“Am I the only one who thinks this is not Britney?” one commenter on Spears’ Instagram post asked, followed by over 300 replies speculating about clones.
“Whys her hair ALWAYS look like it hasn’t been brushed in days! her eye makeup is horrendous.”
“Can you dress her in something other than this Wet Seal shit?”
I am perplexed by Britney’s fans. They have created a highly publicized movement intent on ending the conservatorship she’s been under since 2008. But they also leave horrendous comments like this, insulting her personal style, insisting she’s been nefariously drugged, that her boyfriend is really just her handler, or that she’s sending secret messages in her posts.
They are convinced she’s not making any of her own choices, and with one hand, they’re denying the bits of personal autonomy she still has while, with the other hand, they’re claiming to advocate for it.
As a neurodivergent* person, I see her posts through another lens, and these comments are painful to read. Take this video she posted of herself answering questions from fans, swaying back and forth with her whole body. I recognized this immediately as stimming — it’s something I do all the time, especially when I’m trying to concentrate on talking. But her fans, well..
“Why is she rocking like that?”
“This is something elephants do when stressed in captivity.”
“Your eyes are keep going down And swaying It’s a sign of anxiety”
Others claim it’s a side effect of anti-psychotic drugs, the ones they think she’s being given against her will by her family. (For the record, full-body rocking is not listed as a side effect of anti-psychotics, just tremors and involuntary tics.)
These are neurotypical reads of behavior — basic body language myths we learn that don’t consider the ways neurodivergent people interact with the world. Many autistic people will tell you that avoiding eye contact and swaying are not necessarily signs of anxiety, but rather techniques we use to self-regulate.
Britney’s aversion to eye contact has actually been well-documented — there are many accounts online of people who have worked on her shows and were ordered not to look her in the eye, or to face the wall when she passed them in a hallway. While some may interpret this as a sign of fear or the self-important arrogance of a popstar, I see it as an attempt to lessen overstimulation — eye contact can be intense.
I do not sway because I am a stressed captive elephant, and I don’t think Britney does either — the photos she’s posted from her recent Maui vacation look pretty chill, and she sounds hopeful for the future: “I have so many trips I’m looking forward to taking this summer and I can’t wait to dance in different studios!!!!”
She did try, in April of 2019, to quell the social media shitstorm that was brewing about her life. She asked her fans “not listen to everything you read or hear” and give her privacy so she could deal with some difficult things, like her father’s emergency surgery and another psychiatric hospitalization.
She noted that her family and team were getting death threats due to the #FreeBritney movement and said:
“You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!”
Her fans interpreted this as a fake message she had been forced to post and escalated the movement, which is concerning. She asked for privacy, and she has a right to it. To blatantly ignore a person’s request for boundaries and deny them agency because you are convinced you know better is exactly what the movement claims to be protesting in asking that her conservatorship end.
Her posts have a unique voice, and I don’t think it really makes sense to assume they are fake. Wouldn’t the Illuminati hire a more polished ghostwriter to evade suspicion? (That’s what they want you to think.)
Honestly, her Instagram feed looks exactly how I imagine a neurodivergent 39-year-old mom from Louisiana who’s been famous since childhood and is now taking time off work to find herself again would look — inspirational quotes from Pinterest, Rococo paintings, and repetitive selfies in her favorite crop-tops.
In February, her social media manager Cassie Petrey posted:
“Britney creates her own posts and writes her own captions for Instagram. She finds the google images, Pinterest images, quotes, memes, and everything else herself. Nobody is suggesting any of that stuff to her.”
It seems her fans have a rather superficial understanding of disability rights issues like conservatorships, and I question whether they really even care about disability rights at all, considering they’re rallying around someone worth $60 million dollars, who reportedly spent over $16,000 on a four-night stay in a Beverly Hills hotel in 2018. That’s $6,600 more than the maximum SSI benefits a disabled individual in the US can receive in an entire year.
There is a lot to be said here about how an entire movement has formed around the rights of a multi-millionaire who takes private jets to Hawaii while many disabled people’s incomes do not surpass the poverty line, and a disabled person receiving SSI cannot legally get married without losing their benefits. Would these activists show up to protest those issues like they show up for Britney’s hearings?
