The price of the pursuit of fame – the tipping point into unrelenting exposure, objectification, intimidation – not only goes unquestioned but is blindly consumed by us all under the banner of entertainment. Whether you’re a fan or not, Britney Spears is a vocal artist, a talented dancer and choreographer. But though she was seen performing shows in Las Vegas within the last decade, we now know she was doing so while bound by invisible strings. Invisible strings should be a metaphor for a sense of connection with a loving and reliable caregiver - the image, felt sense or idea of which can offer comfort and a sense of safety whenever there is doubt or fear. Miss Spears’ strings were the kind that if woven would form a heavy-duty straitjacket.
She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but not many of us would ask for what Miss Spears has had to endure over the majority of two decades. She is a woman whose identity was reduced down to the surface impressions evident in snapshots taken by hungry paparazzi. Britney the pop princess, Britney the sexual object, Britney the breakdown. Over the past several months, even while the Free Britney movement raged, she’s been papped repeatedly in her Mercedes like a goldfish in a bowl. From the moment we are born we seek connection with other human beings - we look to other human faces wherever we find them. We look away when our nervous systems need brief respite, only to seek connection again a short time later. How many times over the years has Miss Spears sought out a human face, a cue of safety, only to be met with a photo lens? Even in a sea of faces, how often has her gaze been met by a pair of sincere and safe eyes? How many times has her human need to seek respite from connection been violated with intrusions of various kinds?
It is difficult to watch historical footage of various probing interviews held with a young Miss Spears. Though the sinister leer of others is plain to see, it was the images of her breaking down all those years ago which prompted more immediate judgement, disgust and fear. What might have started out then as a genuine intention to help her hold together, quickly became a campaign to neglect her social and emotional needs and force a return to performing for the sake of financial gain. To maintain the charade, her autonomy was increasingly eroded, as captured in the documentary which no doubt influenced the recent revocation of her conservatorship. Miss Spear’s experience forces us to look at the shadow side of what happens in supposed systems of care.
Without conscious effort to step back from our initial reactions to the suffering of others, we risk our actions being guided purely by the same sense of threat we judge in those we’re caring for as indicative of mental illness. The moment we start labelling people as mentally ill, we give ourselves permission to overstep. You can’t but I can, so I will. No, it’s not me, it’s you. We risk moving away from making sense of the contextual influences that have given rise to a person’s enduring sense of disconnection and the visceral fear that accompanies it. We’re quick to create physical and emotional distance, to assume we know better and to narrow choices. Context, connection, choice - the very three things that support the regulation of our nervous systems.
We can continue to scrutinise Miss Spears and every Instagram post and interview quote through this old lens, hungry as we are for our next morsel of entertainment. Wake me up when we start asking her, and all those subject to the restriction of their liberties in the name of mental health, with compassionate intention, “what injustices have you endured?” and “what do you need to feel safe?”.