Cornell University Press

#FreeBritney: Madness, Money, and Family Conflict in Historical Perspective

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In November 2020, the American pop star Britney Spears lost a very public legal battle challenging her father’s role in her personal and professional affairs. The thirty-eight-year-old’s fate was debated by lawyers and decided by a judge, inside a courthouse surrounded by fans holding placards featuring the supportive social media hashtag #FreeBritney. The issue at hand concerned who would control Spears’ vast fortune and make legal decisions in her name: her father, Jamie, or a fiduciary trust. 

Spears has lived under conservatorship since 2008, when she experienced a period of psychological distress energetically reported by the tabloid media. In the twelve years since, the star took up a lucrative residency in Las Vegas, continued to release hit singles, and raised two sons. Jamie Spears has served as conservator for most of this time; his lawyers argue that his daughter’s increased earning power after her crisis is a testament to his own success as conservator. He also reportedly engaged in a physical altercation with one of his minor grandchildren—resulting in the filing of a temporary restraining order—in 2019. Spears hoped to suspend her father’s role in the conservatorship and transfer his responsibilities to a team of independent overseers, but Judge Brenda Penny of the Los Angeles superior court ruled to maintain Jamie’s role in his daughter’s affairs for the time being. 

Causes célèbres related to mental illness and family conflict have been recurrent features of modern media culture. Such controversies were especially prominent in the nineteenth century, an era in which rationality conferred the rights of citizenship, insane asylums proliferated, and a growing reading public craved sensational stories. As I discuss in my book, Institutionalizing Gender: Madness, the Family, and Psychiatric Power in Nineteenth-Century France, the development of asylum psychiatry opened up new possibilities for those looking to exert control over their relatives’ finances.

Early asylum doctors inaugurated a system that incarcerated thousands against their wills in situations that were often more akin to torture than treatment. Yet men like Philippe Pinel and Jean-Étienne Esquirol, the founders of French psychiatry, intended to bring about an era of humane care. They sought to replace a process of institutionalization that depended almost entirely on the whims of family members with one that hinged upon the opinions of medical professionals. What doctors failed to recognize was that their own class- and gender-based assumptions regarding diagnosis and treatment would create new forms of oppression for those they claimed to support. By the late 1800s, the press routinely accused French asylum doctors of unjustly locking people away in “Modern Bastilles” in reference to the potent Old Regime symbol of arbitrary confinement.

Early asylum doctors inaugurated a system that incarcerated thousands against their wills in situations that were often more akin to torture than treatment.

Furthermore, unscrupulous relatives could still manipulate legal and medical regulations to their advantage. Once labeled insane by a doctor, it was exceedingly difficult for patients to convince the courts that they were of sound enough mind to justify their release or handle their own affairs. Female asylum inmates were in an especially precarious position because all women lacked legal equality with men. Those who did not conform to middle-class expectations regarding ideal femininity were particularly vulnerable. 

The outspoken feminist Marie Esquiron is a case in point: after inheriting her mother’s estate when she reached the age of majority, she was eventually institutionalized at her father’s request after seeking to divorce her husband in 1890. The unwilling mental patient failed to convince French courts to set her free despite publishing a lucid self-defense in which she claimed her father’s greed lay behind her commitment. According to doctors, Esquiron’s insistence that she was victim of a family plot was itself evidence of madness.

Indeed, as calls to #FreeBritney remind us, fame and fortune have historically limited some women’s autonomy precisely because money often complicates family relationships—and because ableism has long structured our legal codes.

Esquiron’s predicament reveals how money and notoriety served as little protection for women deemed mentally unstable. Indeed, as calls to #FreeBritney remind us, fame and fortune have historically limited some women’s autonomy precisely because money often complicates family relationships—and because ableism has long structured our legal codes.

*Featured image courtesy of Dietmar RabichLos Angeles (California, USA), Hollywood Boulevard, Britney Spears—2012—5025CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jessie Hewitt is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Redlands. Follow her on Twitter @jessie_hewitt.

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