“Britney vs. Disability Law”
Kaitlyn Filip (Northwestern University)
Britney vs Spears misses an opportunity to explicitly talk about disability. Although the legal instrument that governed Britney Spears’s life for thirteen years – conservatorship (or guardianship as it is called in some states) – primarily impacts elderly and/or disabled people, the film does not delve into that. Conservatorship attorney Tony Chicotel does the bulk of the film’s definitional work by explaining what a conservatorship is and how it functions. He states that a conservatorship is a legal process for taking decision-making abilities away from a person and giving those abilities to “some third party.” He notes that it is very rare and a “last resort” (the standard under California law,) and that some have called it “tantamount to a civil death” as conservatorships can encompass control over both personal/medical affairs and finances. However, the disability implications of conservatorships remain subtextual in the film. Britney vs Spears does not make evident what the “last resort” is that conservatorship addresses, or what other options and steps were or were not available in Britney’s case.
Of course, the film isn’t actually about conservatorships per se, but rather about the singular and extraordinarily public one of Britney Spears. However, much of the film’s struggle with the narrative of Britney Spears can be attributed to its lack of context about conservatorship and disability. Thinking about conservatorships in relation to legal and cultural understandings of disability helps make sense of how we can think about Britney’s labor, and why her continued labor while under conservatorship is such a profound point of tension in the documentary.
The film does focus quite a bit on Britney’s relationship to work. Chicotel notes in the film that the legal standard for conservatorship is that a person be unable to meet their needs for food, clothing, health, and shelter. He elaborates that he has never encountered or represented a conservatee who had a job. This statement is juxtaposed with evidence of the noteworthy amount of work Britney did. She wrote and choreographed the Blackout (2007) and Circus (2008) albums and tours as the conservatorship was being put in place, and over the following years she released Femme Fatale (2011), Britney Jean (2013), and Glory (2016). She also did a four-year concert residency in Las Vegas (2013-2017) that culminated in an international tour (2017-2018). She filmed more than 20 music videos and made guest appearances on a number of television series and films. Director Erin Lee Carr notes in voiceover, “The one thing we know for sure is that Britney worked almost non-stop and made other people a lot of money.” The volume and profit of Britney’s work makes her exploitation obvious: her own living stipend was often less than her father’s conservator salary, and yet both of those funds were from the estate that her work financed. As the film argues, he, and others, seemed to be directly profiting from her ongoing labor. Throughout the film, the relationship between her work and the conservatorship is fraught. Because work can be compulsory and directly benefit her guardians, the film underscores, it is difficult to trust reports that it is pleasurable or voluntary for Britney. At the same time, her ability to work is clearly framed as anomalous.
How, the film implicitly queries, could Britney be both disabled and capable of this incredible amount of labor? As disability rights advocate and YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard
asks, “If Britney isn’t mentally capable of doing anything for herself [as is traditionally the case with conservatorships], why is she still working?” This tension is never really resolved in the film because we aren’t provided insight into how the court could order a conservatorship for someone so prolific and professionally competent. However, as Kellgren-Fozard puts it, “The second [Britney’s] mental health was called into question, she lost her rights.” The press at the time was complicit, primarily emphasizing her mental health crisis, calling into question her ability to manage her life and parent her children. However, the film never clarifies why the answer to her perceived vulnerability was to give immediate, total control over her person and estate to the first person who petitioned the court for it.
Over a million people are under conservatorships in the United States, making it a relatively common practice, although this practice and status is not well tracked despite the obvious potential for abuse and exploitation. It is a blunt instrument that could make sense in some cases. However, there are also legal alternatives to conservatorship, including power of attorney arrangements and supported decision making, some more formalized now than in 2007 when Britney’s case first worked its way through the courts. Both options allow for the supported individual to be involved in deciding who supports them and in deciding the limits of the power. In general, there is a decided lack of awareness of these options because they are more elastic (a quality that is legally tricky) and require a more nuanced understanding of disability.
Britney’s case makes visible the contradictions and the limits of the legal processes involved. However, it is also indicative of a broader social failure to respond to a perceived need for support with individualized options. Unfortunately, Britney vs Spears misses an opportunity to unpack these problems. It mostly speaks around these issues, never addressing disability law’s implications explicitly or beyond Britney. By not contextualizing how disability makes conservatorship possible, the story told here is ultimately incomplete.
“What Would the Feminist Documentarian Do?”
