Conservators on Netflix: Wardship in the Spotlight

Image Description: A person’s face in fuchsia tone long hair wearing a necklace and aviator glasses. The person in the graphic is Brittney Spears.

By: Sasha Warren

With the appearance of recent films like the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” and the Netflix drama “I Care a Lot,” the usually obscure guardianship laws have become, however temporarily, more visible. The former, a New York Times documentary, reeks with naivety and frames these laws as a spectacular exception for a “functioning adult,” a term which is never defined. But for many disabled, mad, and elderly people (only this last group is even mentioned by the film), they are terribly mundane.

What is guardianship? Put simply, it is a police power of the state to care for those deemed incapable of caring for themselves (also called the parens patriae, the “parent of the state”). In “I Care a Lot,” it finally receives a proper villain story. The main character Marla Grayson exploits her position as a legal guardian and friendly relationship with the judge to extort her eldery wards of their property. When she starts to get pushback, she wields her capacity to make informed choices for her clients like a weapon, changing their diets and medication regimens until they yield to her power. 

The film is so salacious and painful because, although exaggerated and extreme, Grayson’s acts are possible within the real guardianship system. The guardian or conservator gains control over what we often consider the basic civic rights of the ward: choice of residence, medical choices, capacity to sign contracts, and much else. Legal guardianship is like a miniature state with specific guardians ranging from benevolent shepherds to cruel dictators, but it always involves a comprehensive stripping of rights. 

Some advocates make the argument that we undervalue the capacity of wards to handle their own matters and live independently. While this is undoubtedly true and these legal battles are important, the underlying argument is incomplete. By arguing case-by-case that individuals have the capacity to live independently, one tacitly accepts the legal premise that we are all private individuals who must be able to perform certain economic acts to be considered “competent.” By arguing that this particular person truly is competent to live independently, we are implicitly arguing that the category of “competence” makes sense and that there are others who are not. There will always be someone who falls short.

In fact, there is not a single person alive today who is not dependent on masses of others to farm, process goods, transport them, build things, etc. The opposite of wardship is not independence, it’s communal resilience. In this sense, words like “incompetant” and “vulnerable” do not refer to individual traits, but rather to social arrangements. When these fail to work for everyone, the burden of failure is unloaded onto disabled and mad individuals instead of onto the system itself. Of course, there are many individual legal battles that must be fought to protect peoples’ ability to be out in the world and to make their own decisions, but this problem reveals a higher goal that cannot be obtained through purely legal means: the problem of guardianship can only be routed in a general sense by building a communal world, by building a real community that lives up to that name. Only then can we transform the social relation that functions by characterizing some people as capable and productive and scapegoats others as the opposite.

Sasha Warren, a White person with brown short hair and wearing a black shirt that reads everybody hates the police, with a red wall and curtain behind them.

Sasha Warren is the founder at Of Unsound Mind “a project oriented towards abolishing the present state of things and the police that protect it. A police-less future must also be free of that policing that directs itself at our mental health, our deviancies, and our differences. Those states called mad, disabled, or criminal are not neutral or natural givens, but are categories through which we travel in the fight for new worlds.” In addition to Sasha’s work at Of Unsound Mind, Sasha also is a part of our Madness Network News editorial team. unsound

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