KM, Béal Feirste
Ever since the moment she publicly shaved her head in 2007, Britney Spears has been held captive by 3 things: capitalism, conservatorship and her alleged “craziness”. Over the past year we’ve witnessed a major shift in public opinion towards Spears and a significant upsurge in support for the #FreeBritney movement following the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears (2021) alongside disturbing details of her conservatorship. The image of Britney as “mentally sick” (in the words of her father) is perpetuated by her family and others in an attempt to justify the conservatorship she lives under and allow her continued exploitation for financial gain. However, the focus should not be on whether or not Britney is as “sick” as her family alleges, but on why anyone should be stripped of their agency under conservatorships like these. Often depicted in music videos as caged, in chains and with lyrics referring to herself as “Miss American Dream”, the case of Britney Spears is a disability justice issue that can be read through a Marxist lens. While “Comrade Britney” is often dismissed as a mere meme, it is undeniable that Britney, like the proletarians, “[has] nothing to lose but [her] chains”.
How did a celebrity with a net worth of $60 million spawn a wave of socialist memes? How can someone with a history of defending George Bush in Iraq become “Comrade Britney”? Where did “Comrade Britney” come from? In March 2020, Spears shared a post by Chinese-Australian artist Mimi Zhu on her Instagram alongside 3 red rose emojis, often interpreted as symbolic of socialism. The post referred to socialist ideas such as striking and the redistribution of wealth and claimed that, as paraphrased by Britney in her caption, “communion goes beyond walls”. If we view Britney as a chained worker, held captive within the “walls” of capitalism and its corresponding ableism and misogyny, it is clear how socialism could present a solution. While the Britney of today is unmistakably upper class, she grew up in a working-class family and has long been denied control over her own finances. Framing Britney Spears details how early in her career (prior to the start of her conservatorship) Britney distributed $10,000 in $100 bills at Christmas-time to locals in her hometown. “Comrade Britney” may be a joke, but acts of wealth redistribution and promotion of socialist ideologies imply potential for galvanising the proletariat. Perhaps most significant in this re-shared post however is its reference to striking, as we know Britney has refused to work in the past, essentially on strike in protest to her father and his controlling conservatorship. Can a parallel be drawn between the “enlightened despotism” of the manufacturers spoken of by Marx in 1853 and the oppressive patriarchal authority of Jamie Spears? Undoubtedly these domineering despots would use the same line of defence with regard to their workers striking: “the work-people don’t know what is good for them”.
So as long as Spears remains “sick” in the eyes of the public, her conservatorship will continue under the guise of protection – not sick enough to cease work but too sick to have any agency. It is at this point where capitalism and disability justice intersect, where Britney is stripped of all control whilst simultaneously denied effective care. Johanna Hedva explores the links between sickness and capitalism in their Sick Woman Theory. They define the concept of the Sick Woman as:
“all of the ‘dysfunctional’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘in danger’, ,badly behaved’, ‘crazy’, ‘incurable’, ‘traumatized’, ‘disordered’, ‘diseased’, ‘chronic’, ‘uninsurable’, ‘wretched’, ‘undesirable’ and altogether ‘dysfunctional’ bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, disabled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered ‘unmanageable’, and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible”.
Spears, with experience in mental health facilities and often deemed “crazy” by the media, clearly fits this definition. Hedva believes sickness and wellness to be capitalist constructs employed against workers, stating, “The ‘well’ person is the person well enough to go to work. The ‘sick’ person is the one who can’t”. However, in the case of Britney, she has still been forced to work under her conservatorship despite her alleged sickness and evident trauma. Her sickness has been weaponised against her and exploited for capitalist motives, not only by her father’s cruel conservatorship but also by the sensationalist US media. Framing Britney Spears exposes the media’s disturbing obsession with Spears and how it eventually culminates in another memeified moment, and perhaps the moment she will forever be most famous for; her 2007 “breakdown”. Even the fact that this vulnerable and heartbreaking moment was photographed, profited off and made into a punchline speaks volumes about the priorities in capitalist societies – profit is valued over people. In the words of Hedva, “The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself”.
Moreover, Britney’s unsettling treatment by the US media is also blatantly gendered, with misogynistic interviewers and headlines spanning her entire career. In Framing Britney Spears, the devastating reason Britney shaved her head is finally brought to light; she was sick of people touching her. Britney argues against claims that this was an expression of her “craziness”, stating that shaving her head was instead, “a form of a little bit of a rebellion. Feeling free. Or shedding stuff”. Through the act of physically shaving her head, Britney was able to take control of her own image (upon which her whole brand revolved around) and in doing so regain some agency. Sinéad O’Connor is another celebrity tormented by the media that shaved her head for complex reasons related to image and harassment as a result of her gender. O’Connor has publicly defended Spears and empathises with her gendered depiction as “crazy” in the media, arguing that, “calling someone crazy is the ultimate silencing technique”. Celebrities like Spears and O’Connor are robbed of their voice, silenced and ridiculed by the remorseless capitalist media and its consumers with rare thought given to the circumstances leading to their “breakdowns”. O’Connor is a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries and has also in recent years opened up about suffering abuse from her parents as a child, neither of which factors can be divorced from her ill mental health as an adult. With the survivors of Magdalene Laundries scarred by inconceivable trauma and yet to receive meaningful justice and terrifying laws such as the Lunacy Regulation (Ireland) Act, 1871 still in place, we can’t pretend this is a US-specific problem. Institutionalisation and guardianship (similar to Britney’s conservatorship) exist in Ireland today and continue to fail those in need of care. Under her conservatorship, Britney is unable to even remove her IUD, rendering her case one of reproductive rights as well as that of disability. Similarly, pregnant disabled people in Ireland have been forced to receive contraception against their will. The issues of reproductive rights and disability justice must both be considered carefully and dealt with respectfully in an independent socialist republic.
How then, do we move forward, away from the oppressiveness of abusive conservatorships, parasitic capitalist media and forced institutionalisation and towards the socialist “communion” spoken of by Britney (and Mimi Zhu)? Supported-decision making is one such solution for those experiencing mental ill health or other illnesses that may hinder their ability to make choices. Disability justice advocates above all for agency and freedom, and if Britney Spears (read: cis, straight, white, upper-class, celebrity) and her dedicated fanbase are still struggling for her freedom, what chance do those less privileged have? Hedva writes that, “The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself”. As young communists we must extend this care to celebrities in the media. Britney Spears, Sinéad O’Connor, Amanda Bynes, Kanye West, countless reality TV show contestants. Their breakdown is not your punchline. Britney once said that, “being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison” and it is our imperative to support her and others like her in their struggle for disability justice and freedom. Communion goes beyond walls and solidarity can break chains. Britney Spears has a world to win.