I can’t say much else without revealing major spoilers. Watch it for yourself to see what I mean. And when you finish, I wonder if you’ll be thinking what I am right now: that Cyrus’ episode feels very similar to the #FreeBritney movement on social media.
It’s been a few days since I first watched Miley Cyrus’ episode of Black Mirror, but my mind is still spinning. The story is simultaneously fresh and familiar: We’re introduced to a pop star named Ashley O. (Cyrus), whose songs are as bright and whimsical as her neon-purple wig. But underneath the smiley press appearances and sleek bops is a young woman deeply unsatisfied with her life.
She desperately wants to shake up her image and sound but feels pressure from her manager-slash-aunt, Catherine, to stay the same. So Ashley’s team gives her pills – illegal ones – to balance her mood and, essentially, control her. Eventually she realises what they’re doing, but her efforts to break free end in horror.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, #FreeBritney started in April by fans who wanted to advocate for pop singer Britney Spears. At the time, they were widely speculating that Spears was being held without her permission in a mental institution after refusing to take medication requested by her father, Jamie, who’s also her conservator. Spears has since gone on the record denying the claims and telling fans “all is well.”
That may be, but it’s still hard not to think of #FreeBritney while watching Cyrus’ Black Mirror episode.
At the centre of the #FreeBritney narrative – I’m calling it a narrative because nothing’s been verified – is a pop superstar very similar to Ashley O. We don’t know how Britney Spears feels about her music or image, but we do know from past interviews that she finds the parameters of her conservatorship constraining. “I don’t feel like my life is out of control. I feel like it’s too in control,” she said during her 2008 MTV documentary Britney: For the Record. “There’s no excitement. There’s no passion. It’s like Groundhog Day every day.” My mind immediately recalled this soundbite while watching Cyrus in Black Mirror, specifically when her character looks out the car window at a grungy dive bar she wants to perform in. Instead, she’s selling out stadiums.
It’s the freedom of choice that Ashley O. misses – the ability to play where she wants, sing what she wants, and go where she wants. Spears has often expressed a similar yearning for autonomy; she allegedly isn’t even allowed to drive. (In For the Record, her “surprise” for a day is getting to drive her car on the freeway, and the rumoured catalyst for #FreeBritney was the fact she was caught behind the wheel of a Mercedes.)
I’m hesitant to discuss the medication component of #FreeBritney because even though it’s believed by some that she takes some kind of mood-stabilising medicine, it’s never been confirmed. In Black Mirror, though, we see Ashley’s Aunt Catherine use drugs as a vehicle to keep her niece on a straight, narrow, lucrative path. When Ashley expresses a desire to do anything outside her shimmery pop shell, her team doesn’t listen: They just up her dosage. Conspiracy theorists allege the same thing is going on with Spears, but, again, that’s highly speculative.
What Ashley O. and Britney Spears have in common is an intense desire to rebel from seemingly inescapable circumstances.
What does track is Spears feeling like the people around her don’t take her requests seriously. “When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me but they’re really not listening,” she also says in For the Record, likening her situation to prison. “Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out.” I have no doubt that Ashley O. has similar feelings in Black Mirror. Both she and Spears (according to the #FreeBritney movement, that is) are confined to the expectations the world has for women in pop: to be affable, beautiful, likable, calm, and, above all, malleable.
There are less extreme examples of this elsewhere in pop. Nearly every woman in music has opened up in some way about industry politics. “They pressure me, saying ‘You gotta be sexy, you gotta be cute, you gotta be nice, you gotta be all these things,'” Selena Gomez said in 2014. “They tell me what to wear, how to look, what I should say, how I should be.” What Ashley O. and Britney Spears have in common is an intense desire to rebel from seemingly inescapable circumstances. Gomez was able to deviate from the glossy sheen of her Disney background and live life on her own terms. Ashley O. can’t do that and, according to #FreeBritney truthers, neither can Spears.
To be clear, the parallels between #FreeBritney and Ashley O. are purely coincidental. The former movement started months after Black Mirror wrapped shooting; unless the show-runners are psychic, there’s no way they could have predicted a real-life situation would so closely resemble one of their episodes.
That being said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’re seeing Ashley O.’s story now. Her situation is, if anything, a grossly-exaggerated version of Spears’. And just like The Handmaid’s Tale multiplies our political climate by a thousand, maybe seeing this Black Mirror episode will make people examine how we treat women in music. They’re not money-making machines or objects for our entertainment, but human beings who deserve freedom – in whatever form that takes.
Obviously, I don’t want to make any assumptions about Britney Spears’ situation. At the end of the day, we really don’t know what’s going on. But if there’s even a slight chance that what #FreeBritney alleges is true, I’m glad Cyrus’ Black Mirror episode exists. I only hope Spears herself tunes in to see it.