Much has been written about the perils of conservatorships (and Britney’s case has certainly sparked more interest in reforming a deeply flawed system), but most of Britney’s fans parrot wild inaccuracies about the nature of them.
Even journalists make frequent claims that they are rare, and only for elderly people with dementia, which isn’t true, as Sara Luterman recently pointed out in The New Republic — many young disabled people are under conservatorship, and there is even a “school-to-conservatorship pipeline” for teenagers with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Britney is reportedly under a probate conservatorship, which means she has the right to petition the court for it to end. As of yet, she has not done this — rather, she is pushing for her father to be removed as conservator, and for a professional fiduciary to handle her estate permanently. She is expected to speak to a judge herself on June 23.
Her former co-conservator, Andrew Wallet, previously referred to the conservatorship as a “hybrid business model”, and while her fans are obsessed with the dark aspects of the arrangement, they have overlooked the ways the conservatorship has also enabled her to grow her wealth.
In 2014, journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner reported that Ceasar’s Palace “insisted on the conservatorship just in case, and that it must remain throughout her contract.” That contract was worth $15 million dollars, and it would not have been available to her otherwise, most likely due to the fact that the press smeared her mental health and character so completely in 2008.
A conservatorship might have been a tactic put in place to ensure she could work again, continuing to support what Fenton Bailey, co-director of the documentary I Am Britney Jean, called the Britneyplex:
“There’s Britney Spears the pop star. And then there’s Britneyplex, which is the enormous machine built around Britney Spears. It’s not just one person. It becomes like an aircraft carrier, all people, personnel, interrelation business, and industries.”
This is not to defend conservatorships — there are certainly alternatives like supported decision-making that give disabled people more autonomy, and it’s disgusting that we live in a world where human beings have become brands with market values to protect. But this situation is unprecedented not because conservatorships for young people are rare, but because of the immense capital and internationally publicized stigma involved, and I just don’t think it’s as simple as the damsel-in-distress story that’s being presented by her fans on social media.
I’m not sure the Free Britney movement is for disabled people, so much as it’s a desperate push to separate her from us. Many seem convinced that what they perceive as odd behavior on her social media can’t really be her, because pop stars don’t act like that. She must be drugged or an imposter because otherwise she is weird.
But Britney frequently refers to herself as weird on her Instagram — in fact, she has identified as weird for years. In a 2016 interview with Flaunt magazine, she said:
“Oh, I’m so weird. I get nervous in a lot of situations. Parties, clubs. When there are a lot of people around, I’m a weird, anxiety-ridden person.” However she added that her anxieties are under more control now, because ‘guidelines’ are in place.”
I see self-describing as “weird” in this way to be an acknowledgement of difference, an instinctive understanding that your way of being falls outside social norms, but maybe you don’t have any other language with which to express that feeling.
In a post on August 24, she discussed her collection of 33 crystals, and described herself as a “weird kid” who “would rather stay in the driveway and look for pretty rocks than play”, saying she used to keep a rock in her pocket to hold when she felt anxious during interviews.
Many neurodivergent people find deep comfort and satisfaction in their interests, and especially in collecting objects related to them. It’s a way to create a sense of control and calm in an intense world.
“I’m taking this time to find myself and go back to the things I loved when I was younger !!!!” she wrote.
Britney’s dance videos are incessant, and they exude joy. She wrote that the past two years of her Instagram posting have been an exercise is finding her “love of dancing again” — but the comments of these videos are full of people who make fun of her or speculate wildly about her mental state.
The videos are eccentric, sure, but they look like stim dancing to me — intensely freeform and expressive, made up of repetitive movements that seem to be driven by very particular details in the music.
She often makes remarks like: “I should [put] makeup on and brush my hair but I just wanna dance.” Other people reply with insults about her lack of personal hygiene, question her sanity or express concern that she’s on meth, but when I look at these videos, I just see someone locked in hyperfocus on an interest she loves so passionately, the minutiae of everyday life do not take priority.
