Last November, Britney Spears scored a landmark victory when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny opted to end her conservatorship. After years of work from Spears herself, demonstrations from her most devout fans, a harrowing documentary from The New York Times, and, ultimately, the singer’s heart-shattering testimony in court, it appeared Spears had finally won her freedom.
When Spears stepped out of her conservatorship, the public and the media responded with an avalanche of mea culpas. Documentary after documentary had exposed how relentless professional pressure, combined with a tabloid culture devoid of empathy, had gradually but systematically broken the singer’s spirit. Viewers saw Spears’ public 2008 breakdown in a new light—not as a personal failing to be cruelly ridiculed, as it was at the time, but as a cry for help from a human being who, for most of her life, had been exploited for our entertainment.
Less than a year later, however, that old, familiar cruelty has already crept its way back into the Spears discourse. Consider, for instance, the conversation that’s unfolded in the wake of her ex-husband Kevin Federline’s recent insidious “reveals” about her.
On Monday, ITV began teasing its three-part interview with the former Mr. Spears. Federline said he believes the conservatorship “saved” his ex-wife—this in spite of Spears’ own allegations that she’d been forced into years of “therapy” with practitioners she never chose (which is not therapy at all); that her medications were forcibly changed as “punishment” for canceling her Las Vegas Domination residency; and that her conservators would not allow her to remove her IUD so that she could have a child. (That last claim constitutes reproductive coercion, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Alexis McGill Johnson.)
Nevertheless, Federline persisted: “Jamie Spears came to me and was like, pretty much, I don’t know what to do, I want to help,” he told ITV. “I saw a man that really cared and really cares about his family and wanting everything to be OK.” (Never mind that Jamie Spears allegedly lived off his daughter’s wealth for years even before her conservatorship, which further siphoned her finances to pay for not only her own attorneys but his as well.)
More insidious, however, was Federline’s decision to discuss Spears’ relationship with their two sons, Sean and Jayden, both of whom are still teenagers in high school. Federline implied that Spears’ Instagram posts—in which she occasionally poses nude, censored with emojis—embarrassed their sons.
“I apologize for them, to them, for them because I can’t imagine how it feels to be a teenager, having to go to high school,” Federline said. “Who knows how many people ask them about it or talk to them about it?... I try to explain to them look, maybe [it’s] just another way she tries to express herself but it doesn’t take away from the fact that what it does to them, it’s tough.”
Spears’ husband, Sam Asghari, responded to Federline’s comments with a statement in which he pointed out, “Even if there was truth to her kids being ashamed of their mother’s choices and positive body image they wouldn’t be the first teenagers embarrassed of their parents.”
Then came the most explosive comments: Federline mentioned that Sean and Jayden are “not seeing [Spears] right now” and haven’t for “months” since they’d skipped her wedding this summer. “There’s a lot of things that were going on that they just didn’t feel comfortable with,” he said. “They made sure that I knew what was going on... they started sending me videos and certain things that they were like, look, I’m telling you that this is happening.”
What, exactly, “this” is remains unclear.
In a now-expired statement posted on her Instagram Story, Spears wrote, “It saddens me to hear that my ex-husband has decided to discuss the relationship between me and my children... As we all know, raising teenage boys is never easy for anyone. It concerns me the reason is based on my Instagram. It was LONG before Instagram. I gave them everything... Only one word: HURTFUL.” In a subsequent post, Spears called her sons “hateful” and claimed they never wanted to spend time with her during their visits.
That was all it took for Federline to double down. “I can not sit back and let my sons be accused in this way after what they’ve been through,” Federline said. (Apparently he forgot that it was his own interview about their kids that prompted Spears’ comments.) “The lies have to stop,” Federline said. “I hope our kids grow up to be better than this.”
And so, Federline shared a handful of supposedly disturbing videos on Instagram.
The videos don’t exactly project The Waltons energy, but they’re far from damning. In perhaps the most striking scene, one of the singer’s sons seems to complain that she’s confiscated his phone indefinitely for walking into an Alaskan ice cream shop. The moment immediately reminded me of the time just before Spears’ breakdown when an entire tabloid saga ignited around photos of her walking into a public restroom barefoot. The anecdote played into the media’s already insistent narrative that Spears, who had once been our favorite rags-to-riches story, was now irredeemable “white trash.”
