Cultural theorist Stuart Hall once wrote that pop-culture is “an arena that is profoundly mythic. It is a theatre of popular desires, a theatre of popular fantasies.”
For years, #FreeBritney campaigners eagerly followed Britney’s Instagram for hidden clues that the singer was crying out for help. The conviction amongst fans that Britney is trapped and sending secret signals about it through her Instagram is what fuelled the Free Britney movement and brought international attention to the conservatorship.
Now we know unequivocally that the situation that Britney Spears has been in since 2008, when control of her money and personal life was transferred to her father and lawyers, is abusive. The fact that what has widely been called a ‘conspiracy theory’ turned out to be based in reality is an opportunity to reevaluate how we understand conspiracy theories.
In his essay “The Conspiracy Myth” Charles Eisenstein says that, rather than being seen to be literally true, conspiracy theories can be understood as myths. “Myth is not the same thing as a fantasy or a delusion. Myths are vehicles of truth, and that truth needn’t be literal… They take the truth about the psyche or society and form it into a story.”
The ‘conspiracy theory’ created by FreeBritney supporters was a narrative vehicle that illuminated a truth. Britney may or may not have been sending covert messages to fans through her Instagram posts, but she WAS crying out for help — in court back in 2016, when she said the conservatorship had become “oppressive and controlling” — and again now, in her statement to the court.
In her statement, Britney spoke about the lack of autonomy granted to her by the conservatorship. She was sent to a mental health facility against her will, forced to perform, put on strong psychiatric meds, prevented from getting married and made to stay on birth control so that she could not have another child. This situation has been maintained for at least five years against her will, and legal experts say that it is a situation that could be difficult to exit.
Researcher in meme theory Scott Wark has said that conspiracy theories arise because “there are so many systems around us that we can’t explain. The world is burning, finance makes no sense to the layperson, institutional politics are fucked.” He believes that conspiracy theories provide a convenient pre-formed narrative about the ability of institutions and power to be corrupt.
The reason why the Britney conspiracy mobilised so many people — including mental health advocates, disability activists and the LGBTQ community — is because we are seeing a deep truth about our society acted out in the theatre of popular culture.
Throughout her career, Britney has embodied some of the most pervasive myths about women and girls. She has been the American sweetheart, the virgin, the whore, the bad mother and the crazy woman. When Britney claimed a right over her own narrative in court, she lifted the veil for a moment into the inner workings of an industrial complex that is usually too confusing to see clearly — revealing a story of abuse of power, control and money in the inner workings of the most powerful ‘free nation’ in the world.
May Britney be freed soon.