Last week, Britney Spears spoke out publicly in court for the first time about her 13-year conservatorship, an infamously mysterious, allegedly abusive part of her life. During her 24-minute testimony, she alleged that her father, Jamie Spears—who has served as her primary conservator for the majority of the appointment—enjoyed controlling her life and hearing her cry, that she wanted to sue her family, and that her conservators should be in jail. “I just want my life back,” she told the judge. “And it’s been 13 years. And it’s enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve owned my money. And it’s my wish and my dream for all of this to end without being tested.”
Since then, myriad celebrities and collaborators—from Christina Aguilera to Iggy Azalea—have come out in support of the pop icon. And those who consider themselves part of the #FreeBritney movement, a social campaign that has notoriously speculated on the reality of Spears’ conservatorship situation, are especially vocal following her public statements. The most hardcore of fans have spent years looking for supposed evidence of abuse in all possible avenues, intensely scrutinizing her social media in the hopes of finding some sign that Spears’ conservatorship was harmful before the star had said so herself. This group is not without its controversies, due to the speculatory nature of much of its behavior in the years since Spears’ conservatorship began.
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Yet the flurry of responses to Spears’ descriptions of being “100 percent abused” have forced both Spears fans and these longtime #FreeBritney supporters to reckon with not just the truth of Spears’ circumstances, but the politics of the celebrity statement too. The seemingly unabashed support for Spears and her autonomy from supporters and even detractors of the artist calls into question whom exactly these responses are catering to and what purpose they serve. And that question is a hefty one: Even if some (maybe even many) of the highly visible Twitter threads and Instagram stories offering Spears support come from a genuine place, not a compulsive need to virtue-signal—as often seems to be the case during a media stir—what does the impulse to share those words with the world via carefully crafted social media statements say about the nature of performative activism online? This is certainly something that the #FreeBritney folks and other mega Spears defenders have been litigating in the wake of Spears’ statements, for better or worse.
We broke down some of the latest celebrity responses to Spears’ testimony, and Spears megafans’ reaction to them, to find out what exactly fans appear to want from famous Spears supporters, when it comes to speaking out on the star’s vulnerability in the face of hardship.
Relationship to Britney Spears: Aguilera’s and Spears’ careers launched into the national spotlight simultaneously in 1993, when they were both cast in Disney’s The All-New Mickey Mouse Club. (Justin Timberlake, whom Spears later had an infamous relationship with, was also on the show.) The career parallels don’t stop there: The pair exploded onto the music scene together—Spears with 1998’s “…Baby One More Time” and Aguilera with 1999’s “Genie in a Bottle”—and were both routinely at the top of the charts throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, priming them for constant comparisons from a music and media industry that was built in part on sexualizing, commodifying, and villainizing successful women.
The largely media-driven rivalry between the two singers peaked during the pair’s 2003 MTV Video Music Awards performance with Madonna, when Madonna kissed both of them, but after the cameras showed Madonna kiss Britney first, they cut to Timberlake (Spears’ recent ex) for a reaction shot, rather than show the second kiss with Aguilera. In 2008, Aguilera put the rumors of her contentious relationship with Spears to bed, telling the Daily Mail that “it must have seemed as if we were competing with each other, but, in reality, Britney is someone that I used to hold hands with. We were silly little girls together on The Mickey Mouse Club. What a journey it has been for both of us!” Since then, the two have publicly supported each other in their friendship.
What she said: In a Twitter thread posted earlier this week, Aguilera described her shock at hearing and reading about Spears’ “unacceptable” conservatorship and her “plea for freedom,” stating her desire that Spears have “all of the freedom possible to live her happiest life.” “To be silenced, ignored, bullied or denied support by those ‘close’ to you is the most depleting, devastating and demeaning thing imaginable,” she wrote. “Every woman must have the right to her own body, her own reproductive system, her own privacy, her own space, her own healing and her own happiness. … My heart goes out to Britney. She deserves all the TRUE love and support in the world.”
