Today I had one of those jarring, uncomfortable moments when I realised I was complicit in the mistreatment of another person. What am I on about? I’m on about my immediate response to the video of Britney Spears dancing with knives that she posted to Instagram. I saw it, and – if social media is anything to go by – like many others I saw something that made me feel uncertain… should she be playing with knives? Is she making her little dogs nervous? Is this a sign of a breakdown?
Pop’s princess is going through a divorce, after all. And then I caught myself… Why am I concerning myself with the behaviour of another middle-aged woman, who isn’t harming herself or anyone else, doing what she likes in her own home? Why am I offering patronising pity to a wealthy mega-celebrity whose life beyond the tabloids I know nothing about? I’ll be honest: I think I know why. I think I’ve internalised the “poor crazy Britney” narrative that’s become a mainstay in popular discourse.
Since Britney was liberated from her infamous conservatorship in November 2021, fans have celebrated #FreeBritney while also worrying over her behaviour and stability. Concern is often triggered by one of the star’s Instagram posts, which usually feature her dancing in various outfits and underwear. Sometimes the posts include a cryptic or seemingly incoherent caption – but then show me a celebrity Instagram profile and I’ll show you plenty of images of famous people posing above a faux-philosophical comment or quote… or just an arbitrary emoji.
Britney Spears can’t do arbitrary or faux-philosophy, though, because everything she does forever will be perceived as a symptom of her apparent craziness. Even minute changes to her teeth over the years have been held up as a sign of mental decline. I mean, come on, this woman has a great set of gnashers and teeth change over time – lots of people have different teeth alignment in middle-age than they did while a teenager.
But Britney isn’t allowed to change. In the public consciousness, she’ll always be the teenager dancing in a school corridor in her uniform. She’ll be the woman-child who broke down publicly and was placed in the conservatorship of her father, during which her body, fertility and finances were controlled. Britney Spears has been infantilised all her life and we continue to do this now – I continue to do it now. Not that I make any difference, but what does make the difference is that my reaction is part of a pattern of responses to Britney.
We are primed to see her as broken, as needing rescue and pity. Not as a highly successful middle-aged woman who’s survived at least one major breakdown and still manages to stay in the public eye, posting Instagram videos and images that are labelled “alarming” and “bizarre” and are the subject of widespread horror, disgust and ridicule across social media. Britney may have mental health issues – many of us do – and who knows? Hers might even be more serious than most . But we do know that she’s strong enough to cope with more on a daily basis than many of us could face across a lifetime. Who could withstand the constant surveillance, scrutiny and speculation that Britney has to deal with every day? Not me, that’s for sure.
Britney’s spoken out before about how concern can become intrusion. In January this year, fans called for the Ventura County Sheriff’s office to conduct a wellness check on her. What had she done to provoke such a level of worry? She’d closed her Instagram account.
It does show that Britney’s fans love her and want to take care of her – but it also exposes an unhealthy level of paternalism towards her that we really need to think about more carefully. After the well-being check, Britney commented on the incident: “I shut down my Instagram because there were so 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.”
The thing is, like Katie Price, Britney can be unnervingly honest. She goes on Instagram unfiltered, without preparation of a glam squad to ensure she’s perfectly preened. In a world where other celebrities suggest their flawless, airbrushed, botoxed complexions are thanks to olive oil or living a happy life or some other such rubbish, Britney allows us to see the real her beneath the façade. Like Katie Price, we don’t appreciate her refusal to deceive us with pretence, we either engage in gleeful knee-rubbing at their perceived mental health issues or we shake our heads sadly while feeling superior.
It seems to me that we wanted to #FreeBritney – but only one who never truly reclaimed her body, agency and liberty. We wanted a #FreeBritney who didn’t make us feel uncomfortable – one who behaved the way we wanted and expected. Well, that’s not really #FreeBritney at all now, is it? So what if she’s dancing about with kitchen knives? She’s an adult who deserves our respect. Let her be free – whatever that looks like.