“Framing Britney Spears” and the Dismissal of Incapacity Rights

Spears is physically fit, beautiful, and successful. It’s not what disability narratives have historically valued over the years.

Everyone has an opinion about Britney Spears, even if they think they don’t. Since the pop star’s infamous string of unpredictable decisions from 2007 onwards that resulted in her being transferred to a conservatory for the past 12 years, opinions have been rife about whether Spears is a prisoner or being protected. This week, FX’s The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears tried to lift the veil on what many people had heard about Spears and her detention, but one word was noticeably missing from the hour-long show: Disabled.

Last year, when the #FreeBritney movement began, disability rights attorney and writer Sara Luterman brought up the Spears Conservatory on disability rights issues in The Nation. A conservatory, as Luterman puts it, “is generally imposed on people with a documented disability who are judged by a judge to be unable to fend for themselves.” A restorer determines how the conservator spends his money, looking after himself daily, and everything else falls under a variety of things that are deemed necessary.



Luterman points out, “Guardianship is most common among young adults with intellectual disabilities and older adults with dementia. It’s not clear how many people are under guardianship in the United States, but a 2013 report found 1.5 million Americans best valued by the AARP.

In Framing Britney Spears, however, the subject is never formulated in relation to disability. Instead, they make it clear that conservatories are usually reserved for the elderly. The distinction is relevant because older people do not always mean disabled – but too often disabled always means older people. The series also limits its discussions to #FreeBritney allies or those with legal ties to conservatories, and never solicits the opinions of advocates of disability rights.

And that’s troubling because there are elements in Spears’ life that definitely sound troubling – but when you consider the more nefarious way conservatories control a person’s medical, and especially sexual and reproductive health, it is reminiscent of the numerous ways that where people with disabilities live have been controlled and should not be viewed as real persons.

Conservatory individuals can be denied or forced birth control, or sterilized, as was the case at the 1999 Conservatory of Angela D., a 20-year-old woman with a developmental disorder. Luterman cites several similar examples, such as “a professional guardian named Rebecca Fierle” gave orders not to resuscitate “clients who did not want her, resulting in the premature death of at least one man.”

“Framing Britney Spears”

FX network

If the goal is to outrage Spears’ plight, why not address disability rights issues? No doubt people would be upset if they knew that the Spears conservators could forbid their right to have children or to sterilize them. Perhaps the New York Times didn’t bring it up because Americans continue to portray people with disabilities.

Spears is physically fit, beautiful, and successful, not what disability narratives have historically valued over the years. Due to the lack of good on-screen display, there is no way that people like Britney Spears can be hindered when problems like these arise. Disability is not normalized, so it is difficult for those to see someone they idolize as a member of a marginalized group.

This is why media representation is so important and shows need to examine the disabled context. Disability remains a mysterious topic at best and taboo at worst. When Ali Stroker made her lifelong Christmas film “Christmas Ever After”, she pointed out the lack of discussion about how people with disabilities lead their daily lives. “I’ve never seen anyone drive handheld in a movie,” said Stroker. “It’s also so funny because so often people say, ‘Can you drive? How are you driving? ‘”

Let’s face it, did I expect “Framing Britney Spears” to raise problems with disabilities? Sadly no. But it’s something that I believe would expand the Spears Conservatory saga away from the #FreeBritney movement and into something tangible. The disability community is a huge, untapped resource, and if Spears’ problems serve as an indication of how a group of marginalized people are regularly screened, it could extend conservation well beyond Instagram encoded messages.

As Framing Britney Spears puts it, Spears is one of the most tightly controlled celebrities in terms of personality and that really feels like a metaphor for the disabled person’s experience. Controlled and invisible until there is a way to benefit from it.

There is no doubt that there should be more discussion of Spears, and in all likelihood the conservatory system needs to start a serious investigation into the disabled. But until people with disabilities normalize and are ready to admit they are members, things won’t change. We should express disability as a need for help and adjustment, not a limitation.

“The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” is on FX on Hulu.

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