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The Arc of Britney Spears Bends Toward Justice

It’s fair to say that 2023 was a good year for blond girl-culture icons with a long history of being underestimated. Britney Spears may not have enjoyed the rapturously smooth sailing of Taylor Swift or Barbie but her calendar-year triumphs, including a bestselling memoir, “The Woman in Me,” a newly clean romantic slate and a song, “Toxic,” that’s racking up record numbers on Spotify, look from the outside all the more gratifying precisely because they’re so hard won.

In the 25 years since her first hit song debuted, Britney Jean Spears has been many things — a pop star, a sex symbol, a mother, an icon, a survivor — but for as long as she has been a person of note, she has also been a source of near-constant concern. We’re fascinated by her. We’re worried for her. And it’s tempting to declare 2023 as the year Ms. Spears finally got the redemption arc she deserved. But this year also suggested that she might not be the one who needed redeeming.

Ms. Spears has almost always been entirely a media creation, and too many of us watching her came to believe the media when it told us that we had a right, as consumers, to get into her business and make ourselves comfortable there. The fevered reaction to her memoir, even from her biggest fans, makes it clear that many people aren’t ready to accept that she has said what she wants to, is grateful for the support of her fans, has plenty of healing ahead of her, and might just want to be weird on Instagram while she does so. The ongoing refusal to let Ms. Spears have the last word — to continue to undermine her, second-guess her, disregard her boundaries, treat her as an unreliable narrator — is a thread that runs through her entire career.

It’s never been just about Britney. It’s about the public and the media and the cultural expectations of how young women should act, how much power they can be trusted with, whether they deserve to be heard and whether they can be believed. And if her over-examined life so far has taught us anything, it’s that well-meaning concern becomes real-life cruelty in irresponsible hands.

I was never Ms. Spears’s target demographic. But because I was a media critic and music journalist when she exploded onto the scene in 1998, and because it was a time before social-media algorithms and atomized newsfeeds, there was simply no escaping those instant-earworm singles and the hype around the person singing them. The enthusiasm of Ms. Spears’s intended audience — teens and tweens who called into radio shows and crowded Times Square for MTV’s “Total Request Live”— was soon overshadowed by the reactions of adults from whom she sought neither attention nor approval. Grown men cast themselves as hapless bystanders magnetized by the exposed midriff and schoolgirl pigtails of a knowing Lolita. (One journalist led a1999 profile by noting that the logo on the singer’s pink T-shirt was “distended” by her “ample chest,” a description that still makes my skin crawl.) Wide swaths of column space were given over to concerned mothers fretting that Ms. Spears’s undeniable sexuality posed a grave threat to the virgin eyes and ears of their own children.

From the beginning, Ms. Spears embodied an American ideal — a blond, white, Southern Baptist girl with a sweet drawl and impeccable manners — and so she was also the perfect screen on which to project adult anxieties in the name of protecting the children. The People magazine cover story “Too Sexy Too Soon?” set the template for pearl-clutching media. As she writes in “The Woman In Me,” she was “a teenage girl from the South. I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”

Ms. Spears was already 18 when the People article came out, and the what-about-the-children angle didn’t stay fresh much longer.But a new age of tabloid media dawned in 2000, as Us magazine rebranded as Us Weekly and inspired a coterie of glossy gossip copycats, providing a brand-new outlet for a new bounty of concern. We were no longer worried about the children; now we worried about her. Ms. Spears, formerly not a girl and not yet a woman, was by 2001 not only a woman but the kind of woman beloved in the American narrative: Failed and felled by her own appetites, she was a woman we could pity rather than fear.

Recovering from a formative heartbreak, hitting the club, seeking new love, starting a family: Whatever Britney was doing, the tabloids declared, she was doing it wrong. She was heartbroken, or she wasn’t heartbroken enough. She partied too much and partied with the wrong people. She was romantically reckless. She made bad decisions. She was a bridezilla. She married the wrong man. She gained too much pregnancy weight. She didn’t lose the pregnancy weight quickly enough. She had her second baby too soon. She was acting erratically. She was a bad mother. She was out of control. She needed help.

