Everyone has an opinion on Britney Spears, even if you think you don’t. Since the pop star’s infamous series of erratic decisions starting in 2007 — which led to her being placed in a conservatorship for the last 12 years — there have been numerous opinions stated about whether Spears is a prisoner or being protected. This week, FX’s “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” sought to lift the veil on what many people have heard about Spears and her confinement, but one word was noticeably absent throughout the hour-long broadcast: disabled.
Last year, as the #FreeBritney movement started up, disabled rights advocate and writer Sara Luterman brought up Spears’ conservatorship with regards to disability rights issues in The Nation. A conservatorship, as Luterman lays it out, is “generally imposed on people with a documented disability who are determined, by a judge, to be unable to care for themselves.” A conservator determines how the conservatee spends their money, takes care of themselves day to day, and anything else falling under a wide swath of things deemed necessary.
As Luterman points out, “Guardianship is most commonly used on young adults with intellectual disabilities and older adults with dementia. It isn’t clear how many people are under guardianship in the United States, but in a 2013 report, the AARP’s ‘best guess’ was 1.5 million Americans.
Yet within “Framing Britney Spears” the topic is never couched with regards to disability. Instead they make it clear that conservatorships are usually reserved for those who are elderly. The distinction is pertinent, as elderly doesn’t always mean disabled — but too often disabled always means elderly. The series also limits their discussions to #FreeBritney allies or those with legal connections to conservatorships, and never does it solicit the opinions of disabled rights advocates.
And this is disturbing, because there are elements of Spears’ life that definitely sound troubling — but when you factor in the more nefarious ways conservatorships control a person’s medical and, especially, sexual and reproductive health, it’s reminiscent of the numerous ways those with disabilities have been controlled and prohibited from being considered actual people.
Those under conservatorships can be denied or forced to go on birth control, or can be sterilized as in the conservatorship of Angela D. in 1999, a 20-year-old developmentally disabled woman. Luterman lays out several similar examples like “a professional guardian named Rebecca Fierle placed ‘do not resuscitate orders’ on clients who did not want them, resulting in at least one man’s premature death.”
So if the goal is to create outrage for Spears’ plight why not bring up disability rights issues? No doubt people would be disturbed if they knew that Spears’ conservators could be prohibiting her right to have children or sterilize her. Maybe The New York Times didn’t bring it up because of how Americans continue to portray those who are disabled.
Spears is physically able-bodied, beautiful, and successful, not what disability narratives have historically prized throughout the years. Because of a lack of good representation onscreen, when issues like this come up people clutch their pearls, decrying there’s no way someone like Britney Spears could be disabled. Disability is not normalized, so it’s hard for those to see someone they idolize as being a member of a marginalized group.
This is why media representation is so important, and why shows need to investigate disabled context within it. Disability still remains a mysterious topic at best and taboo at worst when it comes to media. When Ali Stroker did her Lifetime Christmas movie, “Christmas Ever After,” she pointed out the lack of discussion on how people with disabilities live their day-to-day lives. ““I’ve never seen somebody drive with hand controls in a movie,” Stroker said. “It’s so funny, too, because so often people are like, ‘Can you drive? How do you drive?'”
Let’s be real, did I expect “Framing Britney Spears” to bring up disability issues? Sadly, no. But it’s something that, I think, would expand the Spears conservatorship saga away from the #FreeBritney movement and into something tangible. The disability community is a massive, untapped resource, and having Spears’ issues framed as indicative of how a group of marginalized people is being controlled regularly could expand the conservations far beyond Instagram-coded messages.
As “Framing Britney Spears” says, Spears is one of the most tightly controlled celebrities in terms of persona and, really, that feels like a metaphor for the disabled experience. Controlled and unseen until there’s a way to profit off it.
There’s no doubt there should be more discussion about Spears and, in all likelihood, the conservatorship system needs to get a serious investigation with regards to the disabled. But until people with disabilities are normalized, and people are willing to admit they’re a member, things won’t change. We should couch disability as a need for help and adaptation, not limitation.
“The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” is on FX on Hulu.