LOS ANGELES — I felt disgusting as I approached the crowd outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, where fans gathered on Wednesday to demand Britney Spears’s freedom from a 13-years-long conservatorship and the media gathered to film, to borrow from Britney herself, the circus born of the public outcry for that freedom.
A comment beneath a poster I’d found on Twitter for the rally said that we would meet at 1:30 p.m. on June 23 for a Free Britney protest on the “Performance Lawn” of Grand Park, outside the courthouse set to hold the hearing. But when I reached the performance lawn it was boarded up for repairs, and so I wandered across a giant stretch of the 12-acre park in the brutal Los Angeles sun as sweat cascaded down my sides, watching children play near the fountain, office-skirted women eat their lunches, wondering where the fuck everyone was. When I rounded the corner at West 1st Street, I finally saw: A giant throng of reporters, dozens, video rolling, cameras flashing, boom mics pointed at a stage situated around a cardboard cutout of Britney, where a handful of speakers said things I couldn’t hear over the din. The flashing, the media circus, the hunger for a story about Britney’s misery was so much like 2008, when Rolling Stone declared Britney Spears an “inbred swamp thing” for failing to wear shoes into a gas station, that I very nearly turned around and went home to clean myself up, and would have if I hadn’t promised my own editor a story.
In court, Britney Spears testified publicly before a judge about her conservatorship for the first time since the media nearly killed her in 2008. In those days, many of the very publications outside the courthouse filming her plea for freedom built a multi-million dollar industry out of chasing her car around Los Angeles and yelling questions at her or filming the two times police were called to her home to place psychiatric holds. Since those publications first reported hundreds of gleeful stories about that mental health crisis, Britney says she has been sentenced by the legal system to over a decade of abuse at the hands of her father. She says she’s been forced to work seven days a week, to take lithium against her will, to have an IUD inserted that she is unable to remove. Her passport has been taken away, she says, and she has no access to her $60 million fortune, yet must pay her father $16,000 a month, not to mention his business expenses, the cut he gets of all of her business deals, and the lawyers she is legally obligated to pay on his behalf even as they argue for her prolonged captivity.
But besides dedicated fans and the podcasters responsible for Britney’s Gram, which first reported leaked allegations of abuse, the media, having helped put Britney in this position, has been largely silent for more than 10 years about the gothic horror story of a grown woman locked into the legal, total control of her terrible father, until a New York Times and Hulu special in 2020 first legitimized concerns that Jamie Spears once brushed off to the press as the hysterical ravings of conspiracy theorists.
It is just after 1:30 p.m., and I can just make out a handful of speakers on a platform in the center of what seems like a hundred reporters blocking access to those speakers, filming and talking amongst themselves or to their own cameras so I can’t hear. A handful of fans are being asked their favorite Britney Spears songs by news outlets like iTV. Finally, I see two men standing off to one side without a camera or microphone shoved into faces covered by masks featuring mosaics of Britney Spears’s perfect white smile, and I tentatively approach to ask them why they’re here. One is shy, he says, and doesn’t really want to talk, but his boyfriend chimes in and explains that he’s here to support his partner, a lifelong Britney fan, though he does absolutely agree that the conservatorship is wrong. His partner adds softly that he grew up gay and lonely in a town around the size of Kentwood, Louisiana, where Britney is from. Britney Spears has felt like an older sister since she released her first album about the time he was in the first grade, and he wanted to do what he could to help, which was to show up.
“How will you feel if they lift the conservatorship and we never hear from Britney anymore?” I ask him.
“She deserves that,” he tells me.
Onstage, I can finally hear a speaker say he understands how Britney must feel, as he’s had to spend two years locked in his home. What happened to him? I wonder before realizing he means the pandemic.
Nearby, I hear a reporter say to his cameraman that he’s tired. “This is almost over, right?” The cameraman says no, he thinks “they,” meaning the fans, still have to march. And then we do. Reporters and camera crews begin to sprint in order to get ahead of the crowd so that they can film the march around the building, recording the chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the conservatorship has got to go.” A man filming himself on his iPhone runs past me, saying into his recording “We’re here live in the first of our two-part series about to interview the founders of the Free Britney movement.” He slows to ask a protester his favorite Britney Spears song.
We make a block, and as we round a corner a protester is yelling into a megaphone: “She’s saying they forced to her take lithium. This is amazing.” I know he means the fact that she’s finally speaking for herself, but a reporter quickly rushes from the throng to shove his recorder into the man with the megaphone’s face.
“Want to do an interview?” the reporter asks.
“Sure,” the fan tells him.
I ask two women, one holding a hand-drawn yellow sign dotted with daisies and rhinestones, why they came. The woman with the yellow sign says she’s been coming since before the pandemic, when there would be just 30 fans outside the courthouse demanding that the court let Britney speak. She tells me this is a feminist issue, that we can’t just lock women away based on some shitty things that were said about them decades ago.
“What if they let her out of her conservatorship and the paparazzi starts chasing her again, only this time to say nice things about her?” I ask.
“It’s 2021,” she tells me, explaining that the ways in which we discuss women in the media have changed a lot since 2008. I hope she’s right, but looking at the rush to get a quote, take a picture, and type into open laptops all around me, my hope feels undigested and bilious. Inside the courthouse, Britney is telling the judge that just yesterday, paparazzi were lurking outside her mental health facility and snapped photos of her crying.
A much snazzier reporter than me in a sleek suit stands in front of a news van with a fancy portable spotlight and earpiece feeding him commentary from inside the courthouse. A team of people holding cameras films his report of what Britney has to say. “She says she wants the media and the fans to know what’s happened to her,” he is saying in what I think is an Australian accent as I walk away, back to my car, home to tell my own news outlet what I’ve just seen.
“My family didn’t do a goddamn thing,” Britney said in her testimony. “Anything that happened to me had to be approved by my dad... he was the one who approved all of it. My whole family did nothing.”
For over a decade, almost no one in the world did a goddamn thing. But there were those 30 or so people, years before Framing Britney Spears made the topic interesting to “legitimate” media outlets, who brought handmade signs to the courthouse and hoped that if they asked, the people with cameras would show up in similar numbers to 2008 and that attention might force a judge to listen.
To get my car out of the parking garage, I need a MasterCard, Visa, or $20 cash, and I realize that in my hurry to get down here and break this story, I have brought none of those things. I have to stop a stranger and promise him a Venmo in return for setting me free. It’s a metaphor from the universe to cap off my story so big and dumb that I cry on the 110 back to my apartment, pores seething and skin grimy from the march and the reporting of it, thinking about how badly I need a fucking shower.