On Nov. 10, Britney Spears’ court request to remove her father, Jamie Spears, from her conservatorship was denied by a Los Angeles judge. A conservatorship describes a court case in which a “judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the 'conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.” Spears has been under conservatorship since 2008, when she very publicly suffered a mental breakdown and underwent treatment at a UCLA facility. Because of her issues with mental health, her father was appointed as her conservator and was essentially granted control and power over all of her finances, legal rights, and personal life.
Spears, at 38 years old, reportedly can’t even own a private iPhone. Even worse, one of the major issues with conservatorships is that it effectively prevents Spears and other conservatees from the ability to fight it. Conservatees require permission from courts in order to hire a lawyer and are simultaneously barred from filing a suit themselves. Because of the personal limitations placed on Spears, it is likely her conservatorship will last until death, meaning her father or someone else will always have total control over most—if not all—aspects of her life, including her reported $60 million earnings.
Debuting in the public eye when she was just 11 years old, Spears is no stranger to an extremely publicized life in the limelight. Her pleas to remove Jamie Spears as her conservator come after months of the viral #FreeBritney movement. Fans’ concern that Spears wants to be free of her 12–year–long conservatorship, compounded by a string of erratic social media posts, launched an internet movement to end the legal bind. And still, despite court hearings and public support from celebrities like Paris Hilton and Vera Wang, Spears still does not have the power to live her own life or make important personal choices for herself.
Spears’ unique experience growing up in the music industry shine a light on the larger issue of how female musicians are expected to or allowed to practice autonomy. Even before her freedoms were strictly limited by her conservatorship, Spears undoubtedly faced immense pressure about everything from her image to each step in her meticulously–choreographed dance numbers. In 2013, Spears spoke about the demand to maintain her sexy image, mentioning that editors utilized a lot of the sexed–up sequences and people pushed her to shoot more racy scenes. Unsurprisingly, overbearing conservator Jamie Spears and manager Larry Rudolph released a statement to TMZ claiming “Britney is never pressured into doing anything.” Spears’ father, placed in charge of a significant portion of his daughter’s life, was assigned his role to protect someone struggling with mental health issues—but when the “protected” is fighting against the “protector,” what's next?
Spears, of course, is not the only woman in music who has faced painfully public battles against authority male figures. Kesha set the industry ablaze in 2014 with allegations of sexual abuse against Dr. Luke, one of the most successful and powerful producers in pop. One of the complications arising from her court battles against Dr. Luke presented a catch–22: Sony, the owner of Dr. Luke’s distributor RCA, had not been involved with the original contract between Kesha and Dr. Luke’s label. As a result of thorny legal clauses, Kesha’s contractual fate rested solely on Luke, her assailant, who had first discovered and signed her.
But even before Dr. Luke’s assaults on Kesha came to light, the male producers involved in her creative process twisted her narrative: While she originally wrote “Tik Tok” with a more self–aware and grounded irony, Dr. Luke and his protegee Benny Blanco pushed her to go in a more ditsy, party–girl direction. Kesha recalls, “I remember specifically him saying: ‘Make it more dumb. Make it more stupid. Make it more simple, just dumb.” The previously iconic, carefree and wild nature of Kesha’s platinum hit now reflects instead the malevolent pressure from her abuser to uncomfortably maintain a stereotypical schtick.
A judge denied Kesha’s request to break her contract with Sony in 2016, meaning success from her 2017 album Rainbow still financially benefited Dr. Luke. This is a bitter irony considering the album housed her powerful ballad “Praying,” which explored the fight to rebuild herself after years of suffering and betrayal. Watching the original "cool girl" who delivered party anthem hits like “Die Young” and “Cannibal” break down in court or during interviews does not leave room for interpretation, providing a harsh and sobering truth about a female artist’s agency in the male–dominated music industry.
Artists alongside Britney Spears and Kesha have spoken out about the pressure they face to sex–up their image in order to succeed in the industry. Camila Cabello, Jessica Simpson, and countless others have admitted to experiencing heavy persuasion from management to behave in ways they weren’t entirely comfortable with.
