Framing Britney Spears Deepened My Desire for Justin Timberlake to Eat a Bag of Dicks
Watching Britney Spears shave her head in 2007 made me want to do it too. The bitch looked good bald, better than Demi because she wasn’t doing it for a film role, she was doing it because life, and I recall feeling liberated by proxy as I watched Spears snatch hairdresser Esther Tognozzi’s razor and drag it along her scalp, using it to carve her femininity away, the precise curve of her cranium set free by her own hand. This incident and others appear in Framing Britney Spears, a new documentary by the New York Times that blends archival footage with recent interviews featuring lawyers, former staff, and activists to trace the rise of the Free Britney movement, a grassroots campaign which advocates for an end to Spears’ conservatorship. The film casts strong doubt over the legitimacy of the patriarchal legal arrangement under which the megastar has been stuck for the last twelve years. Framing Britney Spears also deepened my desire for Justin Timberlake to eat a bag of dicks.
In 2008, a Los Angeles Superior Court placed Spears’ life, and $60 million fortune, beneath the control of two assholes: her father, James Spears, and a lawyer, Andrew Wallet. This November, Britney attempted to climb out from under the man who once boasted, “My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat!” Speaking through attorney Samuel D. Ingham III, the singer told the court that James Spears frightens her and that she won’t perform as long as he remains in charge of her career. Despite her status as a “high-functioning conservatee,” Judge Brenda Penny rejected Spears’ request to have her yacht-hungry parent nixed as conservator.
No daughter should live in terror of her dad and prolonged fear of a caregiver, especially a masculine one, indicates that someone may be experiencing coercive control, an ongoing form of gendered oppression characterized by a combination of conditions which are documented by Framing Britney Spears. These conditions include isolation, monitoring of day-to-day activities, denial of autonomy, degradation, limited access to financial resources, reinforcement of hegemonic gender roles, jealousy, threats, and violence. In a clip from an interview with MTV, Spears compares her conservatorship to a crazy-making form of captivity: “I have really good days, and then I have bad days. Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”
Spears’ plight emblematizes the problem expressed by Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the Washington-based National Network to End Domestic Violence: “People want to think income means you’re protected from misogyny, and sadly that’s not the case.” Lundy Bancroft, an advocate for the rights of women and children, has written about controlling patriarchs like James Spears and describes such abusers as having a propensity to view their children as “personal possessions.” After working with over 1,500 abusive men, Bancroft discerned a pattern: these assholes disproportionately insinuate themselves into custody disputes. Bancroft explains that abusers do so because they “don’t do well at separating their own needs from those of their children.” James Spears’ insistence on controlling his adult daughter’s life and fortune parallels the abusive custody battles detailed by Bancroft.
As I re-watched footage of Britney taking control of one of the few things she could, her hair, I recalled another bald woman whose advocacy inspired patriarchal retaliation. In 1992, the year before Spears joined the cast of the Disney Channel’s “All-New Mickey Mouse Club,” singer Sinead O’Connor performed a modified version of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live. As she finished her performance, she thrust a photograph of Pope John Paul II at the camera. She ripped it apart and urged, “Fight the real enemy.”
I was a closeted fifteen-year-old attending Catholic high school at the time of O’Connor’s performance and I listened as my teachers, clergy included, talked a bunch of shit about the “sin” O’Connor committed on SNL. Some called her satanic. Others said she was destined for hell. I rolled my eyes and read Karl Marx. Secretly, I wanted O’Connor to ravage me like she ravaged the Pope’s picture.
In the weeks following O’Connor’s protest, which she intended to draw attention to the widespread abuse that Catholic clergy had perpetrated in Ireland, the singer, instead of the church, became the target of threats. Actor Joe Pesci stated that he wanted to give O’Connor “such a smack.” Leathery crooner Frank Sinatra snarled that he wanted to “kick her ass.” Television and record producer John King told interviewers that the twenty-six-year-old “should be spanked.” Meanwhile, kids continued to suffer and my own high school, Saint Joseph’s, was eventually exposed for harboring a priest accused of sexual assault, Father Timothy Lane.
Framing Britney Spears also called to mind one of my fashion icons, Ronnie Spector. The captivity she suffered at the hands of husband Phil Spector, one of the ugliest men to ever walk this planet, is well documented. He hid her shoes to prevent her from being able to leave their home and fortified his mansion like a prison, surrounding it with chain-link fences and barbed wire. He installed an inflatable effigy of himself in the passenger seat of her car, instilling in her a sense that he was inescapable. He threatened that if she ever left him, he would execute her and display her remains in a glass-topped coffin he kept in the basement. When Spector – HALLELUJAH – croaked earlier this month, some obituaries downplayed the terrorism to which he subjected the women and children in his life. Writers of these post-mortem puff pieces chose to emphasize the culture vulture’s musical legacy instead of his lifetime commitment to misogyny.
Under a conservatorship, James Spears doesn’t need chain-link fences nor barbed wire. Short of a jail or prison sentence, conservatorships rank among the most restrictive forms of court intervention in this country and James Spears’ possession of his daughter is permanent. If the court refuses to lift the arrangement, then it ends when Britney dies. The conservatorship, thus, is a yet another creepy manifestation of ’til death do us part.
For some who watched Framing Britney Spears, the film’s main takeaway is the following generalization: Life sucked for girls coming of age in the United States in the ‘90s. While I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, I would like to add that life also sucked for girls coming of age in the United States in the ‘00s, and ‘10s and that misogyny continues to make life oppressive for girls coming of age in the United States during this decade. I taught high school for nearly eighteen years and there was never not a year and never not a school where I observed adult men and women treat teenage girls the way Spears was treated throughout her career. The only elements distinguishing Spears’ story from the stories of millions of other girls are her fame and wealth. Being a teenage girl will always be hell if she lives a country bent on pulverizing her.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.