Federline has removed the videos. Spears’ attorney, Mathew Rosengart, issued a statement on his client’s behalf.
“Britney has faithfully supported her children and she loves them dearly,” the statement reads, in part. “Whether he realizes it or not, Mr. Federline has not only violated the privacy and dignity of the mother of his children, he has undermined his own children, whose privacy he should protect.”
Rosengart added: “Putting aside his ITV interview, Mr. Federline’s ill-advised decision to post an old video of his 11 and 12 year old children was cruel, bottom of the barrel stuff. It was abhorrent. In addition to demeaning himself and violating societal norms, he has now also created various legal issues for himself including, but not limited to, implicating cyberharassment and cyberbullying statutes, among other things.”
What’s really striking, however, is how easily Federline threw us all back to 2009—when mommy-policing Spears was one of entertainment media’s chief preoccupations.
It’s difficult to imagine what positive motivation Federline and his family could’ve had in sharing these moments. If the concern is Sean and Jayden’s embarrassment, surely publicizing these videos—even, as Federline seems to claim, with the kids’ consent—will only increase the scrutiny on the family and humiliate everyone further. And if the concern is Spears’ parenting skills...I mean, could anyone really believe that this is going to help?
ITV’s interviewer Daphne Barak, meanwhile, has said that some of Federline’s interview will not air in full because it’s “too hurtful.”
Barak said ITV’s story, which appears focused on Federline but reportedly includes other family members, is about “fatherhood in the eye of the storm.”
“It’s this story about the father and the boys and how he managed to successfully bring them up against the odds with all this drama going on and still ongoing as you see with the Instagram. So basically it’s not Kevin vs Britney, it was not about her it was about his fatherhood and the whole family wanted it.”
Somehow I’m guessing “the whole family” does not include Spears—the only reason viewers would know any of its subjects’ names in the first place. (No offense to Federline’s short-lived rap career.)
Meanwhile, Spears’ family and former connections—most of whom she’s alleged were complicit in her subjugation—continue to find media platforms to tell her story before she’s had the chance to do so herself. Lest we forget, her little sister, Jamie Lynn, already cranked out a tell-all memoir. Even some documentaries supposedly advocating for the singer, like Netflix’s Britney vs. Spears, take their cues from sources like the attorney who helped remove Sean and Jayden from Spears’ custody. In the absence of Spears’ voice, and especially given everything we know about how the singer has been silenced thus far, these choices feel more than egregious; they’re careless and cruel.
It also feels like no coincidence that so many of the critiques surrounding Spears, from her public nudity to her alleged fitness as a mother, are specifically gendered. Spears’ conservatorship battle, back then and still today, is both a disability rights issue and a startling demonstration of misogyny. That forcibly-kept IUD, just like conservatives’ relentless battle against abortion and the historic forced sterilization of women of color, was an attempt to override a woman’s autonomy by controlling what she can do with her body.
Federline couldn’t have picked a better time to publicly humiliate Spears all over again. Even in the wake of horrifying unsealed documents from the Amber Heard-Johnny Depp trial, Dior has signed a seven-figure deal with Depp to front its cologne, Sauvage. And Brian Warner, aka Marilyn Manson, has sued Evan Rachel Wood for defamation in the wake of her powerful testimony about his alleged abuse.
These situations are not identical, but they do share one underlying dynamic: women who speak out about their alleged abuse still reliably face retaliation. In Spears’ case, the pain is compounded by history: This behavior from Federline and online critics is pretty much an exact retread of the bullying the singer faced as a young mother under a burning spotlight.
The endless chatter and armchair psychoanalysis surrounding Spears is obviously not meant to help the recovering pop idol become a “better” parent but to entertain a callous public and enrich everyone in her orbit—anyone who has a little gossip to trade for another 15 minutes on television. Just as Spears fans suggested a few years ago when Federline tried to kick Spears’ child support payments up to a whopping $60,000 a month (from the $20,000 he was collecting already), it seems like now might be a good time for K-Fed to “get a real job.”