Subscriber OnlyOpinion

The story of Britney Spears is a classic fairy tale

From childhood we are inured to fables about females having their powers taken away

Britney Spears posted a message to Instagram on Friday. "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales," it read; a quote attributed to Albert Einstein.

In the caption, she explained that though she’d been portraying her life as “pretty amazing” – a fairy tale, if you like – the truth, as anyone who followed her court hearing in Los Angeles this week would know, was very different.

But the story of Britney Spears is a classic fairy tale. From childhood, we are inured to fables of girls and women who get locked up, their powers taken away, forced to work, drugged, banned from being married, their reproductive lives taken out of their control. If you want your little girls to be compliant, read them fairy tales, Einstein might have said.

At the hearing, she continued her fight to get her 13-year “conservatorship” – a guardianship normally reserved for people with dementia or severe disabilities – lifted. She wants to be able to take control of her money from her 68-year-old father. But what this woman of 39 really wants is heartbreakingly mundane: to be able to get her hair done. To be able to get in a car with her boyfriend. To see a friend. To get married and have another baby.


How was this allowed to happened to a woman who, just over 20 years ago when she first exploded on to the pop scene, seemed to some almost dangerously, threateningly alive?

Early warning

Spears was, as actor, writer and director Lena Dunham said this week, the "our canary in the coalmine". She was our early warning system for what the toxic, patriarchal pop industry and the tabloid media propping it up were capable of. She fed their symbiotic relationship and enriched the men who controlled it. She was the first entirely obliterated by it. And the public were eager, amused bystanders.

The hearing prompted a global outpouring of support. Over one million tweets were posted about her in 24 hours. Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake, who has apologised for his part in her vilification, all spoke out in support of her. Many media outlets apologised. Piers Morgan wrote a column about her "appalling treatment".

One of the few public figures who came to her defence in those days was someone who knows what it's like to be a demonised woman

How short our memories are.

Back in 2007 and 2008, when her father took control of her finances under a “temporary conservatorship”, he had what felt like the wholesale approval of international media outlets, which obligingly furnished him with evidence of her “inability to cope”. They chronicled the key moments in the long-running hit saga entitled Britney’s Meltdown: when she gained weight. When she shaved her head. When she split from her manager and her husband. When one of her children fell from a high chair in the care of a childminder. When she drove with another on her lap. When she had to surrender custody. When she was involved in a “hit and run”. When she went into rehab.

When she visibly struggled at her 2007 VMA performance, a few voices wondered if she needed help, but they were drowned out by those worried about her apparent weight gain. The New York Post reviewed it under the headline “Lard and Clear”. The editor of US Weekly tutted on the Today show that “many women wouldn’t eat for days if they were wearing that”, as though starvation would have been preferable to the sight of a young woman with a marginally curved stomach. When she made a tearful plea for help in a TV interview in 2006, she was eviscerated for her “incessant sobbing” and “overdone make-up”.

Demonised woman

One of the few public figures who came to her defence in those days was someone who knows what it's like to be a demonised woman. "Some people may end up really regretting the way they're treating her," Sinead O'Connor told Oprah Winfrey in 2007.

Can we at least draw solace from the knowledge that what happened to Britney Spears couldn’t happen now? Hardly. It’s still happening now – she is still locked away in her virtual tower.

Why do we do this to women: put them on a pedestal in order to tear them down?

But at least, we tell ourselves, the world has moved on, standards have changed, and the body shaming and bullying she endured is no longer acceptable. Then again, Meghan Markle. Then again, Naomi Osaka. Then again, Hailey Bieber, who had the audacity to attend a meeting with Emmanuel Macron this week wearing a dress that revealed her abdomen. Then again, Caroline Flack. Then again, whichever woman it is who will be exposed today for wearing the wrong thing or dating the wrong man or having the wrong kind of body or ageing too quickly or not quickly enough.

Scrutiny and bullying

Only a handful of people understand what it’s like to be subject to the level of scrutiny and bullying Spears faced. One of them is Meghan Markle. This week’s “revelations” include claims that she rejected the title of Earl of Dumbarton for her son because it contained the word “dumb”, and that she “governed her household by fear”, and that she and Harry “took handouts” from Prince Charles after they left the UK. (Fancy that – a royal taking handouts.) Piers Morgan took a break from worrying about Britney this week to make sideswipes about Markle’s “sensitive little spleen” and to call the couple “whiny clowns”.

Why do we do this to women: put them on a pedestal in order to tear them down? What kind of society makes baiting women in the public eye until they break apart not just a bloodsport but a lucrative industry? And while we wonder about these questions, Spears remains in her tower, a girl, not yet allowed to be a woman.

The fairy tale is real.