When Britney’s life went into a flat spin two years ago, the tabloid knives came out, not just for her, but also for ‘stage mom’ Lynne.
Anytime anything goes wrong with a child (even a grown-up child) bad mothering is an instant blame button and Britney’s hard-drinking, head-shaving, fanny-flashing antics were taken as classic delayed teenage rebellion.
The tabloid press had a field day when Britney served her mother with a restraining order in 2007. Obviously it was Lynne’s ‘pushiness’ that finally sent Britney to the brink. After Britney was twice-sectioned in early 2008, the courts made dad Jamie her conservator and Lynne, once a constant presence at Britney’s side, pretty much vanished from the scene.
Jamie’s absolute control over Britney’s finances, property, business ventures and person (she reportedly isn’t even allowed phone calls without his permission) has been widely lauded as a very good thing. “Too bad he didn’t step in years ago when Lynne was in charge. Britney might not have been this much of a mess!” is a typical fan-site comment.
Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight
The minor matter of Britney’s human rights, or rather her total lack thereof, is accepted on the basis that the conservatorship is ‘working’ and that she is ‘stable’. The courts said as much when they made the situation permanent in late 2008, meaning unless Britney – who isn’t allowed to hire her own lawyer – is able to challenge it, Jamie will be her legal guardian until he dies.
This ties up the loose ends in a neat, patriarchy-approved package. According to the script, Britney is a flighty, irresponsible female who cracked under the strain of overzealous mothering. Luckily dear old dad, a big, silent, crumple-faced man whose only previous public role was standing at the back of the occasional family photo-op looking awkward, has done what any good paterfamilias would and stepped in to set things straight.
This has a nice ring to it, and it saves fans and the media from having to engage with any of the uncomfortable truths underlying the myth of Britney’s ascent from small-town talent show contestant to world’s most powerful celebrity. Like fact that, until he sought rehab in 2004, he was severely alcoholic.
Not, according to Lynne’s accounts, just a man who sometimes had a few too many on a Saturday night but a full-blown, not turning up at work, not paying the bills, disappearing for weekends, oh-my-god-what’s-he-going-to-do-next alcoholic. His brother William has told the press: “Just about everyone in the Spears family is a drunk and Britney’s dad Jamie was one of the worst. He would drink from daylight to night. Britney saw him drunk all the time….”
Working gave Britney a way out of this physical environment, but she hasn’t ducked the emotional consequences
Lynne, in her book, Through The Storm, writes that he was “reckless, sometimes mean, and absent from his family physically and emotionally… Looking back, I’m almost positive staying with Jamie was not the right thing to do for the kids. Our children saw far too many knock-down, drag-out fights between their mama and daddy.”
This screws up the paternalistic ‘daddy to the rescue’ storyline, so it gets shoved under the carpet. But think about it – going to dance classes and trekking to talent shows must have been a hell of a lot more appealing than being in a house where “the cupboards were often bare” and mom and dad were screaming at each other.
No wonder Britney was eager to leave Kentwood for stage school in New York at age eight. She and Lynne lived hand to mouth in the big city, moving from one cheap sublet to another as Lynne Spears writes in Britney Spears Heart to Heart, but at least they were away from the stress and uncertainty of life with Jamie. Lynne says he was a bullying, obnoxious drunk. In Sean Smith’s unauthorised biography, Britney’s high school boyfriend recalls him pulling a gun on a relative during a drunken argument. A Daily Mail journalist tells how he refused to let her leave his house after an interview and kept stabbing the kitchen table with a carving knife.
Working gave Britney a way out of this physical environment, but she hasn’t ducked the emotional consequences. A list of traits common to children of alcoholics reads like a Britney personality profile, as sketched out in Heart to Heart and Smith. Taking herself super-seriously? Her first dance teacher recalls two-year-old Britters would get upset if her fellow toddlers didn’t concentrate hard enough. Need for approval? Note her overreaction to coming second on TV talent show Star Search. “I knew everyone back home was watching me and I had let them down. How could I face them?” Judging herself harshly? “I’m my own toughest critic,” she says. Impulsive behaviour? Getting married in Las Vegas at 3AM.
The fucked-up fact is we live in a world where people can look at pictures of Rihanna’s face after Chris Brown allegedly used her for a punch bag and still make excuses for him. The invisible bruises of emotional abuse are even easier to ignore. No-one questions what it took to make Britney, aged 18, ask her mom if she really wanted to be with her dad anymore. “She knew that years of verbal abuse, abandonment, erratic behaviour and his simply not being there for me had taken its toll,” recalls Lynne in Through The Storm.
She’s smiling, dancing and flaunting perfect abs so everything must be okay, right?
Her father’s abusive, distant behaviour could explain Britney’s series of increasingly awful relationship choices: the fling with Fred Durst, the 55-hour marriage to Jason Alexander, slimy paparazzo Adnan Ghalib. And the wishful-thinking wedding where she hitched herself to cocky, unreliable, girl friend-ditching, all-drinking, all-smoking party boy Kevin Federline. If you can bring yourself to watch, the early episodes of their reality TV show Chaotic make gruesome viewing. Britney hovers around Kevin desperate for affection and he seems to grow more arrogant by the minute. At one point she asks what love means to him he squints up from beneath his jaunty baseball cap and, after a long silence says, “love is [pause] love”. It’s not exactly gold-standard emotional support.
Post K-Fed, of course, Britney disappeared into a maelstrom of hard-partying, lurid headlines, custody battles, paparazzi chases, head shaving and psychiatric hospitalisations.
It is, of course, a relief to see Britney looking well again. She’s smiling, dancing and flaunting perfect abs so everything must be okay, right? No-one is asking if putting a woman under the suffocating control of her erstwhile abuser is anything but a continuation of the abuse. And just because Jamie Spears wasn’t physically violent towards Britney doesn’t mean he didn’t abuse her. In my opinion, having to deal with adult rage is a form of abuse; not being able to protect your mother from your father’s verbal battery is abuse; not knowing if your dad will come home happy, drunk or not at all is a form of abuse; living without heat and a telephone because daddy hasn’t paid the bills is a form of abuse.
She has no choice to but to get up, go to work and keep her mouth shut. The one time Britney’s had a chance to speak (in MTV documentary For The Record) she said: “I have really good days, and then I have bad days. Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never ending.” Hardly the sentiments of a girl delighted to be back under her father’s watchful eye. But hey, who cares how Britney feels? She looks good, she’s back onstage and everybody’s getting paid. Better for a woman to be stripped of her rights than to have her running around stripped of her tights.
Cila Warncke lives in Ibiza and is writing a book on the role of Britney Spears in pop culture. She also writes on social and feminist issues at Irresponsibility and runs communications company Comm Central