The #FreeBritney movement: What is it, and why is it trending now?

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music

Earlier this month, Britney Spears defended her social media activity, insisting, “I get how some people might not like my posts or even understand them, but this is me being happy. This is me being authentic and as real as it gets!!!!!”

It was unclear what specifically prompted this statement, but the pop star’s 25 million Instagram followers have been interpreting her recent posts — which have included solo dance freestyles, workout videos in her nearly burned-down home gym, repetitive fashion runway struts set to downtempo Billie Eilish songs, and blank-eyed selfies against a stark white wall — as coded cries for help. For instance, when fans have asked her to wear a yellow shirt or upload a picture of doves to signal if she is in jeopardy, Spears has appeared to respond in subsequent posts. 

As a result, the #FreeBritney hashtag has recently trended on social media and has flooded Spears’s own Instagram comments, with famous followers like Rebel Wilson, Rose McGowan, Ariel Winter, Paris Hilton, and her Crossroads movie co-star Taryn Manning showing their support in subtle or not-so-subtle ways. More than 100,000 particularly concerned fans have even petitioned the White House, urging for Spears’s emancipation. But how, exactly, is Britney supposedly not free? From what — or whom — does she need to be liberated? And why is this movement regaining traction more than a decade after the “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” singer, now age 38, began living under her father’s legal conservatorship?

The complicated situation dates back to 2007, a rock-bottom year for Spears marked by her messy divorce and custody battle with Kevin Federline; a short-lived stint in rehab; a shocking head-shaving meltdown at a hair salon in Tarzana, Calif; constant harassment by the paparazzi that culminated in the pop star angrily attacking one tabloid photographer with an umbrella; and a disastrous performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. The following year, after her two 5150 psychiatric holds, Britney’s dad, Jamie Spears, petitioned the L.A. County Superior Court for an emergency “temporary conservatorship”; the arrangement became permanent by the end of 2008. Jamie and attorney Andrew Wallet later filed for multiple extensions — and, 12 years later, Britney still isn’t in control of her life, career, and $60 million fortune.

Among the many things that Britney reportedly cannot do without a conservator’s permission are leave her house, drive a car, spend any of her money, sell her property, make her own business decisions, see her two children, or receive unapproved visitors. In 2008, Rolling Stone reported her venting in a taped phone call, “I basically just want my life back. … I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself. I want to be able to say who’s going to be my security guard.” That same year, in the MTV documentary For the Record, she said, “Even when you go to jail there’s always the time that you know you’re going to get out. … I think it’s too in control. There’s no excitement, there’s no passion. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”

According to various legal experts, this is an unusually restrictive arrangement for someone so young, not to mention for a seemingly highly functioning entertainer who has worked steadily throughout the years, earning millions of dollars. Since 2008, Britney has released four albums, embarked on three international concert tours, starred in a four-year Las Vegas residency, and served as a panelist on The X Factor (a gig that earned her $15 million for one season, which at the time made her the highest-paid judge in TV singing competition history).

However, sources close to the superstar have repeatedly insisted that she is not being controlled or manipulated and does have a say in her affairs. Britney’s lawyer, Stanton Stein, told the Los Angeles Times in 2019 that she is "always involved in every career and business decision,” and Larry Rudolph, who managed her from 1998 to 2004 and resumed those duties in 2008, told the Washington Post, "The conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can't do on her own right now." More recently, a report this week by TMZ states that Britney is not being held hostage — explaining that the last two years have been challenging for her, after her medication ceased working and her doctors struggled to figure out a new dosage and combination. The TMZ report acknowledges that the singer does occasionally push for “more freedom,” but says she “hasn’t been especially stable managing her mental illness.”

Britney’s fans, however, aren’t buying it — and so, they have continued to rally against her perceived exploitation, sometimes even showing up at the courthouse to protest her legal hearings. The origins of the #FreeBritney movement practically coincide with the origins of social media — a fan site, FreeBritney.net, was launched way back in 2009 to question the necessity of this conservatorship, and the website remains up and running to this day — but the hashtag really picked up momentum last year, after a series of eyebrow-raising developments.

