Control or be controlled: the lessons of Britney Spears's grotesque story | Gaby Hinsliff

After seeing the pop princess chewed up and spat out for profit, it’s no wonder young women are choosing something different

Once upon a time, a beautiful princess rebelled against her father’s wishes and was locked up in a tower. But nowadays, of course, there are laws against that sort of thing. The Victorians may have shut women away in asylums to spare male embarrassment over what we would now regard as understandable rage, frustration or postnatal depression. But these days we supposedly know better. Nor do parents teach little girls any more that life is a fairytale in which a prince will set you free if you just let down your long blond hair. Yet those old patriarchal ghosts fade surprisingly slowly.

The US documentary Framing Britney Spears, investigating whether pop’s own Rapunzel is now being held prisoner by a legal guardianship imposed after her breakdown 13 years ago, hit British screens this week like a flashback to a bad dream. Watching these old clips through 2021 eyes makes you rub them in disbelief. Did the sexagenarian male host of a TV talent show on which she was singing, aged 10, really ask teasingly on air if he could be her boyfriend? But it happened.

As a 16-year-old pop star, her virginity really was the subject of excruciatingly public debate. And she genuinely was ambushed on camera, aged 21, with a clip of the wife of the then governor of Maryland suggesting that “if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would” for the example she supposedly set young girls. That’s how it was for countless young women, cranked through the sausage machine for our entertainment and someone else’s profit, and the only real surprise is that more weren’t broken by it.

Charlotte Church, another wholesome child star who transitioned into adult singer judged for her sexuality, once argued that the music industry only ever packaged women into one of three boxes: feminist-lite girl power heroine, tortured ballad singer, or unattainable sex bot. Those who didn’t fit the boxes were forced into one anyway, because that was how everyone got rich. Hence pigtailed Britney in her hoicked-up school uniform, lip-syncing …Baby One More Time like a cross between some grim middle-aged man’s St Trinian’s fantasy and the high-school cool girl of teenage dreams. She was as much a part of the cultural wallpaper as Madonna, only much more defenceless.

Two babies in quick succession were followed by what her mother would later identify as a bout of postnatal depression; then came an ugly divorce, contested custody and a public breakdown mercilessly documented by the cameras forever in her face. Most strikingly, the princess shaved off her long blond hair, saying she no longer wanted people touching it. She was 26 when her father secured a form of legal guardianship – more usually applied to people with dementia – over his multimillionaire daughter, turning the child star who briefly became an autonomous woman effectively back into a child again. At 39, Spears still doesn’t have control over her own fortune, despite having been well enough to earn it through albums and touring for more than a decade.

Yet she’s probably still better off than this week’s other 21st-century princess in a tower – the ruler of Dubai’s daughter, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Having briefly fled her family in 2018, Princess Latifa was recaptured and (at least according to a video filmed on her phone and smuggled out to Panorama journalists) has been under effective house arrest ever since.

Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who flew to Dubai to check on her welfare in 2018, says she was told then that the princess had bipolar disorder and was being discreetly protected from further trauma. Now Robinson fears she was “horribly tricked”. Was she merely fed a version of the lie so often given for stripping women of their freedoms, namely that it’s for their own good? So much safer to hide yourself away, in case other men make passes at you; so much more relaxing to stop work, and just let the patriarch provide.

Except in Spears’s case, of course, she’s been providing handsomely for everyone even from within a succession of gilded cages. Her career has sustained legions of paparazzi, lawyers, media moguls, music industry executives and even fellow artists. Her ex, and fellow child star, Justin Timberlake finally apologised this week to both Spears and Janet Jackson, whose career imploded after he tore off part of her costume while both were performing at the 2004 Super Bowl, for “the times in my life when my actions contributed to the problem” of misogyny and racism. It was the barest possible acknowledgment that his relationship (and breakup) with Spears in her late teens made his reputation but shattered hers.

While the media sniggered about Timberlake getting “into Britney’s pants”, as one magazine cover put it, she was deemed a slut for letting him, and it was Jackson, not Timberlake, who was shamed for an escaped breast on primetime TV. But there have been few gestures of contrition from the industries fattened on such distress. The fan-led movement to “free Britney” from her legal conservatorship is a heartening sign of changing times, but this was never her only prison.

So when female celebrities now are ridiculed as control freaks, communicating only through heavily manufactured images and engaging only on their own overprotected terms, it’s perhaps worth remembering that they’ve seen an alternative, and it involves being chewed up and spat out for profit. The lesson young women took from Britney Spears is that you can either be the manufacturer or the product; control or be controlled. Better to be demonised for pulling strings, perhaps, than to be the puppet who is jerked around until she snaps.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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Gaby Hinsliff

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