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Opinion What Britney Spears has endured would not have happened to a male star

A poster in support of Britney Spears in Los Angeles on June 23. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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Let’s just say it outright: What has happened to Britney Spears never would have happened to the male version of Britney Spears.

In 24 minutes of devastating courtroom testimony this week, Spears described in graphic detail a rigidly circumscribed existence, the result of a conservatorship that’s been in place since 2008, after her infamous breakdown. The conservatorship, led by her father — and which Spears has for years been seeking to end, according to a report in the New York Times — has since then controlled nearly every aspect of her life — a life in which she, at least at times, couldn’t carry her own credit card, phone or passport without permission, even as she was forced to perform in lucrative Las Vegas entertainment residencies, sometimes against her will.

In court, Spears described a life with no privacy. She was told she couldn’t take a vacation on Maui unless she agreed to see a therapist in person twice a week. She couldn’t drive in her boyfriend’s car without permission. In a particularly chilling moment, she informed the judge that she would like to marry and have another child — she already has two — but that the conservatorship would not agree to let her remove her IUD.

This is no mere paternalism. It’s a violation of human rights. And it’s downright creepy.

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Now think of the countless male stars who’ve engaged in public instances of crazed, drug-addicted or emotionally disturbed behavior. Within seconds, I can name Michael Jackson, Kanye West and Robert Downey Jr., who once got taken away by the police after he walked into a neighbor’s home, undressed and fell asleep in a child’s bed. When they called 911, you could hear him snoring in the background.

Then there’s Spears’s father, Jamie — a man so ragingly inappropriate, Spears’s ex-husband sought and received a restraining order to keep him away from his and Britney’s two sons.

Management theory has shown that men are often presumed competent and capable, no matter their past. We women, on the other hand, must prove ourselves over and over again: our competence, our financial acumen, our sanity. And conservatorships and involuntary commitments have throughout history been used to control women and seize control of their finances.

Spears — reasonably — would like to end what she considers the inappropriate control of her life and money. So far, no luck. “It’s been 13 years,” she told the court. “It makes no sense whatsoever for the state of California to sit back and literally watch me … make a living for so many people, and pay so many people … and be told, I’m not good enough.”

We can’t know that everything Spears told the court is accurate. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest she’s not exaggerating. Spears pays her father’s legal expenses and bills. Her father gets a management fee on deals he commissions for her. His lawyers recently billed her $890,000 for four months of work.

Spears’s lawyer, whom she did not select, has earned more than $3 million since he began representing Spears in 2008. She says he never informed her she had the right to challenge the legal setup. We can only take her word for it, but it’s worth noting that the Times flagged Spears’s attorney for reporting Spears to her father’s lawyers for — wait for it — cursing once in front of her sons. (If this were a real parenting standard, I would have lost the ability to spend time with my children unsupervised within months of their birth.)

Spears, meanwhile, receives a $2,000-a-week allowance, even as her estate has grown to $60 million, and as she’s released multiple best-selling albums and performed in public hundreds if not thousands of times.

We don’t know the actual details of Spears’s mental health. But it seems highly unlikely the control exerted by her conservatorship is necessary or right.

The typical Hollywood or celebrity entourage prospers by catering to the star’s every whim, no matter how outlandish. In Spears’s case, the opposite is true. This supposed madwoman in the attic is supporting a cast of thousands as they make a mint by keeping their benefactor prisoner.

It’s the stuff of a horror movie.

It was easy for many to dismiss the obsessed fans behind the #FreeBritney movement. In an age of semi-mass acceptance of conspiracy theories, this one felt like another — the gothic tale of a singer all but imprisoned by a legal conservatorship ostensibly meant to protect her. Now, it seems, the story was worse than anyone imagined.

Spears is 39 years old. She’s spent most of her adulthood captive to this arrangement. “I deserve to have a life,” she told the court. Indeed she does — even if that means she dates inappropriate men or trashes her fortune. It’s her life and ought to be her choice.

I’m with the fans. It’s long past time to #FreeBritney.

Read more:

Molly Roberts: Did Britney Spears grow up? Or did we?

Sonny Bunch: The opportunity ‘Framing Britney Spears’ missed

Alyssa Rosenberg: Hollywood is horribly inconsistent. We should stop looking to it for moral leadership.

Fernanda Santos: I didn’t see the insidious ways women are held back — until I became a widow

Lyz Lenz: If Biden and Harris are serious about recovery, they have to bail out American women