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Before There Was Britney, There Was Judy

I am loving the #FreeBritney movement! This movement demonstrates the fact that we’re becoming more aware of our human rights, how we view others, and how we conceptualize fame (and the trauma that often comes with it).

Before Britney, however, there was another iconic woman who suffered through a similar kind of abuse. Just like Britney, she was a graceful woman whose identity was manipulated and deformed as she was effectively held, hostage.

Who is this amazing woman I am referring to? Well, Judy Garland. One of my icons, and a woman to whom I have felt inherently connected since childhood.

When I first saw Dorothy (played by Garland) open the door and enter a magical world of color, I was filled with joy and hope. I know this moment is timeless for all those looking to find a home that they might not have known, or for a land, like Oz, where the dreams that they had really would come true.

Britney and Judy never really came to my mind in the same thought until recently, when I began reading and hearing about the abuse surrounding Britney, and the way she’s been treated, molded and manufactured for the majority of her life.

Britney's story is everywhere these days. The buzz it's generating illustrates how mental health awareness, personal identity, and the repudiation of abuse are drastically different from when Judy was here, experiencing many of the same challenges Britney is coping with.

Let us see this as a huge sign of progress for all human rights, especially for eradicating the suppression and abuse of others who prey on others for their own selfish agenda.

As a therapist and mental health advocate, I believe the #FreeBritney movement is about more than just Britney Spears. It's about taking a stand against any form of abuse. No form of abuse is acceptable in my mind; however, when the abuse is rooted in the desire to gain from another person's gifts, this abuse often becomes more exploitative in nature.

We can look at these women from two different generations, and see the similarities in their environments and struggles, and in the lack of personal identity that they were able to create.

Both women were forced into using their talents to support everyone else, without ever being offered the chance to know their own authentic voices. Neither Judy nor Britney had self-agency over their finances, mental health rehabilitation, or, most significantly, their free will. Both mothers did the best they could to be present for their children, but often, their work and the insatiable needs of those dependent on them created a separation, causing greater risk to their mental health..

Though both had different voices, we can see the way they meet in the middle of being used and abused by their families-- and even, unknowingly, by us, their devoted fans. Just as we glamorized Judy's life, the same pattern applies to Britney, in an even more heightened and paparazzi-heavy culture.

The similarities between these icons are a remarkable demonstration of the way we see our idols and their struggles. Both Britney and Judy had ongoing mental health histories, which made them vulnerable to others taking advantage of them while reinforcing the idea that they were essentially objects to be monetized.

How dehumanizing that must have been for both, constantly knowing that it was on their shoulders to provide financially for others, most prominently their families. That incredible family pressure combined with industry pressure would take a significant toll on anyone’s mental health. Coupled with that this began in their childhood, would only intensify their experiences.

As I continued to research the trauma histories of Judy and Britney, I kept seeing remarkable coincidences. Both were plucked from childhood to perform, and once that train had started for each, it never stopped. Judy was 2 when she was forced to begin performing, and Britney, too, was performing professionally by the time she was 10.

Both young girls became providers for their families because of the incredible gifts of their voices. Both were passionate about performing, as can be seen; however, it was the subsequent traumas of being child stars and the unrealistic pressures of the industry that seemed to have taken the joy away from their gifts.

Britney is now publicly sharing some of the abusive treatment she was subjected to for the sake of maintaining or increasing her earning potential. Judy Garland had similar forms of abuse unloaded on her, and she continued to work and work until she wore herself down, where she could no longer give of anything, including her gifts.

When Britney had her emotional crisis in 2007, it was unfortunate to watch. It was even more disheartening to see how we treated her as a society. We labeled her as “crazy”, and mocked her mental health, which was in crisis. She shaved her head, became unglued, while we watched judging, never seeing what factors were really at hand.

Both women were repeatedly told how replaceable they were early on in their careers, which planted seeds of deep unworthiness. Britney has recently been open about having been drugged in order to keep performing, her inability to have her IUD removed, and even having to seek special arrangements to see her children.

In knowing Judy's story and how the entertainment company MGM and her family treated her, there are many similarities. At age five, Judy reported being drugged in order to be able to work longer, without sleep, while also having everything she ate being monitored.

Often being told that she was “too fat” or had “weird teeth”, Judy had very little ability to form a healthy self-image. Being told she was replaceable while also knowing her commitments towards supporting her family must have been a force that broke her spirit in more ways than one. Judy was forced to have an abortion by MGM because her pregnancy at nineteen would've tarnished the “girl-next-door” image that had fueled her career. Almost a generation later, the ideal version of the girl next door is still being pushed. Another question that pops up as it is now 2021 is; What does, the girl next door even mean?

Additionally, both Judy and Britney had fathers and male managers who took over their lives in search of the potential dollar signs that their talents could offer. The abuse from Britney's father, who himself seems to be coping with his mental health issues, was similar to that committed by Judy's father, who had his own personal identity issues. Both fathers appeared to be okay with their daughters being exploited-- as long as they were earning their cuts, and not being held emotionally accountable for their familial challenges.

There are more similarities between Britney and Judy that I could continue to psychoanalyze while finding incredible empathy with their struggles. Addiction, codependency, toxic relationships, and the pressure to provide are what unfortunately led to Judy overdosing at 47.

Had she been given the ability to rehabilitate the way Britney has, I wonder whether Judy would still be here inspiring us with her voice.

Britney is still here, and I am thankful again that she is finding greater strength in her mental health while advocating for the rights she deserves.

Yes, she struggled, and how could she have not? My question is (and I think this holds true for most): if she is physically and mentally healthy without being at imminent risk, why is she continually still being enslaved and without her rights?

The conservatorship she is in never seemed to have her best interests at heart because it never accounted for the possibility of her becoming emotionally rehabilitated.

In the past thirteen years, I believe she has done the emotional work to get to a place where she is happier, balanced, and in the position to empower herself. Her mental health seems to be thriving as she speaks her truth while finding ways to continue to heal from her traumas. She wants a change in her life (and if she didn't, that's when I would question her mental health). She is done with being abused and abusing herself, all of which I believe suggests dependable mental health, and the ability to move forward with her life.

Before there was Britney, however, there was Judy. And although Judy didn't have a #FreeJudy movement, she was just as worthy of one.

Judy, I have love for you that will never fade, and I know that so many others do too. You were so fearful of not being remembered or seen; however, you remain irreplaceable.

Britney, I am so moved by the way you’ve found the strength to advocate for yourself to get out of a harmful dynamic while reinstating your inherent rights.

These incredible women might have had messy life situations they were forced to deal with; however, their messes have become powerful messages, which require us to reevaluate how we can honor our own free will and be the most authentic versions of ourselves.

If we take anything from both women, let us honor their talents and their emotional value equally. Let us have empathy for those we admire when we know that they are suffering. And if nothing else, let us be grateful for the free will that most of us do have, and the experience of not being beholden to anyone in such an extremely harmful way.

Keep on fighting Britney, while Judy looks down on you and holding space for your bravery, and conviction. We are all on this yellow brick road together and let us not forget that though our journey might be challenging, it’s still OUR journey.

See you in August, and till then let’s keep up the momentum of #mentalhealthfirst

Hillary Schoninger LCSW


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