Britney Spears changed my life. At first, this sentence may seem absurd to you for reasons including (but not limited to): 1. I am nearly 30 years old, 2. It is 2011, 3. I am an educated, self-described feminist, as well as an art, music, and culture-snob, and last [but most frequently] “how on earth could Britney affect anyone other than by providing something to dance to at last call or to make fun of when skimming through Us Weekly at the doctor’s office?” I understand where you are coming from. Defending the idea that Britney can affect anyone positively (above the age of 12 or of any intelligence) can be a daunting task, one that I have been confronted with for almost ten years. That being said, I am not here to sell you a Britney Spears download (although her newest album, Femme Fatale, is worth its weight in gold). Instead, I would like to offer insight as to why you have been socialized and conditioned to dismiss Britney’s value and/or more importantly, how you may have a thing or two to learn from her.
A lot of things are uncertain in this world, but here is one constant: Britney’s fans are the most loyal in the world and will defend her to the grave. Fail safe. To fall in love with Britney involves a lot of time, effort, and awareness–all of which have little to do with her music. Instead, it becomes about articulating your love for her in a society that has encouraged you to reject Britney for what she represents, while forcing her upon you from every which angle imaginable. And anyone with half-a-brain knows that true devotion is always born of mass resistance and in turn, met with even more opposition.
Case in point: any Britney Spears concert you ever attend (July marked my third) will be sold out and filled with screaming, crying, and overly-protective fans; all of whom are most likely over the age of 20. They have been defending, admiring, and obsessing over Ms. Spears for a long time now—and her shows are a true place of celebratory demonstration. There are tons of joyous tears, fanatical dancing, and a loving-energy that remains unrivaled, in my experience–despite having attended countless shows of the cultish persuasion (Ani diFranco, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, anyone?). This is because to know Britney is to love Britney—and her performances are some of the only times in life where one can vocalize support without defense (for at least two whole hours!).
Here is another certainty in life: society is always critical of strong, successful, and powerful women—including the ones that do so while embracing their femininity and prescribed gendered norms. Certainly this is not to suggest that subversive or androgynous women don’t have their own uphill (if not greater) battle (see also: “gaga has a penis”) but rather that we tend to condemn female social power based on appearance (and sexuality) without considering the backlash of the male gaze (and perhaps just as detrimental—the female gaze). Or more aptly put: WE (both men and women) tend to be a lot more critical of the gendered ideal forced upon us by our very own practices—and who has been more sexualized, idealized, and pushed upon us in the past decade than Britney Spears?
But who has been more debased than Britney Spears? First, there was the controversial David LaChapelle photo shoot depicting a 17-year-old Spears stripped so bare you could see the hairs on her tummy. Without any regard for the artistic vision of the famed photographer or Rolling Stone magazine, Britney became the teenage personification of our deepest Freudian Madonna-whore complexes. And then there was the tumultuous break-up with Justin Timberlake–where the public treated him like the new Michael Jackson (sans the obvious)–yet, despite his talent, he still felt the need to dump all over her publicly to sell his records. By the time she was 21, Britney had become the living, breathing manifestation of our deepest sexual paranoia. She wasn’t the virgin that her publicist and record company made her say she was and as a trained gymnast/dancer (and poster child for the idealized female form) she could DANCE and ENTERTAIN and BE PROUD OF HER FIGURE (heaven forbid she do the job she’s paid to do). Then,to top it all off, she wasn’t apologizing for it. The world was obsessed with her and hated her for it, too.
But anyone who wasn’t born in a cave yesterday knows that you can machete Britney’s public image into two parts: BEFORE and AFTER the nervous breakdown (B.B. and A.B., respectively). Britney B.B. was ostracized for being a sexualized “virgin” who embraced her appearance and her career as an entertainer (Gaga went through Heathrow in a thong but because she doesn’t fake-bake was off the hook) and hit levels of fame that kept her confined to her own diving bell of celebrity. And then she lost her mind (as most of would under that level of scrutiny) making it superlatively heartbreaking to watch her crumble.