The reaction: Britney and Christina fans alike were quick to shower the “Beautiful” singer with praise for her statement, no doubt acknowledging the relationship between the two as proof that Aguilera’s statement was more genuine than most. “I know that’s right my Millennium Queens,” tweeted one user, along with a picture of the pair from their Mickey Mouse Club days. Another wrote that the statement “leads with empathy and sincerity. Legends truly supporting legends.” Fans also brought up the media’s role in the long-assumed rivalry between the two singers, pledging support to both Spears and Aguilera amid the latter’s heartfelt statement. “This is why I’ve always been both team Britney *and* Christina, and why I’ll never forgive a toxic male media culture that made us choose ‘teams’ in the first place,” tweeted actor and songwriter Simon Curtis.
Relationship to Britney Spears: Timberlake and Spears, after meeting on Mickey Mouse Club as tweens, dated from 1999 to 2002. Everyone recalls the time they wore those denim outfits on the red carpet, but not much else happened between them in the public eye until they broke up—and Timberlake released his supposed revenge track, “Cry Me a River,” in which he sings about being heartbroken after a partner cheats on him. Given that they had just broken up, the general consensus was that he was singing about Spears (the music video even features a Spears look-alike), which quickly ruined the small-town, “good girl” image she had been cultivating since her Disney days.
The frenzy exposed her to tirades blaming her for causing Timberlake “so much pain, so much suffering,” as one critic described. Timberlake’s seeming Spears references didn’t end there. Timberlake’s 2006 single “What Goes Around Comes Around” was also allegedly about Spears. And at the 2008 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions, Timberlake said that he might have dated a couple of “Madonna wannabes,” which tabloids were quick to paint as referring to Spears.
What he said: After apologizing on Instagram back in February for his treatment of Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, following the premiere of the doc Framing Britney Spears, Timberlake again took to social media, this time Twitter, to share his support for Spears. (This came, importantly,19 years after “Cry Me a River” earned him a Grammy and brought upon Spears years of abuse and slut-shaming from the media and public alike.) “Regardless of our past, good and bad, and no matter how long ago it was… what’s happening to her is just not right,” he wrote. “No woman should ever be restricted from making decisions about her own body. No one should EVER be held against their will… or ever have to ask permission to access everything they’ve worked so hard for.”
The reaction: To say that Spears’ supporters were skeptical of Timberlake after all this time would be an understatement. “Fuck Justin Timberlake. He literally capitalized off of her downfall and now he wants to chime in when Britney hits rock bottom? Boy, bye,” tweeted Philadelphia magazine editor at large Ernest Owens. Other fans on Twitter similarly called Timberlake out for appearing to again ride on Spears’ coattails and boost his status, tending to his bruised public image post-Framing with his tweet. “You played a role in this too you’re not a hero just because you’re talking about this now to get some good press and be painted as a hero. We see what you’re trying to do,” a user wrote. “The AUDACITY: Suddenly Concerned Justin Timberlake Shows Support For Britney Spears After Years Of Misogyny & A Grammy For A 5-Minute Song About Her,” tweeted the Black pop culture and entertainment magazine Bossip.
Relationship to Britney Spears: According to Morgan Jerkins, an author and senior culture editor at ESPN, Perez Hilton could best be described as Spears’ “bully.” Hilton (real name Mario Lavandeira) spent virtually all of the 2000s spreading celeb gossip on his namesake blog, where he would exploit the traumas, secrets, and mental health struggles of prominent women in the entertainment industry, including Spears.
