(Top photo: screen shot from the video for "Everytime". YouTube / Jive Records)
It's been ten years since Britney Spears shaved the hair off her head, leaving her scalp and her soul bare to the world. Ten years since she made her exterior match what she was feeling inside. Ten years since she attacked a paparazzo's car with a broken teal umbrella in a fit of rage, when we can only assume she was trying to reclaim her privacy and, in turn, herself.
To mark the tenth anniversary of Spears' momentous breakdown, on the 18th of February Lifetime released the unauthorised biopic, Britney Ever After. Eight seconds into the trailer, actor Natasha Barrett (who plays Britney) has already got out the shears. The Britney shears. And so, right at a moment when Spears seems to be relatively stable, her breakdown is dredged up all over again.
That year – 2007 – was a dark time for Britney: she had lost custody of her two sons and was put under a conservatorship which signed her life and fortune over to her father and her lawyer. The legal framework for conservatorships is usually reserved for extremely ill people, and it basically stripped Spears of the right to make any decision in her own life, or access her immense fortune.
A 2016 New York Times article revealed, shockingly, that Britney is still under this conservatorship, and that it may last her entire life. The extent of it is far-reaching; Britney basically cannot make any choices for herself. From the article:
"Ms. Spears cannot make key decisions, personal or financial, without the approval of her conservators...Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control."
She seems contented enough, though, with a plush residency at the biggest theatre in Las Vegas, her kids back by her side, a coy Instagram presence and rave reviews for her most recent album, Glory. She has, by all the usual criteria, come back. Her story has become one of survival, resilience and redemption. But, we have to ask, redemption for whom? Redemption for Spears, or redemption for us?
It was us, after all, who destroyed her. She didn't crumble in isolation or simply of her own volition; she overdosed on fame and we were complicit in that. We made her the single most watched human being on the planet and then, gleefully, watched as she nearly died from overexposure. We celebrated her ascent to celebrity and then punished her for attaining the very perfection we demand.
As Sady Doyle, journalist and author of the book Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear, says: "To see the impossible, sexist ideal of Britney Spears become human, in front of us – someone who went to 7/11 for snacks, or had bad relationships, or gained weight during a pregnancy, or just didn't always wear makeup at every hour of the day – was so shocking that people wanted to punish her."
As it became clear that Britney was probably dealing with substance issues and mental illness, all of our revulsion for "crazy" women – and for women who are stereotyped as "crazy" when they dare to have feelings or flaws in public – just poured out onto her at once. We wanted her to be perfect, or be nothing. We wanted to idealise her, or annihilate her. There was no in between.
A ruthless 2008 episode of South Park summed up exactly that: Spears tries to kill herself, survives, walks around with the top half of her head missing and is finally sacrificed to the gods for a good harvest.
This was possibly always her fate: a woman destroyed by the very people who loved her, for the brazen act of being female, beautiful, successful and human all at once. Pop culture scholar Dr Marc Brennan says that the tragedy of Spears was, at least in part, to do with her being female:
"The world's fascination with her breakdown could be read as an opportunity to witness the destruction of artifice – something that many would argue was the embodiment of Britney Spears and possibly American popular culture more generally. To the more sympathetic, the narrative provided a cautionary tale of the perils of fame and celebrity. Britney to me is emblematic of how women are 'tamed'. Since her breakdown, she has been controlled by a court-approved conservatorship. This is something that it is unparalleled with male entertainers. If there is a moral to this story, then it is one that reminds us of the unequal rights between men and women in our society."
Where male stars would have been able to continue their careers as damaged, fallible human beings, Spears had to be contained and returned to the form in which we first worshipped her. That's why she's still gyrating on stage in lingerie: her flawless physical form is the only way we can measure that she's "OK" again.
She has, as Dr Brennan said, been "tamed". She has had huge commercial success since her 2007 breakdown (Glory got some of the best reviews of her career, including Rolling Stone comparing her to David Bowie), yet in the public consciousness she is still treated like a 2000s relic. Compare Spears to her contemporaries from that first round of fame – people like Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. They've become nuanced mega-stars where Britney is somehow staid, still being judged on her mental health as much as her performances.
She is a celebrity divided; part of her is present here in 2017, and another is stuck in her pre-2007 image. She is still being punished for what we did to her.