In a society obsessed with labels, we are surrounded by amateur psychologists at every turn. Low attention span? ADHD! Social awkwardness? You’re probably on the spectrum. Had an argument with your partner? Maybe he’s a gaslighting narcissist. You’d be lucky to have a mid-afternoon drink without whispers that you’re an alcoholic. The West’s obsession with diagnosing disorders reveals a need to blame someone, or something, for our actions.
And yet I can’t help but wonder whether we’re watching someone showing real signs of psychological distress and choosing to ignore it. Just look at Britney Spears. Her latest Instagram selfie shows her totally naked, save for a small pulsating love heart emoji over her bits and pieces. “Britney Spears posted a full-frontal nude on Instagram — good for her,” purred the Independent.
It’s not just nudity (which there is a lot of). One video shows the forty-year old standing, hands awkwardly in pockets, reciting swear words. Another has her pretending to be dead, handcuffed and covered in blood.
This behavior, excused by her fans as “reclaiming her autonomy,” isn’t normal. It seems like the moral obligation to check whether people are OK simply disappears when their actions match the accepted narrative. The Free Britney Brigade campaigned to overturn her conservatorship — a legal constraint brought in by her father — which saw her personal, economic and contractual decision-making powers handed over to others. It was a story of liberation.
But where is the Britney Brigade now her behavior is becoming ever more erratic? Instead of concern, they claim outrage at suggestions that she might be anything other than fine.
Few seemed to care about the thirteen years of the conservatorship until the final months. Maybe one or two friends raised an eyebrow and condemned her family’s actions, but it wasn’t until over a decade later that the #FreeBritney movement gained momentum. Enter grandstanding celebrities, who realized they could reap the rewards of “saving” Britney. (Probably the same celebrities that have told twenty-three different media outlets that they plan on adopting a Ukrainian.) The truth is, now that Britney has been “saved” – now that she has “spoken her truth” and “gained autonomy” — the Britney Brigade has moved on to something else. Their involvement no longer gives them gratification. It’s a label, I know, but isn’t there something of the hero complex in all this?
Britney’s undoing began years before her breakdown, which resulted in that infamous shaved head and the loss of custody of her two young children. Like other girls in the music industry, she was turned into a neat little product the second she walked into a recording studio. At sixteen years old, her entire appeal was built on the image of a doe-eyed virgin with a sexy, southern accent. In hindsight, things would only get worse. The years that followed saw two failed marriages, drug and alcohol abuse, rehab stints and some of the most invasive paparazzi incidents the world has ever seen. Videos of a perinatal Britney with her young children, crying while running for shelter from swarms of photographers show what she was up against. And I feel ashamed to admit it, but I lapped it up too.
The conservatorship was agreed on soon after her public breakdown, and the next thirteen years saw her day-to-day life, and the huge economic advantage that it brought to those around her, controlled in minute detail. Shake your moneymaker and shut up, she seems to have been told. Since those legal constraints were lifted, it’s emerged that Britney wasn’t able to do even the basics without permission: from ordering new clothes with her own considerable wealth to allegedly being drugged by her family. Britney Spears suffered years of trauma that most of us couldn’t imagine (and yes, this is real trauma) but to say that her current behavior is normal seems wrong. Her outbursts aren’t quirky or sweet, they’re unsettling.
This conclusion isn’t an attack on a woman who is clearly suffering. It’s a recognition of what she endured for years. Yet worried fans who question whether Britney is anything other than compos mentis face a social media pile-on by her so-called supporters.
Her childhood was stolen from her and, like so many others caught in a similar situation, it seems as though she’s been trapped in perpetual adolescence. From her bizarre dance routines to her excessive use of emojis on every cryptic Instagram caption, her behavior points to a lack of emotional development. I’m no therapist, and I know I’m falling into the same trap as those who bandy around pseudo-psychological terms and cod-Freudian pronouncements. But it really shouldn’t be wrong to ask: is Britney OK?
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.