On the flip side, accompanying decades–long coercion to behave more provocatively, are artists who come into their sexuality by their own choice and use it to take back what the male gaze has stolen from female artists’ legitimacy and autonomy. Wielding reclaimed sexuality like a weapon, powerhouses like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are unapologetically sensual, both in their viral music video “WAP” and with their song lyrics in general. Both rappers embody the power of taking control of their own narratives, delivering “hot girl” bars about their own gratification—their images are testaments to their confidence and self–love. In the same genre, Rico Nasty, Saweetie, and Nicki Minaj “loudly proclaim sovereignty over their own flesh…defying restrictive norms.”
Still, backlash plagues these women for simply taking control of a practice that seems commonplace in the music industry. Conservatives bashed “WAP” and its explicit sexual messages, with politician James P. Bradley tweeting, “Their new 'song' The #WAP (which I heard accidentally) made me want to pour holy water in my ears…” It seems as though women are perpetually entombed in a double bind: Female artists are pushed to exude sex appeal for success—but when they embrace this task themself, the public quickly labels them as unbecoming (along with other less tactful words).
Black Mirror’s “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” episode tackled dystopian and technology–rooted issues of artist exploitation, featuring Miley Cyrus as Ashley O, a global pop star exploited by her aunt/manager. Scarily, even in a completely imagined futuristic universe, Ashley O’s initial lack of control over her own life choices, including the music she produced, reflects the current reality for many female artists now. The undeniably eerie parallels of the episode’s theme with Britney Spears’ current situation has sparked murmurs of speculation that it is a part of the #FreeBritney movement and even based heavily on the pop star.
Miley Cyrus’ role as the oppressed artist in “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” regardless of whether it pointedly speaks to Spears’ environment, certainly resonates with Cyrus' own life. Parts of the episode were inspired by Cyrus, who explains that “There is a part of Ashley O that is not a character. I worked closely with Anne [Sewitsky], the director and the show creators to share some of my personal experiences and help craft the episode.” Given Cyrus’ own lengthy journey under the spotlight, Ashley O’s turmoil and exploitation provides a glimpse into the chilling reality for women in the music industry. Optimistically, like the eventually triumphant story of liberation for Ashley O, Cyrus has come into her own image over recent years, shedding unwanted association with the squeaky clean, cloyingly sweet image of Hannah Montana.
Still, it’s clear that even when Cyrus attempted to control her own narrative and break from the pervasive Disney connection, the world was less than understanding. Miley Cyrus’ controversial 2013 VMA performance with Robin Thicke, compounded by her record–breaking “Wrecking Ball” music video, fueled brutal criticism and slut–shaming. Especially from her good girl image as an iconic childhood television character, the drastic change—“provocative” clothing, chopped hair, and a new wardrobe—didn’t sit right with many. A journalist for The Guardian whined in 2013 that the music video “says young women should be sexually available” and Cyrus has attempted to demonstrate a grown–up version of herself “in the way that many young women who became famous very young have done: she’s embraced sexualization.”
What goes unexamined with ill disguised slut–shaming of artists like Cyrus are the grungy and unsavory secrets of the music industry. Even with the nascency of the #MeToo movement back in 2006 and countless declarations of sexual misconduct since, there are likely millions more that the industry has successfully suppressed or contained (we could argue the #MeToo movement hasn’t even permeated the music industry given the mainstream success of predators like Tekashi 6x9ine). Cyrus’ decision to perform in scanty nude shorts at the VMAs or make out with a sledgehammer in “Wrecking Ball” were acts of defiance, not some Jezebel–esque lure to encourage young women to objectify themselves—and men should understand that not everything from women is made for them. Cyrus, despite enduring heavy criticism for those two events in her life, still loves her performance and music video. In 2017, Cyrus pointed out, “people were so shocked by some of the things that I did. It should be more shocking that when I was 11 or 12, I was put in full hair and make–up, a wig, and told what to wear by a group of mostly older men.”
In light of Britney Spears' ongoing battle with her conservatorship, it’s becoming an increasingly unavoidable fact that women in the music industry do not have the same access to free and unabashed expression as they should. When women are forced to sexualize their image for profit, it's not shocking, but rather the opposite: we expect it. But when a woman decides to subvert the male gaze and perform sensually for her own pleasure, an attempt to practice autonomy and regain some of the power likely stripped from her in the past, she is met with disapproving moral outrage. Quality artistry and sexuality are not mutually exclusive. It’s time to focus on the art itself—and only the art.