#FreeBritney and Believe Women

Posted in: Human Rights

Britney’s phone call petitioning a court to end her conservatorship is heartbreaking. The description of how her hard-earned money funds her involuntary medication, her involuntary birth control, and her involuntary labor is chilling. Many see this call as an opportunity to advocate for conservatorship reform and to reckon with misogynistic media portrayals of famous young women. A somewhat distinct but equally important observation stems from Britney’s emphasis on believability. Even though in many respects, she is sui generis, looking closely at her testimony speaks to the ongoing importance of #MeToo’s “believe women” credo and the value of truth telling within legal structures beyond achieving legal relief. Britney’s case may speak to a changing understanding that even imperfect victims are deserving of having their humanity recognized and their stories told and their words available for belief.

First, Britney’s testimony highlights how the past unwillingness to believe women makes the pursuit of truth telling more emotionally challenging in the future. Britney explicitly and repeatedly questions whether the court has believed her in the past and how that informs her current behavior. Her testimony began with the following explanation: “I haven’t been back to court in a long time, because I don’t think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time.” When outsiders wonder why sexual assault and harassment victims do not come forward in settings ranging from the military to the church to the academy, sometimes what we are witnessing is the failure of belief in the first instance. If you told a member of your unit, your parish, your university, and they disbelieved you, declined to act, failed to support, coming forward for a second time becomes that much more difficult.

That reluctance matters not just because silence can preclude legal relief or punishment, but because victims often have an independent need to tell their story and have it acknowledged. While Britney repeatedly spoke of her desire to end the conservatorship, she also emphasized telling her story as a distinct aim necessary for her emotional well-being. She explained, “I also would like to be able to share my story with the world, and what they did to me, . . . I want to be able to be heard on what they did to me by making me keep this in for so long, it is not good for my heart. I’ve been so angry and I cry every day.” While legal settings aren’t always the optimal forum in which to tell one’s story, sometimes, as for Britney, it may be the best forum available.

Second, Britney shows how deeply internalized the instinct not to believe women is even for female victims themselves. Despite a long term friendship with Paris Hilton, she noted, “It’s embarrassing and demoralizing what I’ve been through. And that’s the main reason I’ve never said it openly. And mainly, I didn’t want to say it openly, because I honestly don’t think anyone would believe me. To be honest with you, the Paris Hilton story on what they did to her to that [sic] that school, I didn’t believe any of it. I’m sorry. I’m an outsider, and I’ll just be honest. I didn’t believe it.” To be clear, Britney is entitled to her opinion and the credo “believe women” does not mean one must believe all women in all instances. Yet I find it immensely telling that even a victim’s reaction is not to believe someone she knows who faced similar circumstances. Britney might have embraced an alternate lesson—that Paris’s visibility allowed her to effectively provide a platform for other victims and to lobby for change to boarding school regulations. But perhaps building on her prior personal experience not being believed, it is not surprising Britney was discouraged by the fear that just as Paris was disbelieved and mocked, she would be too.

Third, Britney implicitly understood the need to present herself as close as possible to the ideal victim. Doing so helps build a legal case against her conservatorship, a normative case against her minders, as well as lay a foundation for any possible prosecution of her alleged abusers. Throughout the call, she emphasizes her extreme powerlessness, her tremendous work ethic, and her father’s bad intent, and she tries to convey that despite extreme wealth, her wealth is being used to exploit rather than benefit her. While opposing parties will no doubt emphasize her bipolar disorder, prior illegal drug use, and past bad decisions (and appropriately so insofar as they relevantly inform the need for an ongoing conservatorship), an important takeaway is that even women as relatively privileged as Britney understand the many ways in which failing to meet the ideal victim standard can impair their goals in the legal system. Hence her exclamation, “And maybe I’m wrong, and that’s why I didn’t want to say any of this to anybody, to the public, because I thought people would make fun of me or laugh at me and say, “She’s lying, she’s got everything, she’s Britney Spears.” (emphasis added).

Relatedly, in trying to highlight her worthiness for relief, she chose to contrast herself with another female musician who has also struggled with misogyny and ill treatment by the industry and the press. When Britney details the betrayal by her family, she adds her outrage that, “Their cruel tactics working for Miley Cyrus as she smokes on joints onstage at the VMAs — nothing is ever done to this generation for doing wrong things.” In doing so, she perhaps sought another way to establish herself as a perfect victim, deserving of care, by pointing to other women less deserving, other women who haven’t suffered as she has. Again, rather than building solidarity with other women, Britney’s comment reflects the conventional understanding that she may be better received distinguishing herself from other maligned women rather than seeking common cause with them.

But, happily, the last element of this story that I’d like to address does involve solidarity and the efforts to build up a woman’s credibility. While Britney is in many important ways alone in this conservatorship, the support of fans, documentarians, and information leakers has helped change the narrative and build Britney’s credibility. In the early stages of Britney’s problems, efforts to acknowledge her humanity and relieve the pressures on her were largely the source of internet amusement. But as the #FreeBritney movement gained momentum, it altered public perception of Britney and the conservatorship even as it acknowledged her imperfections. The #FreeBritney movement has reached beyond Britney, too, by spurring legal reform on conservatorships. And equally important, it may both reflect and shape emerging norms of believability which matter just as much or more. Believability is so often a precondition to convincing judges, jurors, co-workers, friends, and others in society about both the existence of abuse and its impact on its victims.

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