The austere tinny echo of a music box punctures the melody of Britney Spears’s 2003 song Everytime. It won the Teen Choice Award for best love song that year. But for all the early aughts imagery of a platinum blonde Ophelia leaving Las Vegas, Everytime is not a love song. It is is a penthouse bathtub siren’s warning about the repeated offenses of controlling men. It is a codependent lullaby with a hauntingly accurate music video portraying what Britney Spears’s life would look like in 5 short years. Everytime is a premonition, but we didn’t know that in 2003.
And every time I try to fly
I fall without my wings
I feel so small
I guess I need you
My interest in Britney Spears’s conservatorship is because I was also a child entertainer in the 90s with exploitive parents, though I was never as famous. 11 year old Britney Spears was cast in the Mickey Mouse Club a few years before my career ended at age 10 years old because my family had to run away from my abusive dad after he threatened to kill us. My first acting job was at 6 months old when I played a baby in a commercial for a bank’s college savings account. An ironic role, given that my parents illegally circumvented child labor laws and spent every dollar I earned. Most of my jobs in the 90s were playing a smiling girl with pigtails in commercials for PowerWheels, Target, and Hamburger Helper. Auditioning for commercials, not movies, meant that my parents could avoid the oversight and regulation of the Coogan Act and the Screen Actors Guild. I loved being on set with my fake actor family and crew. I dreaded wrapping because it meant that I would need to return home to my real family who was physically and sexually abusive. On set, we played improv games to warm up and I was always excited to work because it meant not being home. Being cast in a commercial meant that Mom would allow me to play with the forbidden Mattel toys boycotted in our house because I had been hired to advertise them, I could wear makeup, and I was allowed to eat more than iceberg lettuce because was I was getting paid to do these things on camera.
Many child stars resort to legal emancipation to escape the exploitive grips of their stage dads and stage moms, but Britney Spears’s conservatorship is the opposite. Conservatorships are unusual, given that they are usually granted to the elderly with dementia or those who are too disabled to manage their own finances and other daily responsibilities. To manage his daughter’s conservatorship, Jamie Spears earns $130,000 annually. This is conjecture, but I would be very surprised if Jamie Spears has any source of income other than his daughter. Thinking about ethics, what does it mean when children become the breadwinners for their parents? Rarely anything good.
On Wednesday, September 2, Britney Spears’s attorney Samuel D. Ingham III filed a motion to oppose her father’s request to continue keeping the pop star’s conservatorship case sealed. Ingham wrote “far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’ aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimize the amount of meaningful information made available to the public.”
#FreeBritney is an extreme symptom of our parenting culture that fosters ownership over children without autonomy. Children are only granted as many rights as the adults around them are willing to give. Too often, in the case of child entertainers, we cannibalize and capitalize their childhoods for our enjoyment. Britney Spears’s lawyer has stated that she does not want to entirely disband the conservatorship, but rather appoint a different conservator who is not her father.
Today’s child stars face a very different landscape and more vulnerability than Britney or child actors in Hollywood a century ago. Social media kidfluencers show us just how antiquated our child labor laws are. Family vlogger stage moms and stage dads don’t have any oversight to insist that their kids need to stop filming new content for Tik Tok, Instagram or YouTube by a certain hour. Child stars on social media are even more vulnerable to financial abuse when their parents sign contracts on their behalf for brand deals and endorsements. When play becomes work, the boundaries between real life and content creation blur for children. If we are going to capitalize on childhood, we should at least instate a bare minimum of protections. This becomes even more important as the economy drives many families into dire economic hardship where parents might be more likely to push their kids to become the household’s breadwinners.
Because my family had to run away from my dad when I was 10, my acting career effectively ended before I was a teenager. A few years later, when I was 14, my mom kicked me out after my little brother announced that I was gay. I didn’t have a lawyer to help me file for emancipation, but I am grateful to my mom for literally pushing me away from her abuse. Although I worried about my younger siblings when I left, and periodically returned to check on them.
In 2003 when Everytime was broadcast across the radio and TRL, we didn’t know how controlling Britney’s stage dad, conservator Jamie Spears was. #FreeBritney didn’t exist yet and our conversations around mental health were very different 20 years ago.
The Everytime music video is a haunting premonition of paparazzi accosting Britney, a tumultuous relationship with a volatile and abusive man, and men pushing her through tight and blindingly white hallways. Britney is whisked away in an ambulance and she seems to be a ghost. She runs from the camera and suddenly emerges from the murky white bath. The ending is uncertain, but she is smiling.