Britney Spears’s struggle is against patriarchal control and economic exploitation — which are core Republican values.
Following Britney Spears’s devastating testimony last month on the abusive conservatorship under which she is forced to live, an array of politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties aligned themselves with the #FreeBritney cause. The media narrative was to exclaim, with a dash of bemusement, that Spears’s struggle against conservatorship has provoked bipartisan agreement.
Spears’s high-profile case is well suited for both Democratic and Republican ideological projection. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called for more oversight. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used the pop star’s suffering as a grounds for his own fundraising, sending out texts that call Spears “a victim of toxic gov’t overreach & censorship.” The putrid Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is being investigated for possibly sex trafficking minors, turned up at a #FreeBritney rally in California, grabbing the mic and calling for Spears’s release from conservatorship.
If politicians’ cynical co-option of Spears’s struggle, particularly on the right, leads to concrete shifts in pernicious conservatorship law, a primarily state-based issue about which the federal government can only do so much, then all the better. As has been well noted, this is a disability rights issue in need of swift redress. The risk, however, is that conservatives jumping on this issue could distort a problem — grounded in capitalist exploitation, patriarchal control, and a national scarcity in truly supportive care for disabled and aging people — into one of state impingement on individual freedoms.
It’s galling that the very politicians who have overseen intolerable attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms are now expressing horror that Spears’s father, as part of the singer’s conservatorship, has been accused of preventing the singer from removing her IUD. “It’s insane you can force a woman to basically sterilize herself under the guise of protection,” tweeted Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.
Republicans offered no such protestations over whistleblower reports that women imprisoned by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had faced extreme medical abuses on their reproductive systems, including forced hysterectomies. As I noted at the time of these reports, such eugenicist practices have a rich and unbroken legacy in this country. Politicians like Gaetz and Cruz, who would happily see Spears be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, have no interest in the reproductive rights of the star, nor those of anyone else.
Meanwhile, both Republican and Democratic leaders, by upholding the United States’s violent carceral practices, are responsible every day for a system that denies hundreds of thousands of women reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.
“Many people describe being under guardianship like a civil death — you cease to exist as a legal person, and somebody else is able to make decisions for you,” noted Prianka Nair, co-director of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic at Brooklyn Law School. If the proposition of such civil death were truly so appalling to U.S. political leaders in both parties, the connected abolitionist and immigrant rights struggle would be no struggle at all.
The near-totalized patriarchal control and economic exploitation under which Spears lives is almost the truest expression of conservative American values. Republicans, judging support for Spears to be a low-stakes political gambit, may well play a part in shedding necessary light on conservatorship in the U.S. Some estimate that as many as 1.3 million adults are under guardianships, although exact numbers are unknown because states do not maintain centralized information. Reports of abuse are all too common.
Yet the so-called independence for which the right wing fights is, in its essence, the worst of conservatorship writ large: atomized nuclear family units, stripped of robust collective support structures and resources; rife with patriarchal abuse, ableism, and white supremacy; and predicated on the ability to remove freedoms from those deemed undesirable.
#FreeBritney graffiti has been spotted around Los Angeles. In one instance, in black paint scrawled on a peach-toned wall, a person wrote, “#FreeBritney means the abolition of work, money & time.” Another wall bore the slogan, “While there is a soul in prison, Britney is not free.” Such abolitionist claims no doubt also do the work of projecting a sweeping politics onto the specifics of Spears’s situation. It remains the case, however, that the conditions for Spears’s form of unfreedom and abuse will remain in place under patriarchal capitalism and carceral injustice, even if the star gains her rightful and overdue release from conservatorship.
We can be confident that the right-wing politicians jumping on the #FreeBritney cause will do everything they can to uphold and strengthen those oppressive systems and ideologies undergirding Spears’s abuse.
Correction: July 22, 2021
This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of Rep. Nancy Mace’s last name.