That being said, any person who has taken a Psych 101 class should have a pretty good grasp on what Britney A.B. was doing. Having been a child star, developing a sense of self based on others less-than-stellar perceptions can prove a scathing task (um, Dubois, anyone?) So, like most of us have and would–she looked for love in all of the wrong places, got mixed up with some bad crowds, and acted out in ways never before imaginable. Then, after losing custody of her children (followed by a very public hospitalization) the world decided they preferred their Britney a virgin-whore after all. And the world watched in horror and anticipation as the paparazzi and collective industry took on a whole new level of invasiveness.
Britney’s seventh Rolling Stone cover (a feat rivaled to date only by Madonna) in March, 2008 pictured an almost obituary-esque black and white photo of Spears with the macabre headline: “Inside an American Tragedy.” Except that she wasn’t dead, in fact, she was alive and fully aware of the way she was being presented. Britney had gone from virgin to whore, to crazed, bald, umbrella-bearing freak, to terrible mother, to fat, to now the object of public pity all in less than nine years. The most alarming development of Britney A.B. came with the unprecedented but terrifying decision by the State of California to grant her estranged father legal conservatorship over her life, money, career, home, and physical self (a ruling normally reserved for quadriplegics on life-support not 29-year-old, successful women). Even the law had rendered Britney helpless. Suddenly, the world wanted nothing more than the resurrection of our fallen American-icon, despite still wielding the bloody murder weapon.
And born again Britney was. Within three years she went from proverbial public trash to the Second Coming—complete with sold-out tours, platinum records, a new doting- boyfriend, and children in tow. And although from the outside she seems to be doing it happily and effortlessly, one should not ignore that she is still under her father’s complete legal control—a one-woman assembly line, providing jobs for hundreds under the guise of “See! She’s all better!” Despite being thrilled for her public turn-around (don’t call it a comeback!), it’s hard to not see her like a broken but bandaged-up baby-doll in the right lighting.
In fact, it’s bittersweet (and quite emotional) as a devoted fan for ten years to be writing this piece on the eve of the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards–where they have been relentlessly plugging a tribute to the legendary Spears. Apparently, just as there was money to be made off of her downfall, there is plenty to be gained from her reclamation. The very people that plotted for both her success and subsequent demise have equal stake in her eventual triumph.
And so, as a feminist and fan of Britney Spears, I have spent over a decade watching and observing what exactly happens when a woman tries to make it on her own by doing exactly what society asks of her. She bleached her hair, stayed fit, danced when asked, made records, and did it all while we hated her for it. And when she tried to deviate from her own circumstances, we punished and pitied her—called her “tragic” in the very magazine that used her image six-times prior to boost sales and circulation.
That being said, I want to be careful to not portray Spears in the oft-criticized second-wave-feminist “victim” role that we are so desperate to subvert and infuse with agency in current feminist activism. Rather, I would like to suggest that Britney fell into the impossible “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” binary that plagues most women today—where she was wrong for embracing her beauty, sexuality, and career and even more at fault for not being able to stay that way.
Not to mention that everything we attack Britney for–whether it be her sexuality, boobs, motherhood, or vagina–is inherently female and (more often than not) a manifestation of our own projections of what female should or shouldn’t be. Or perhaps most importantly, we are jarred by the possibility that what made us so fascinated–and yet so critical–is that deep down, we all have a little Britney in us.
Especially now, as we celebrate “Britney Spears: the Phoenix” rising from the ash of our worst fears and transforming into a near-perfect shell of her former self. It’s hard to use words like “full circle” when you know that at 30 years-old, she still has no legal control over her own life. That’s why I can say unabashedly that “Britney Spears changed my life.” She showed me from a very young age what happens when you follow the proscribed rote of womanhood—complete with a career, looks, and a modern family–where you can do everything right and everything wrong and still not be certain of the difference it makes.