Voices: Leave Britney alone – she deserves privacy just like the rest of us

If you search for “Britney Spears” on social media, millions of videos, pictures, gossip and more pop up within milliseconds. A large proportion of these are devoted to detailing her “manic episodes”; her turbulent relationship with her sister and father; the neverending soap opera starring her ex-husband and children and of course, her Instagram posts.

The latest is about a reported incident in a Los Angeles restaurant. Footage released online showed Spears looking “manic” and speaking “incoherently”, according to reports, while her husband walks out, leaving her alone. Photographs show the singer trying to hide her face with a menu, while restaurant-goers gawk at her and harass her.

However it occurred, Britney was shamelessly targeted: photographed and recorded without her consent, with the results posted online for dissection and judgement. If that was a “regular” person and not a celebrity, we would call the police.

But it’s more than that: Britney is vulnerable. She’s spoken about the suffocation of 13 years of life under her father’s conservatorship in court; she’s opened up on social media about checking herself in for treatment at mental health facilities. Why should harassment verging on abuse – and invasion of privacy – continue for someone who’s already suffered so much? More pertinently: haven’t we learned anything at all since Britney’s breakdown?

Britney owns her own image. She has the right to say “no” to being hounded. Yet the world treats her like she is a caged animal at a zoo: there to perform for us for entertainment. We treat her as though we deserve unrestricted access to every single thing she does.

Let’s assume that Britney was triggered and feeling vulnerable in this restaurant: is it the appropriate response for people to record and then publicly shame her for it? Why has her mental health become a free-for-all? Why do people feel entitled to her personal life, her personal space and her vulnerabilities? Isn’t it time we finally #FreedBritney? Instead, the world is stuck in a vicious cycle of obsession that to my mind only leads to one thing: destroying her, blaming her and then delighting in her downfall.

I had hoped the #FreeBritney movement was a turning point. People came together to support a woman we had all let down. Most people mocked and ridiculed the movement at the start, until the 2021 Hulu documentary, Framing Britney Spears, revealed just how badly the public and everyone around Spears had treated her – and how much of her behaviour that was framed as “bizarre” was actually an understandable reaction to being locked in a real-life zoo where she was trapped and made to perform for us. Finally, she escaped. Last year, the court released her from the conservatorship and the clutches of her father.

But now, looking at all the current headlines ridiculing her and judging a truly brilliant and talented woman, it is clear we have learnt nothing. If anything, people seem to be using her newfound freedom to start all over get with the exact same behaviour that may well have led to her initial breakdown. #Freebritney was intended to give Britney her freedom – not allow the public free access to her life.

I’m a barrister, not a psychologist, but through my work I have witnessed many very vulnerable women suffer retraumatisation. In my opinion, Britney’s “manic episode” – if it was any such thing – very well could be an understandable response to trauma.

Just think about what happened to Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Caroline Flack and Princess Diana. They were all arguably “hunted” in one way or another – and sadly none of them are with us today. Who will be next?

Britney won her freedom, but it is time we acknowledged that in poring over every detail of her life, we are complicit. To paraphrase the infamous 2007 video by Chris Crocker, we need to leave Britney alone – for good, this time.