The concept of surveillance has always been a multilayered affair because of its many undertones like care, discipline, watching, controlling and what not. The conditioning of society has placed an emphasis on how an adult should behave and is expected to be ‘stable’. The aspiration towards achieving upward class mobility has resulted in the privileging of one’s financial achievements over one’s physical and mental well being.
With the advent of the pandemic, mental health issues have been on the rise or rather awareness has come about it. So, the question one needs to delve deep into is the reason as to why mental health is looked at from a gendered perspective and leads to infantilizing of an ‘adult’ especially women with examples from classic literature like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre or the protagonist of The Yellow Wallpaper who is assumed to have “temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency”. The controlling tendencies of a society has lead to denial of autonomy to women and has lead to repeated oppression but the recent success movement #FreeBritney is a revolutionary step considering aspects of gender, trauma, mental health, parenting and control.
What is #FreeBritney and its implications?
#FreeBritney is a social movement that began more than a decade ago in 2008 and sought to grant autonomy to American singer Britney Spears, from her conservatorship. The definition of conservatorship involves the usage of a term called a gravely disabled person whose legal responsibilities are supposed to be managed by the appointed guardian due to old age or physical limitations. The petition for a temporary conservatorship was filed by Spears’ father (who was appointed the guardian under Spears conservatorship) in 2008 because the singer had attacked paparazzi and was dealing with personal issues including her divorce from Kevin Federline. The conservatorship was meant to protect Britney “in every sense of the word”. Her conservatorship consisted of two parts including management of her estate and her financial affairs along with her personal life as a human.
The normative understanding of things would enable people to think that conservatorship was necessary and a justified step in this case. The question as to why the movement is radical in a sense is that it did not die down with the passage of time and challenged the putting of an adult under constant surveillance with the anticipation that this would do more harm than good. For example, a podcast in 2019 talked about the allegations that Spears had been held against her will in a mental health facility. The kind of abuse and treatment that Spears was being subjected to is something that “one could go to jail for” according to Britney herself. The conservatorship, in fact, silenced Britney and traumatized her to a great extent. The pain of being separated from her children to the control over her ‘kitchen interiors’ by her supposed caretakers took away the fundamental roots for Britney to find a firm standing in life.The transition came only when Spears decided to not be silent anymore and therefore made a statement that ‘somebody’s done a good job at exploiting my life’ in a court hearing on 23rd June this year.
The institutionalized control over Britney’s life made her feel as if she did not even matter and claimed that every denial to the ‘guardians’ was met with punishment. She said that it concerns her that ‘she has been told that she is not allowed to expose the people who did this to her’ which is symptomatic of the rigidity and oppressive nature of the conservatorship. This is where the debate regarding what it is that makes people feel free and the question of how it is that trauma should be dealt with comes into play. The fact that the movement garnered support and constant interventions from her fans for over a decade speaks of its importance and the place it will occupy in the time to come.
The #FreeBritney movement will perhaps act as an example to stand for and as a safe space for women along with people dealing with mental health issues. It took 13 years for Britney to regain her autonomy without being free of legal battles completely. It felt as if life’s little joys were taken away from her like driving a car, carrying cash to buy something or maybe going out. The movement is not only crucial and groundbreaking in the sense that it has led to conversations around what it means to hold a person under someone’s interference, its sexist undertones, understanding of trauma and its treatment. The end of conservatorship brings with itself a lot of freedom, personal choice and has ‘allowed her to remarry’ which was under the control of the conservator as well.
The movement has not only achieved results and accounts for being vocal but also challenged the laws made for people’s welfare, consideration of parents as the sole guardian, treatment accorded to people with mental health issues and the inherent biases that society perceives as a community. The #FreeBritney movement has been called to raise questions around human rights as well and this is where an individual needs to evaluate as to where it is that one draws the line. The strict demarcations and ways of being need to be reassessed and constantly challenged with viewpoints which are different from the majority. What the process will do is that it will enable an understanding of nuances within an issue and deliberations will bring in multifold arguments from various perspectives to ensure the smooth functioning of granting ‘justice’. I hope we, as humans, do not learn our lessons the hard way as happened with the #FreeBritney movement and be more empathetic with the inclusion of more ‘open-endedness’ in life.
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