In January 2019, Britney canceled her new Vegas residency, ostensibly to spend time with her ailing father, who had nearly died after his colon ruptured in November 2018. Two months later, Wallet suddenly resigned as Britney’s co-conservator, explaining in court filings that the “conservatorship [was] engaged in numerous ongoing business activities requiring immediate attention” and that Britney would suffer “substantial detriment, irreparable harm, and immediate danger” if he didn’t step down. In April 2019, Britney, reportedly distressed by her father’s illness, began a month-long stay at a psychiatric facility to “focus on self-care,” followed by, according to E!, an "indefinite work hiatus." (Her last album, Glory, was released in 2016.) Finally, in September 2019, Jamie asked to be temporarily removed as his daughter’s primary conservator; the official reason was so he could focus on his health, but the move came after he was accused of physically abusing Britney and Federline’s 13-year-old son, Sean. Britney’s care manager, Jodi Montgomery, then took over Jamie’s duties.

Also in 2019, comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray launched a podcast called Britney’s Gram that analyzed the singer’s Instagram posts. The podcast was humorous at first, but it eventually took a more serious tone. One episode included audio of a voicemail from a man who claimed to be a paralegal previously involved in the conservatorship case; in the message, the mysterious informant claimed that Jamie had actually pulled Britney from her Vegas show because she had stopped taking her medication, and that her psychiatric hospitalization had actually lasted three months, not just 30 days. The anonymous caller also warned that Britney was being held against her will.

A week after that podcast’s “emergency episode” dropped, Britney took to Instagram to assure her fans that she was fine, posting, “Don’t believe everything you read and hear.” But the #FreeBritney movement has gained momentum ever since — especially this week, after Britney’s former photographer, Andrew Gallery, took to TikTok to read aloud a letter, written in the third person, that he claimed Britney sent him in 2009. “She was lied to and set up. Her children were taken away and she did spin out of control which any mother would in those circumstances,” the letter read. Gallery explained that he had remained silent before because he was “under a contract,” but that the growing #FreeBritney movement had “compelled” him to speak up. The Daily Mail printed pages from this letter, which Gallery has claimed are in Britney’s handwriting. 

As the #FreeBritney movement grows — while both Britney and her camp continue to insist that all is well — fans have pointed out the recurring theme of imprisonment and control in her songs (“Piece of Me,” “My Prerogative,” “Circus,” “Lucky,” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Overprotected,” “Not a Girl…”); have floated the conspiracy theory that her record label forced her to sing in a nasal, babyish tone because her natural, deeper singing voice was too similar to that of her Disney teen-pop rival, Christina Aguilera; and have brought up Britney’s mythical 2005 “lost album,” Original Doll, a dark and self-penned record that her label allegedly refused to release, a rejection that purportedly contributed to the singer’s mental breakdown. The fashion-watchdog Instagram account @DietPrada has broken down all of these allegations in the form of a multi-page “PSA.”

In 2019, Britney’s mother, Lynne Spears, filed a legal motion to be involved in the conservatorship process, and last Monday, she filed a request with the Los Angeles County Court requesting that she be included in her daughter's finances and receive special notice on "all matters" concerning Britney’s SJB Revocable Trust. A source told Entertainment Tonight that Britney asked her mom to do this. Fans have also claimed that Lynne is a supporter of the #FreeBritney movement, screenshotting Lynne’s supposed "likes" on various Instagram comments.

Earlier this year, Britney’s conservatorship was extended, after a judge decided that a hearing could not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as a new court date looms, the #FreeBritney movement continues to garner even more attention. But last year, Rudolph insisted to the Washington Post that everyone involved — including Jamie Spears — has the beleaguered pop star’s best interests at heart. “[Jamie] doesn't want this to continue forever," Rudolph declared. "It's his daughter. He wants to see her happy. A functional life without any intervention like this." The next conservatorship hearing will take place Aug. 22.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

• Rose McGowan on shaving her head, ‘breaking up with the world’ and why Hollywood is a ‘cult’

• Ellie Goulding opens up about mental health, career struggles and comeback album 'Brightest Blue'

• Britney Spears celebrates 20th anniversary of 'Oops! I Did It Again' album: 'Thank you for sticking with me'

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