According to a New York Times exclusive, Britney Spears told a court in 2019 that she felt her conservatorship — controlled by her father Jamie Spears — had forced her into a mental health facility against her will as punishment for standing up for herself during a rehearsal. That particular detail sounds positively Victorian — because men wielding mental health as a weapon is nothing new.
Jamie Spears was appointed conservator in 2008 after Britney had a public mental health crisis, brought on at least in part by years of public humiliation and harassment. She was twice sent to the hospital to undergo involuntary psychological evaluations. Conservatorships are supposed to be used as a last resort for people who are totally incapacitated and unable to care for themselves, such as dementia patients. That’s why it was surprising when a judge ruled that not only was Britney incapable of caring for herself, she was not even equipped to hire her own lawyer to represent her.
The Times article published this week reports that Britney vigorously stressed she did not want her father — who she says had a history of substance abuse and domestic abuse — to be in charge. But she was consistently overruled. While under the conservatorship, Britney reportedly said she was constantly surrounded by security, drug-tested several times weekly, and that her credit card was held by her security team or assistant and used at their discretion. She even said that when she wanted to make changes as small as re-staining her kitchen cabinets, her father forbid it on the grounds that it cost too much money.
In the 19th century, men hired psychiatrists to investigate their wives and daughters for everything from exhaustion to PMS to remaining unmarried. And leveraging the medical field of psychiatry as a tool of suppression has continued since then.
Moving into the 20th century, while involuntary commitments became less common, psychiatric drugs and antidepressants were frequently marketed toward and prescribed to women, believed to be more naturally inclined toward anxiety and neuroticism, as a means of helping them cope with day-to-day life as wives and homemakers after the Second World War. Even today, there is well-documented research showing that medical professionals are more likely to misdiagnose women’s physical symptoms as psychological.
We can also see how the pervasive belief in women’s mental weakness and vulnerability plays into how society, and the legal system remains so unwilling to trust women who make allegations of sexual assault. Underpinning conversations between men about what constitutes “legitimate rape” and whether women can be trusted to have bodily autonomy is an assumption that women are inherently incapable of rationality on some level; that we’re prone to exaggeration and misinterpretation, and overly guided by our emotions.
That pervasive belief in female mental vulnerability plays out in interpersonal relationships. The term “gaslighting” has lately been used to refer to a wide range of narcissistic and manipulative behaviors, but its literal meaning is when one party makes another believe they are insane as a means of controlling them. And sociologists say that this dynamic generally plays out along gendered lines.
In “The Sociology of Gaslighting,” Paige L. Sweet writes, “Gaslighting works when perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes, intersecting inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims. This second point is critical because women do not typically have the cultural, economic, and political capital necessary to gaslight men — gaslighting is therefore a gendered phenomenon. In fact, whether or not it is exercised by a male-bodied person against a female-bodied person, gaslighting tactics construct victims in terms of feminized irrationality.”
Writing for Vox, Robin Stern says, “It’s also worth noting that in my practice, the gaslighter is typically a man and the gaslightee is typically a woman. In my clinical experience, many women are socialized to doubt themselves and continually apologize for disagreeing or upsetting their partners. Men are not.”
Similarly, in the workplace or in politics, women who show emotion or raise their voices are routinely described as “crazy,” “unhinged,” “irrational,” or “angry.”
In the case of an actual mental health crisis like Britney suffered in 2007, the case for her mental unfitness was already halfway constructed by these institutional and cultural building-blocks. “Any time Britney wants to end her conservatorship, she can ask her lawyer to file a petition to terminate it; she has always had this right but in 13 years has never exercised it,” Jamie Spears’ attorney Vivian L. Thoreen said in a statement to People. “Britney knows that her daddy loves her, and that he will be there for her whenever and if she needs him, just as he always has been — conservatorship or not.”
This statement, with its infantilizating use of the word “daddy”, is based on those building-blocks. That the judge, according to the Times report, would consider ending the conservatorship but not guarantee it if Britney saw a therapist and returned a year of clean drug tests is built on these principles as well. As is the Times’ assertion that the judge and lawyers on both sides worried Britney’s discontent with the conservatorship was provoked by her boyfriend.
The case has not been settled, and Britney’s allegations have not been proven. But, if true, the picture they paint appears to show how easy it still is to use a woman’s mental health against her.