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The way Britney’s life was consumed holds a mirror to our own

Looking back today at the pop culture of my youth is like the moment your vision finally adjusts to a Magic Eye picture. One that you’ve walked past unseeingly for years, vaguely aware perhaps, if pushed, that there could be more to the abstract ocean scene hanging in the downstairs loo – once, during a sticky breakup, you thought you noticed an animal, watching you cry. But as time rolled on, the light changed. #MeToo and its subsequent conversations enabled a retelling of stories we thought we knew by heart, now illuminated with a growing understanding of sex, power, mental health and the horrors of the celebrity industrial complex.

There is very little new information in the New York Times documentary about Britney Spears; instead we’re invited to sit quietly with what we have always known. From the international debates around her sluttiness (there is footage of an interviewee asking her if she was a virgin, and Spears, so used to this now, thanking him for his question) to the frenzy of the paparazzi, these crowds of men who waited for her outside toilets, shouting “I’M WORRIED ABOUT YOU” while sticking their flashes into her car. She had two babies, quickly, and public scrutiny swelled to include not just her sexuality but her mothering abilities. The story shifted overnight – she had been too mature to be a girl, but she was too young to be a woman.

This was the year she was photographed leaving nightclubs with Paris Hilton, herself the subject of a collective reckoning when she admitted the release of the sex tape that made her famous also made her contemplate suicide. Why was Britney driving with her baby on her knee, one interviewer asks. Because she needed to escape from photographers, and quickly. She had postnatal depression, her mother said. It is clear now that she wasn’t just followed, she was hunted.

I watched this film the day Labour MP Stella Creasy threatened to take the government to court over a bill giving six months’ paid maternity leave only to cabinet ministers, in order to highlight the discrimination faced by pregnant women everywhere. The two stories swum side by side in my head, the first showing a mother whose power was snatched from her slowly, the second a mother actively campaigning for the rights of pregnant people, so they can maintain not just their careers, but their autonomy.

Britney’s son was four months old when, in 2007 she went into a hair salon and shaved her head – she took the clippers herself because, she said, she was sick of people touching her. She was sick of being reshaped to fit patriarchal standards. She was sick – it had made her sick. Returning from her ex-husband’s house, where he’d refused to let her see her children, she attacked paparazzo Daniel Ramos’s car with an umbrella. “She never gave a clue [that she wanted to be left alone],” Ramos says to camera. “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone’?” the filmmaker replies.

It was at this point that I paused, to quickly Google the “Leave Britney Alone” fan. This was Chris Crocker, whose mascara-smudged crying video went viral that same year. I had filed this clip with the other ephemeral jokes of those early internets, along with the sneezing baby panda and Charlie bit my finger. But, oh. “Me saying, ‘Leave Britney alone’ was never really the issue,” Crocker (who uses they/them pronouns) said last week, claiming much of the response was transphobic. Death threats were sent to their grandmother’s house. The reckonings fall like rain – it turns out that Crocker was not a punchline, but a pioneer.

In 2008, “What has Britney Spears lost this year?” was a question on the gameshow Family Feud – applause followed the answers: her children! Yay! Her mind! Whoo! Her dignity! Ha! She was hospitalised twice; her father, who she said she’s scared of, was made her legal caretaker. His conservatorship, controlling her financial and her personal affairs in an arrangement typically used for people in vegetative states, continues today, despite the lack of internal logic to the idea a 39-year-old woman with two kids and an extremely lucrative career can’t take care of herself. She is paying, of course, not just for her own lawyers, but for her father’s, too.

Fans chanting “Free Britney” march outside court and through the internet; since the documentary ran in the US, fans, media and fellow celebrities have apologised to her on social media, acknowledging their complicity in feeding on her pain.

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When these stories emerge, the Magic Eye picture swimming into sight – Amy Winehouse, Monica Lewinsky, Princess Diana – I grapple again with culpability. Yes, my generation ate up the headlines, sometimes unquestioningly, sometimes with a screaming thrill, but as well as being consumers of a media that treated women as villains, weren’t we also victims of it?

Examining again the story of Britney leads to examining again our responses to the girl at school whose boyfriend said she was crazy, and the new mother who cried at work, and the friend who showed everyone at the pub naked photos of his ex. These stories shaped us, our understanding of femaleness, sex and power. In reconsidering the life of a person like Britney Spears, we have the chance to reconsider our own, less well-lit paths to adulthood, to motherhood, to divorce, to freedom.

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