There were valid reasons to be worried about Ms. Spears during that time. “The Woman in Me” is heartbreakingly frank about the postpartum depression she experienced after the birth of her sons. But the packaging of her increasingly chaotic life for mass consumption was only possible because the tabloids themselves instigated so much of the chaos. The ostensible focus of Us Weekly and its ilk was that celebrities were “just like us”: They walked their dogs, pumped their own gas, shopped for groceries. But the true guiding principle was that audiences had the right to know as much as possible about the famous — and the famous, by beingfamous,ceded any expectation of privacy. Proving that stars were “just like us” involved constant and active predation, and Ms. Spears was a profitable target. Hordes of paparazzi followed her wherever she went, cornered her in public, hounded and heckled her until, inevitably, they got what they were after: a very public breakdown.

The result was the third phase of Ms. Spears’ career: a conservatorship that began in 2008, when she was 26. Her father, Jamie, took legal control over every aspect of her professional and personal life, and for 13 years she existed in a pop-star purgatory. According to Ms. Spears and others who have come forward on her behalf, she was regularly manipulated, secretly monitored, physically restricted, shipped off to expensive rehabs and put on Lithium. She became a paradox: allegedly too mentally incapacitated to make decisions for herself yet capable of recording new albums, touring the world and performing sold-out Las Vegas residencies with huge profits she couldn’t readily access. (“I’m Britney Spears now,” she recalls her father saying at one point, in the memoir’s most chilling line.)

The unnerving details of the conservatorship gave onlookers yet another fresh set of concerns, and a new role with regard to Ms. Spears: her advocates. The grass-roots #FreeBritney movement helped sound the alarm on her legal fight for freedom, and the conservatorship was eventually lifted in 2021. But the endless cycle of public concern — the insistence that Ms. Spears’s behavior needed to be monitored, commented on, corrected — is what made her vulnerable to a conservatorship in the first place.

The object of our collective concern is a role that, in 2023, Ms. Spears is still being cast in. If there’s a moral to “The Woman in Me,” it’s that the story of her captivity is one that she needs to tell, then expel, if she’s going to get on with her life. Letting her do that also requires that we dismantle the Britney Spears fixed in our minds for 25 years as a perpetual train wreck, and this is proving to be a challenge.

Onlookers still interpret the goofy dance videos she posts on Instagram as evidence of self-harm. After reportedly seeing a photo of a Porsche 911 on her Instagram feed and deciding the 911 must be an encoded distress signal, some of her fans have called the police to the singer’s home. Mainstream news outlets have put a lot of effort into fact-checking the claims in her memoir, including one about Justin Timberlake affecting a “blaccent” two decades ago. There is a conspiratorial #FreeBritney splinter faction on TikTok that’s convinced that she remains under a shadow conservatorship. Comments on reviews of her book offer lists of prescriptions for Britney from her concerned public: Delete social media. Eat right. Meditate. Re-parent yourself.

But it’s not Britney who needs prescriptive advice — it’s all of us. And that advice is: After 25 years, let her go. If her memoir seems like a fitting final chapter to her public story, let it be that. The norms of celebrity coverage have changed in recent years, in large part because social media makes it possible for stars to speak directly to their audiences about mental health, sexuality and much more. Most media outlets understand that it’s no longer acceptable to engage in the jeering and slut-shaming and armchair diagnosis that characterized the 2000s tabloids. But the ongoing Britney-specific vigilance seems like a reluctance to accept that Ms. Spears can, at present, be both not fully OK and also not in need of the public’s constant intervention.

One remarkable moment in a 2021 documentary by the Times, “Framing Britney Spears,” features a photographer who incited and then captured the moment in 2007 that’s widely considered Ms. Spears’s rock bottom — her distress after her ex-husband refused to let her see her children. The paparazzi photographer recalls with surprise the moment she snapped, charging at his car brandishing an umbrella.

He states of the interaction: “She never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I don’t appreciate you guys. Leave me [expletive] alone.’”

The interviewer asks, with enviable restraint, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone?’”

Ms. Spears has been saying it, in one way or another, for over two decades. This year, it’s time we finally take her at her word.

Andi Zeisler is the author of “We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement.”

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