While it would be nearly impossible to list all of Hilton’s infractions against Spears, it’s clear that his intentions toward her from the start of his blogging career were to humiliate and profit off of that humiliation. In the 2000s, he even sold up-skirt photos of Spears. In a 2006 interview with ABC News, he said, “She wants the picture taken. She wants the publicity. She wants people talking about her.” In 2008, when actor Heath Ledger died, Hilton made money from selling shirts with the actor’s image that read, “Why couldn’t it be Britney?” He also attacked her repeatedly for her mental health. As recently as 2020, in his memoir, TMI: My Life in Scandal, Hilton called her “an embarrassment.”
What he said: In an interview with Sky News, Hilton was quick to claim that he had grown from his days spent critiquing Spears, which, given his memoir, were only a year ago. “I know that I did not express myself as well as I could’ve. I didn’t lead with empathy and compassion,” he said. “I absolutely apologize and carry just deep shame and regret.” Still, he was quick to make excuses as well: “I think we know a lot more, and initially, many folks, myself included, were shocked and alarmed and especially considered for her young children.” He added that he takes “full accountability” for his past actions and wants to “hug her.” When Spears fans started critiquing his apology, Hilton took to YouTube Live, where he told these critics “fuck you,” after saying that he “will continue to apologize for my past coverage and treatment of [Spears].”
The reaction: Like they did with Timberlake, fans of Spears were quick to call out Hilton for his sudden change of heart (or, perhaps, hypocrisy). “It’s [crazy] how perez hilton & justin timberlake got their careers boosted by publicly humiliating britney, then decades later come out & say they ‘support’ her not bc of compassion but of guilt. perez monetized elicit photos of britney & justin got a grammy for slut shaming her,” tweeted one user. The critiques of Hilton in particular weren’t few and far between either. “Do you not remember the career you built on her back? Or the ways you demonized her?” author Roxane Gay responded to one of Hilton’s recent tweets. One Twitter user called Hilton out for his subsequent apology video, writing, “If you’re really sorry, put your money where your mouth is. Donate all of the *considerable* wealth you got through misogynistic bullying.” (Hilton said his therapist told him not to.) For many, Hilton’s response was exactly the type of virtue signaling that only served Hilton’s own goals.
Others called into question the role that Hilton might have even had in placing Spears under conservatorship in the first place. “Perez Hilton helped spread the idea that Britney was insane and unmanageable and dangerous to her children for many years, manipulating images for clicks. Without Perez Hilton, Jamie Spears would not be as powerful today. To deny that is to deny the sky is blue,” tweeted Estefania “Tefi” Pessoa, a TikTokker and host at InStyle.
Jamie Lynn Spears
Relationship to Britney Spears: Jamie Lynn is Britney’s younger sister. A child star herself, she acted in the Nickelodeon series All That and Zoey 101, for which the older Spears helped her write and record the theme song. When Britney started petitioning to change her conservatorship status in 2019 and 2020, Jamie Lynn, who had been accused by fans of not saying anything about Britney’s situation, took to Instagram to speak out. “You have no right to assume anything about my sister,” she wrote. “And I have no right to speak about HER health and personal matters. … She is a strong, badass, unstoppable woman, and that’s the only thing that is OBVIOUS.”
What she said: When, again, fans critiqued Jamie Lynn Spears for staying silent on the issue of Britney’s conservatorship following Britney’s hearing, she uploaded some emotional videos to her Instagram story to explain her perspective. “Maybe I didn’t support her the way the public would like me to, with a hashtag on a public platform, but I can assure you that I’ve supported my sister long before there was a hashtag, and I’ll support her long after,” she said, referencing the popular #FreeBritney hashtag. “I don’t care if she wants to run away to a rainforest and have a zillion babies in the middle of nowhere, or if she wants to come back and dominate the world like she has so many times before. Because I have nothing to gain or lose either way. This situation does not affect me either way because I’m only her sister who’s only concerned about her happiness.” In an apparent attempt to draw the line between herself and the family Britney Spears said she wanted to “sue,” Jamie Lynn added, “Not that I owe the public anything, because my sister knows I love and support her. That’s the only person I owe anything to. I’m not my family. I’m my own person. … I love my sister. Always have, always will.”
