“There's only two types of people in the world, the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” It’s those lyrics from the Britney Spears song “Circus” that Dr. Tamar Salibian, a member of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies, had in her mind as she made her way to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on Sept. 29, where there was a hearing that decided that Jamie Spears was suspended as his daughter’s conservator.
Looking at the scene and the setup at the courthouse, Salibian saw the row of media, media vans and vehicles, fans and activists, which she described as a “dystopian, apocalyptic little frenzied town.”
“It just brought me back to so much we've seen from, now the documentaries, and this question of paparazzi and tabloid culture, and I'm wondering how it has changed, if it has changed from , ,” Salibian said.
“I think it would be easy to say, ‘Oh nothing's changed.’ I don't think so, I think it has shifted… The landscape has shifted but I think there are opportunities to shift it even more.”
Following the recent release of the Britney vs Spears documentary on Netflix and Controlling Britney Spears, a Hulu documentary from The New York Times, some have questioned whether these films are essentially exploiting Spears’ case. For Salibian, it comes down to “a question of visibility.”
“So much that has happened, especially in recent weeks even, might not have happened in the way it did without the participation and influence of such outlets as The New York Times and folks who are sort of on the inside, who have now become whistleblowers,” she said.
“But then at the same time,...I still think that the amount of labour and the amount of collaboration of the fans, supporters, activists, is not highlighted as much in these mainstream documentaries and media coverage, as is highlighted the emotional elements of it.”
'How many times do we have to say we love Britney?'
Interacting with people who have been part of the #FreeBritney movement, one thing that’s important to remember is how layered the response to Spears' case has been and still is, which moves beyond just fans of the star trying to follow details of her life. Activists have put in hours of engagement on issues like women’s rights, reproductive rights, disabilities rights, ethics around tabloid culture, the entertainment industry and conservatorships as a whole, to name a few.
How many times do we have to say we love Britney? Obviously we love Britney but I think that's a tactic to sort of keep things over simplified. I think that's a media strategy, to be fair, to be perfectly honest,...to keep mainstream readers, viewers pacified.Dr. Tamar Salibian, Member of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies
“There's so much more than love that went into this. There are so many layers to this, including judicial potential misconduct, including the entertainment industry that is so complicit in so much… I don't even know all of the web of connections myself and I've been trying to figure them out for almost a year now.”
'We expect to have access to Britney’s decisions'
As consumers, we have become accustomed to being able to access a significant amount of information about our favourite celebrities. That is one area where we need to “check ourselves” in terms of what we’re consuming and understanding that following stars and, essentially, poking and prodding them for information about their personal lives, does have ramifications.
“I think something to keep in mind for fans, consumers of culture, is that there are ways to enjoy the elements, the delights, that come with entertainment, while also constantly checking ourselves and realizing, is this the same kind of habituated, conditioned approach that did and continues to do a lot of harm to everyone involved,” Salibian explained.
“I sincerely hope that this kind of pause and check yourself happens not just with consumers but also producers of culture. I think that there have been some changes to what is considered profitable, that may motivate producers of culture, but that remains to be seen.”
Spears is a sort of case study that, as Salibian describes, will “set a precedent” in terms of ethical media consumption and tabloid culture, but we’re still humans who have a natural curiosity.
“I think that humans are humans, and we are conditioned and habituated in ways where it's sometimes difficult to let go of these habits,” she said. “This has to do with reality TV, I think, just because we're used to expecting everyone's private life to be publicized, no matter the cost.”
“We expect to have access to Britney’s decisions and personal life, and the engagements and the wedding. I think it is changing, I think there is much more awareness among the fans, activists, supporters, there's a questioning going on now, which really excites me. Although I do see the grappling because as fans, we do want access.”
The core question is around how we consume the content we are so interested in, in a way that doesn’t harm anyone, including the consumers themselves.
“This case is showing itself to be a new opportunity and standard for consumers of culture, for media as well,” Salibian said.
#FreeBritney movement continues to expand
As we wait for Spears’ next hearing date, set for November 12, which will decide whether her 13 year conservatorship comes to an end, the movement that has developed around her will continue to cast a wider net on tackling issues raised in this conservatorship.
“Looking at the way something we connect to through fandom or celebrity, and something that's real life, I think has been at the forefront with this movement,” Salibian said. “It's making the connection between somebody like Britney Spears saying in court, officially, that she was not allowed to remove her IUD because of this abusive conservatorship and, for example, things going on with abortion bans and things that affect the entire country.”
“The questions of bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and then these questions of, are conservatorships even necessary anymore?... There are folks in this movement or peripheral to this movement who still believe in conservatorships, to some degree. I think it's good to have sort of differences of opinion but at the same time the questions that come out of that are, how much of someone's personal autonomy is at stake?”