of severely incapacitating mental illness or dementia. To meet the legal criteria she should be literally unable to handle her own basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. While we'll concede we can't know for certain if she's able to hold a spoon or pull on a dress, in the last five years alone this supposedly incapacitated woman has toured twice internationally, sold over seven million albums and a billion bottles of her eponymous fragrance worldwide. And yet the conservatorship continues.
When her mother, Lynne, divorced her father at Britney's urging, Britney said, "It was one of the best things to happen to my family." According to Lynne's memoir, Britney's father had been a verbally abusive alcoholic for Britney's entire childhood. But when Britney started to come apart in the public eye, her behavior was never viewed through the lens of an adult child of an alcoholic coping with the strain of being sued for full custody of her children. Instead, as a collective pop culture, we took glee in her breakdown. People didn't want to just watch the house burn down -- they brought popcorn and set up lawn chairs. Perhaps it was schadenfreude. She has everything, I have nothing, how dare she throw it all away? How dare she take out a paparazzi's windshield when I manage not to dump hot coffee on my boss all day?
We want our celebrities to be eternally poised and grateful for our attention. Marilyn Monroe famously said, "Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered." Over and over we, as a collective maw, don't give the people we love madly from afar the space to heal from the wounds inflicted by those close-up. From Marilyn, to Diana, to Britney -- we happily allow the media to hunt them on our behalf, tipping private pain into public spectacle.
After her father was put in charge we seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief like a naïve Greek chorus. Everything was going to be okay. But the next time we saw her she was not the same. Despite the strategic effort by her team to make her follow-up album, Circus, exploit the 'meltdown' narrative of the previous year, the joy of owning the joke seemed to stop just beneath her eyes. She toured with an actual freak show, forced to ask over and over every night, "Do you want a piece of me?"
And now she sits shaking beside Simon Cowell, her nail beds bleeding as the tabloid media clamors to grab a seat for the carnage they're willing into being. It's hard to imagine these are the choices she would be making for herself if she had legal control of her own destiny. If she could, say, get a credit card or a lawyer. If the case is being made by her father that she has to remain under his control because she cannot make basic decisions, despite her earning power, then she shouldn't be an upcoming judge on The X Factor. How can she be deemed fit to judge when the judge can't seem to deem her fit?
We were heartened this winter to hear that she was engaged to be married, expecting this would be the natural moment for her father to relinquish his custody of her. Instead he has agreed to share that control with her fiancé, who was just named her co-conservator. And ultimately with us, her public, whose hunger to have her on display outweighs any desire Britney might have to stop the show.