The reaction: Despite Jamie Lynn’s best efforts, Britney fans were not impressed. “Jamie Lynn supporting Britney is like when I go to HR with an issue and they say they support me,” one user tweeted. For others, it was the timing of Jamie Lynn’s statement that threw them off. “Funny how Jamie Lynn lies about Loving her sister and shortly after [Christina Aguilera] makes [an] amazing statement saying Britney deserves TRUE Love,” tweeted one user. And for others still, Jamie Lynn’s comments about not being “affected” by Britney’s “situation” were the last straw. “Your sister having no human rights doesn’t affect you? Your sister being denied to marry or reproduce doesn’t affect you? Your sister being drugged against her will and forced to perform doesn’t affect you?” someone tweeted. At the end of the day, the verdict from the most adamant #FreeBritney supporters was clear. As the Twitter account for the Feminists Without Mystique podcast wrote along with the hashtag #FreeBritney: “Jamie Lynn Spears’s Instagram ‘response’ seems completely selfish, defensive, and misdirected.”
Relationship to Britney Spears: Federline, who used to work as a backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, is Spears’ ex-husband. The two met at a club in 2004, and after Spears proposed to him, they got married three months later in a shotgun wedding. In 2006, Spears filed for divorce from Federline, and by 2007, they had agreed to an initial settlement that involved joint custody of the two children they had together. That was finalized in July of that year, soon before Spears’ father took control of her financial assets as part of the newly court-ordered conservatorship.
The two have continued co-parenting since, but instead of the 50-50 schedule they had originally agreed to, Federline and Spears’ sons now split their time 70-30 with their parents after a 2019 custodial arrangement, with Federline caring for the kids 70 percent of the time.
What he said: In an interview with Entertainment Tonight last week, Federline’s longtime lawyer Mark Vincent Kaplan said that Federline wants her to be “happy and healthy,” adding, “If she can do that without a conservatorship, that’s terrific.” “What is best for her, Kevin supports her in being able to do that. … It doesn’t matter how positive of an effect a conservatorship has had if it’s having a deleterious effect and detrimental effect on her state of mind,” Kaplan said. “He supports her having the best environment for her to live in and for his children to visit with their mother in.”
Kaplan also mentioned Federline’s views on the conservatorship at large, saying that, while Federline has “stayed clear” of being involved in it, “if she is able to handle herself in a way that does not jeopardize herself or her children should they be in her custody, Kevin is very comfortable with the conservatorship being dissolved.” Kaplan added that Spears’ current conservator of person, Jodi Montgomery, “has done an excellent job” according to Federline.
The reaction: After Federline’s statement-via-lawyer went public, fans wasted no time spotlighting the ex-couple’s court history as an attack on the statement’s integrity. “Daily reminder that court docs show Britney’s family and team forcing her into a facility for an ‘intervention’ and Kevin Federline ‘dangling the kids in front of her like a carrot’ weaponizing Britney’s kids and taking full custody to force her to comply,” one user tweeted in response to the statement. Others brought up his past dating history. One person tweeted, “Seems to me that no one wants to remember that Kevin was slime from the get go. He literally left his pregnant fiancée to date Britney and get his 15 minutes of fame.”
For all of Spears’ relationships, the demand from die-hard #FreeBritney supporters appears to be the same. As one account (“invented,” according to its bio, “purely to fight for Britney”) tweeted: “Can someone let Jamie Lynn Spears, Kevin Federline and all those involved knows that we don’t care about [their] ‘support’. Britney wants out, you wanna support her? File the petition to terminate her fraudulent conservatorship.”
But regardless of what other people say or want from Spears, what she wants for herself is both most important and, finally, quite clear: “My requests are to end the conservatorship without being evaluated. I want to petition basically to end the conservatorship. … I’m tired of feeling alone. I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so.”
Original posted at slate.com