It’s been rumored in the press that Britney has a bipolar diagnosis, though I can’t find any official confirmation of this (and honestly, it’s none of our business). The only direct quote I could find was from I Am Britney Jean in 2013, where she was discussing how she had always been a shy person not made for fame:
“It’s almost like my alter ego when I get on stage, I turn into this different person. Seriously, bipolar disorder,” she said, and then laughed.
It was a nervous joke, but bipolar disorder doesn’t involve alter egos you can turn on and off when you want to — it’s a cyclical shift in extreme mood states, thought to be tied to the circadian rhythm.
To be clear, I consider bipolar to fall under the neurodivergent umbrella, too, but it sounds a lot more like she was describing the experience of masking, where a neurodivergent person (sometimes unconsciously) performs a persona to help them get through stressful social situations.
What if Britney’s “odd behavior” is just her unmasking for the first time?
In a 2016 interview with Marie Claire, she discussed being forced to perform for others:
“My life was controlled by too many people and that doesn’t really let you be yourself,” she explained. “In that situation, when you’re not in control, you become less excited, and there’s less passion when it comes to music. I wrote back then that I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. I was trying to please everyone around me because that’s who I am deep inside.’”
For Britney, the experience of performing an inauthentic self for the public must have been amplified to an inhumane degree — she was thrust into the role of “perfect superstar” from a very young age, and had to uphold that image for decades while the entire world watched.
In a video essay titled The Systemic Abuse of Celebrities, Youtuber Broey Deschanel points out how the press leapt on the discrepancies they perceived between Britney’s private and public selves, making her “the symbol of white trash womanhood”:
“Britney’s choices to continue shopping at Walmart or chew gum in interviews…or use a public washroom barefoot, were starting to clash with her extreme wealth and delicate Southern belle persona.”
“…she failed to meet America’s expectations of motherhood: partying, displaying a sexual intimacy with her husband in the public sphere, God forbid, and on one fateful occasion, driving in the front seat with her baby, to which she responded: ‘I did it with my dad! I’d sit in his lap when [he drove]. We’re country!”
Being scrutinized, stalked, and publicly mischaracterized by international media throughout your formative years would be traumatizing for anyone, and psychiatry has a long history of pathologizing women who have good reason to be in mental distress.
The media has consistently presented Britney as a tragedy and frequently justified her need for a conservatorship. But the recent New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears (which she said embarrassed her: “I cried for two weeks”) illustrated the context around her public breakdowns in a way that made them seem pretty reasonable.
Don’t you know a woman who’s impulsively shaved her head in a moment of rebellion? Wouldn’t you be sick of constant harassment by hoards of photographers every time you left your house? Asking you personal questions about your children and your divorce? Wouldn’t you just want to smash their fucking car windows?
In an unexpected rabbit hole of self-discovery that many of us have experienced in Covid isolation, Britney has returned to a version of herself that existed before the world forced her into a box, and she’s stated that she no longer wants to perform. She means perform in a career sense, but I can’t help but see it as a reference to the persona she’s been performing her entire life, too.
What if she is now showing her fans who she really is, and it’s so incongruent with the perfect image they’ve been sold of her, they’re resorting to wild conspiracies to explain her “weird” self away?
“I get how some people might not like my posts or even understand them, but this is me being happy. This is me being authentic and as real as it gets!!!!! I want to inspire people to do the same and just be themselves without pleasing others…that’s the key to happiness !!!!!!”
If you truly believe in personal autonomy, you need to listen to what Britney says about her own life and let her take the lead. Stop speculating that she’s being mind-controlled by the CIA, stop speaking for her, and stop stigmatizing those of us who self-describe as weird.
Let Britney be who she is. Accept our neurodivergent Princess of Pop.
*I use neurodivergent as an umbrella term to refer to those of us who fall outside what is considered "normal" behavior, who are pathologized, institutionalized, and medicated for our natural ways of being. It is not a type of brain, but a cultural and social distinction, dependent on time and place. You can read more about the neurodiversity paradigm here.