She Pop: Sacrificial Virgins: On Britney Spears, Aging, and the Lure of Female Pain
I have an exciting piece of news for you: Britney Spears has been making music for ten years, because you are getting old and will die someday. True, scientists have not yet discovered a direct causal link between Britney Spears having been around for ten years and the fact that time marches ever forward, bringing you with each moment closer to the grave! I am fairly certain, however, that this "mortality" thing is more or less directly her fault.
I can remember a time when I hated Britney. This time, in case you are wondering, would be my senior year of high school. We were both eighteen. (DEATH! DEATH COMES EVER CLOSER AS TIME PASSES! THE LIGHT, IT DIMS!) I disliked her, not because she was so sexual - pop stars have pretty much always been overtly sexual, so that was no suprise - but because her sexual appeal was based on not having had sex. Her image was so obviously manufactured to straddle the virgin/whore line, to give men a forbidden sexual thrill whilst reaping the rewards of public purity. She did a video in a sexy schoolgirl outfit; she proclaimed her own virginity. She posed for a magazine cover in her underwear; she did an inspirational book with her "best friend" and "mama." And I, being of precisely the right age to start getting attention from older guys who made creepy comments about my "innocence," really resented Britney for stoking the fires of teen girl fetishists. I believed, for some reason, that if Britney weren't willingly being objectified, I wouldn't be objectified against my will.
ILLUSTRATION: Yeah, this was what bothered me. Also - Hole! Manson! CHER! TELETUBBIES! THESE THINGS WERE RELEVANT ONCE! YOUR ALLOTTED TIME ON THIS EARTH GROWS SHORTER!
You know: I typically find, when I resent another woman, that I'm attributing power to her that she does not possess. It was easy for me to hate Britney because I thought she was in control the whole time. I didn't get that she was just another girl, dealing with the same bullshit attitudes about her sexuality and sexual availability that I had to cope with. (Teen girls: don't have sex! Even though you are so SEXY. And will stop being sexy as soon as you actually HAVE SEX!) She'd chosen, on some level, to cash in; I'd chosen, on some level, to check out. But I can see the point of view of people who cash in, these days, and I can recognize that neither choice really comes from a place of power or control. It's just what people do in the face of limited options. And, as a high-schooler, I didn't understand that Sexy Virgin Britney Spears, as manufactured by her record label and managers, might not be the sole creation of Britney Spears, Person - that she, actually, might feel powerless in the face of the Britney Spears Media Machine too. And, yeah, some of her stuff was really bad, and some of the things she said in public were really dumb, and maybe she did make some bad decisions, maybe she continued to make worse and worse decisions, but, you know? We were both eighteen once. And I'm really glad that my early twenties were not broadcasted to the world at large. You could find some faults there, is all I'm saying!
I always like to think of Britney as the reincarnation of Neely O'Hara. Neely, lest we forget, was the immortal heroine of Valley of the Dolls, a child star who got famous, got married, got un-married, got hooked on The Drugs, got institutionalized, got un-famous, got un-hooked on the drugs, got famous again, and so on and so on, in roughly that order, ad infinitum. It's all good trashy fun in the book, especially since the book is terrible. How over the top can this woman get? How out of control? And so on, and so on. It's when you realize that you're having fun watching another person's life fall apart (Britney - or, hey, Judy Garland, on whom Neely was based) that the sick feeling starts to kick in.
Why do we like our female stars to suffer? There's no question that we do; consider - God knows I do, in dark moments when there is nothing else to post - the mass hysteria over the prospect that Jessica Simpson may be near-catatonic with depression due to dog loss. This isn't a story. This is a vague, unexceptional event dressed up to look like a story because it has the promise of public female suffering. Spears is a source of interest just because things happen to her - big, exciting, terrible, painful things - and people like to watch stories that are big and exciting for them and painful for someone else. Women, more often than not - women we can paint as crazy, or slutty, or bitchy, or stupid, or out-of-control, women we can use to scare other women, women we can point to and say, look! That's who not to be. Which is just as damaging as pointing to a woman pretending to embody some unattainable ideal and saying, look! That's why we don't like you. Because that's what you're not. It just feels powerful, hating those women, because for once you're not the one being shamed. See, also: Megan Fox Hatred 101.
Britney managed, for just about one second, to embody every contradictory message about female worth out there - wholesome, but sexy, but pure, but dirty, but "girl next door," but glamorous - and we venerated her for it. Then she slipped up, and we took great joy in tearing her to pieces. See? She's actually having sex now! See? Her innocence was an act! Look! The girl we encouraged to be an unthinking, largely unspeaking body didn't turn out to be a nuclear scientist! My God! Her body is capable of gaining weight! SHAME, SHAME.
At a certain point, Britney Spears lost her worth, in the public eye. When she had children, gained weight, lost the fascination of the new. When she became a grown-up; when she became publicly known as a flawed, suffering person instead of a cartoon; when she stopped pretending to be a fantasy. And, of course, now she's in the "comeback" stage of the cycle. Which was inevitable. Every sacrificial victim gets a comeback, if she doesn't die first. And that might simply be because, after you've torn someone down far enough, there's nothing else to do but build her back up. We love women when they're too young and too inexperienced to be anything other than vessels for our desire. We love them when they're spiraling out of control and giving us a chance to opine about what Good Girls Don't do, to scare other women into line. And we love them even more when they let us welcome them back into the fold - when they demonstrate, for us, the benefits of repentance.
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