In the weeks since Britney Spears gave a damning 23-minute testimony around the alleged abuses she’s faced in her long-running conservatorship, the singer’s team has collapsed in on itself. Britney’s court-appointed lawyer, Samuel D. Ingham III, has stepped aside; the bank overseeing her finances has pulled out; Britney’s father and conservatorship manager Jamie Spears fired shots at Britney’s personal conservator, Jodi Montgomery (and vice versa), and Britney’s sister, Jamie Lynn, has essentially become a Homer Simpson-backs-into-the-bush gif, claiming that she doesn’t care what Britney does. As for Britney herself? Well, if the news is to be believed, she’s taking much-deserved vacations in Maui and reportedly in discussions with high-profile Hollywood lawyers to represent her as more court dates, deciding the conservatorship’s next steps, loom.
This considerable fallout was to be expected, given the no-holds-barred magnitude of what Britney had to say on June 23, where she described herself as “traumatized,” and her conservatorship, in place since 2008, as “abusive.” For the first time in more than a decade, advocates for her freedom, aka the #FreeBritney movement, can see a tangible path opening up for the singer to regain control of her life and finances. This is all tremendous, undeniably so. The think pieces — about the Y2K-era music industry, gender, the systemic abuse of the mentally ill and disabled — write themselves. All of these discussions are equally important and necessary. But there’s another piece of the puzzle I have not seen addressed to quite the same extent: women’s emotional labor. Specifically, emotional labor and the amount that we regularly ask female musicians to shoulder for the sake of their careers.
Emotional labor is one of those things that, once you know what it means, you start to see it everywhere. Today, the term tends to be thrown around when describing the unpaid “second shift” many women undergo to keep the house clean and the kids fed, on top of full-time or hourly day jobs. Other times, people like to use “emotional labor” to describe needy friendships and familial relationships. But when it was first coined in the early 1980s by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, “emotional labor” was primarily a work-related term, describing the way we — again, mostly women — feel forced to regulate our emotions to meet certain job requirements. A contemporary example could be when a flight attendant must smile through their teeth when an unruly passenger refuses to wear a mask, or when women feel compelled to pepper in extra exclamation points to emails. In Britney Spears’ case, the term feels applicable to her entire life, pre-conservatorship and beyond.
You see it as early as Britney’s 1992 turn on Star Search. At just 10 years old, after wowing audiences by singing The Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge,” she noticeably squirms as host Ed McMahon asks if she has a boyfriend. “They’re mean,” says Britney, about boys her age. “I’m not mean, how about me?” McMahon suggests. “Well,” Britney says, eyes shifting around, “That depends.” 30 years later, this scene invites an obvious full-body-cringe. But the moment also marks the start of something else: the first step in an infinite ladder of Britney regulating her feelings for others’ comfort, especiallythose who will ultimately decide her career success.
As Britney evolves, from the early mall tours to the TRL-topping singles to the many (many) uncomfortable press interviews to her eventual dealings with paparazzi to the conservatorship itself, she becomes the living embodiment of emotional labor. You can see it happening as Britney is questioned about her virginity status, her breasts, what she “did” to cause her breakup with Justin Timberlake. In every interview, across a spectrum of horrifying questions, she tries to maintain a game face. Be a nice girl. Don’t show your embarrassment. Say the right thing. Everyone’s watching. On top of her demanding job, to produce hit records and sold-out tour dates, this is Britney’s second shift.
Naturally, because she is human, Britney had her limits. “That’s when she just really started becoming more free and less concerned with pleasing everybody, which is also just a whole other metaphor for what women do. At some point in our lives, we stop trying to please everybody,” Britney’s former stylist Hayley Hill says in The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears. Over the next five to seven years, Britney’s “very carefully managed image,” as New York Timesculture reporter Joe Coscarelli added, appears to unravel as Britney marries and divorces Kevin Federline, has two children, and is hounded by the paparazzi, who know that candid, unflattering pictures will earn them heaps of money.
All pop stars — men included — have that “managed image,” as Coscarelli put it. Last year, Taylor Swift opened up to Variety about how her “managed image” could not, under any circumstances, include any political messaging, describing how her label managers held The Chicks over her head as a cautionary tale of a booming career gone bust. “I saw how one comment ended such a powerful reign, and it terrified me,” Swift said. “These days, with social media, people can be so mad about something one day and then forget what they were mad about a couple weeks later. That’s fake outrage. But what happened to the Dixie Chicks was real outrage. I registered it — that you’re always one comment away from being done being able to make music.” In many ways, nearly every famous person, women especially, and women of color to an even greater degree, have to walk some version of this tightrope Swift describes. If they are perceived as falling, there is only the concrete of public opinion to catch them.
Under her conservatorship, Britney has spent the last 13 years of her life catering to every single person in her life except for herself. On paper, it might look as though every last one of her decisions — down to the color of her kitchen cabinets — is made for her. Where’s the labor in that, some (Jamie and his lawyers in particular) might ask? But if we look back at emotional labor at its core, the process of managing your feelings and emotions for the sake of your employer, it’s easy to see how Britney would “cry every day,” as she said in her testimony. As Britney herself noted, if she refused a dance move, or expressed displeasure with any aspect of her life, the walls start closing in. Her managers threaten her with less time with her kids, or less time off. They (allegedly) conspire to make it look like she isn’t taking her medication and send her, against her will, to a mental health facility. They force her to take lithium. They prevent her from making personal reproductive choices. This is the cost of Britney pushing back against the emotional labor that has plagued her not just for 13 years, but for nearly her entire life. This is an extreme, microcosmic example of what women risk when they say no. We owe it to Britney — and every woman, for that matter — to learn from and erase the burden.