Suzanne Leonard (Simmons University)
With its release by Netflix in September of 2021, Britney vs Spears entered a glutted mediascape—including at least three other documentaries—fascinated by, and promising to report on, the embattled performer’s stardom, mental health, motherhood, sexuality, and the conservatorship helmed by her father that wrenched control of her life. Details of the conservatorship compelled intense public scrutiny and prompted what is now known as the “#FreeBritney” movement. No media outlet, frankly, could stay away from this outsize story. I make this point not to indict or excuse director Erin Lee Carr and producer Jenny Eliscu but rather to say that it is impossible not to position them and this text among and alongside the predatory publicity machine that the duo ostensibly seeks to critique.
In many ways, Britney vs Spears follows a familiar playbook of the standard celebrity documentary. Footage of Britney performing, with her winsome smile, to stadiums full of screaming fans—check. Close ups of court and other documents pertaining to the conservatorship, and graphics where redacted words are cheekily unredacted—check. Paparazzi videos of Britney driving or getting gas, while mobbed by photographers—check. Talking head sequences with key players (former managers, former friends and former assistants) as well as legal and psychological experts, all filmed in well-appointed but anodyne homes—check. Attention to the timeline of Britney’s professional life featuring footage and photos: where she performed, and when, and how much she earned—check. Where this documentary departs from the formula is in the position of Carr and Eliscu, which is the schlockiest aspect of it and the most complicated.
As Carr explains via voiceover, in 2019 she and journalist Eliscu began work on the film, which was supposed to be about Britney’s “artistry and the media portrayal” but was also a story about “power and control, full of conspiracy and rumors.” Then, in the fall of 2020, the women were passed a trove of confidential emails and documents from the parties involved in the conservatorship, which were then independently corroborated. The firestorm that followed in 2021 when Britney finally began to speak more publicly, the documentarians seem to imply, was merely a matter of happenstance. Our intrepid reporters were simply trying to make sense of it all, or so it would seem. Only much later in the film do we learn how entangled they really were: in early 2009, after publishing a second cover story on the singer for Rolling Stone in 2008, Eliscu herself became a key player in attempting to help Britney hire her own lawyer, literally passing an affidavit to her under a bathroom door in the Montage Hotel in Los Angeles. Eliscu says of her involvement that, while cautious about participating in a story that she should have been reporting objectively, she realized that “I could be more useful to [Britney] as a good Samaritan, almost, than another journalist trying to cover this story.” (Britney’s request was never granted—doubt was cast on the signature, Eliscu says, and a court-appointed lawyer, who himself made millions on the case, contended that Britney was coerced into signing it. It is never explained how the signature could be both forged and coerced.) This is also the second time, according to the film, that the courts denied Britney the right to her own counsel, even though she explicitly asked for it.
It was at this point in the documentary—almost a full hour in—that I realized why this narrative felt so suspect. What were these filmmakers doing? Were they documentarians or wannabe secret agents? Suddenly, they appeared to me to be play-acting espionage, which also explains the token yellow Post-It notes they affixed to photos of key players in the Spears’ milieu. While audience indignation was supposed to be channeled at Jamie Spears and the web of profiteers who preyed on Britney’s fame and wealth, watching the two documentary producers sit together reading their secret documents out loud, filling in context and editorializing the events, felt to me like its own form of predation.
To be sure, the conservatorship denied Britney fundamental rights to her own personhood; as attorney Tony Chicotel explains in the film, a conservatorship is tantamount to a “civil death.” Spears lost access to her finances, medical care, profession, children, and even her own body. Clearly, Carr and Eliscu feel these indignities deeply, not only because of Eliscu’s personal relationship with Britney, but also because of the gendered implications involved in having one’s estranged, vindictive, and violent father take control of one’s life, and profit from it handsomely. The pair get especially incensed when reading a document explaining Britney’s state of mind around the time of her 2009 Circus Tour, when she is said to be worried to the point of obsession with seeing her children and whether the conservatorship will ever end. Eliscu sneers at the star’s infantilization, noting Jamie’s ability to allow or revoke her “privileges” such as getting an allowance, and says “her Daddy is in charge.” To that, Carr responds, “that’s the patriarchy.” Check.
Where Britney vs Spears fails is in thinking that the filmmakers centering of themselves is a gesture of humanity toward Britney, or that in making her story a parable of toxic masculinity they have somehow served a feminist cause. This misstep is particularly obfuscated now that the filmmakers can claim an ostensible vindication. On September 7, 2021, Jamie Spears officially asked to terminate the conservatorship, and on November 12, 2021, the conservatorship was dissolved. In late November, Netflix added a postscript which acknowledges this change, and quotes Britney’s current lawyer. The final panel card reads: “Rosengart told the filmmakers: ‘Jamie’s abuses revealed in this film corroborate what Britney and I have said in court: Jamie Spears is toxic to the well-being of Britney and she deserves to be free.’” Britney does deserve to be free, not just from her father but, dare I say, from paternalistic filmmakers, too.