Britney Spears’ pop-tart
image was created as a fantasy for the average man, but since her brush
with the ugly side of fame, she’s been subjected to the average female
nightmare. The public, and press, have leveled at Spears a litany of
critiques that are familiar to everyday women: she’s lost her sex
appeal, she’s a bad mother, she’s "crazy," she’s fat, she’s
over the hill before the age of 30, she’s angry and out of control.
When Spears smashed her teen-queen façade by shaving her head, acting
out, and being less than impeccably groomed, the public reacted with
loathing and voyeurism; now, Spears’ "comeback" consists of losing her legal
at 27 (her birthday was Tuesday), being micro-managed back into the
same role she had as a comely teenager–the role that may have caused
all the problems to begin with.
On Sunday night two weeks ago, Mtv aired
a Britney-approved documentary in which she opened up about her life for
the first time in years. But the two hours of TV were more tragic than triumphant.
In between moments of happy rehearsals and studio antics, the film focused
in as Britney tearfully described
her current life as "sad,"
plagued by angsty boredom despite the rehearsals that are supposed to
give her joy. The documentary included a moment in which Spears said
that every day to her now feels like "Groundhog
Day," as well
as some shocking footage of her car being mobbed by paparazzi and her
handlers shielding her with a sheet as she shopped. Spears said she
longed to take walks without being hounded, to "feel the crispy air…
be a part of the people." One of her entourage expounded: "The
only time she’s free is when she’s in a closed four by four space."
In light of all that, it’s
been disturbing this week to watch Spears go
through the motions
of performances meant to highlight her toned physique and ability to
do some rudimentary dance moves. One wonder whether Spears is ready
for this "comeback," or whether the army of male managers, including
her dad, have foisted it on her because they don’t know what else to
do–and she’s their cash cow. A woman who
has been in the public eye since before
she could make decisions for herself
can’t break away from her abusive lifelong relationship with her audience,
as their sex-object, squeal inducer and punching bag.
Writing about Britney in the
midst of this blatantly-engineered publicity blitz is problematic: by
paying attention to her, we are feeding the machine that keeps her in
a cycle of public humiliation and redemption. We are reinforcing the
presentation of a person–a woman–as merchandise.
But Britney’s story is hard
to ignore because it brings up so many disturbing reminders of society’s
treatment of women, particularly our bodies. In the Spears explained
that she shaved
her head as "a
form of rebellion" and a way of "feeling free… shedding
stuff that had happened." The reason that the world reacted so violently
to the shaved scalp was she was rejecting her beauty and turning herself
into something other than an object of desire. Similarly, her mid-routine kiss with Madonna remains a hot topic years
later because Madonna, who presents herself as an empowered, highly
sexualized, aggressive women, was symbolically seducing and converting
Britney from virginal teen queen into something far more threatening.
With all these classically
sexist overtones to the Britney drama, it’s no wonder that women are
reacting so personally. On Jezebel, several (excellent) threads about Britney have drawn out commenters’ own experience
with eating disorders and mental illness. Britney is an object of fear,
obsession, pity disgust and love for women because her journey–at
least when it comes to scrutiny of her appearance and relationships–is
ours writ large. She has suffered through breakups, family problems,
pregnancies, body image issues, (rumored) postpartum depression and
defiant self-destruction in front of millions. Many women suffer through
at least some of these things. Sure, they do it with a smaller audience,
but they often feel the same humiliation when they get caught in sweatpants
or with unshaved legs, behave unthinkingly, make bad romantic choices,
grow out of their adolescent bodies, get dismissed as crazy, are frowned
upon as irresponsible parents or, after giving birth, are desexualized and
The obsession with her thinness
is perhaps the most blatant of these problems. As Rebecca Traister wrote last year after Spears’ infamous
Wonder why your daughters
have eating disorders and hate their bodies? Maybe because they’re reading
reports that label the thin young woman dancing around in a bra and
panties physically unappealing and obese.
Indeed, after that performance,
wrote, with its
tongue not far enough in its cheek, that Britney’s physique was the
"most unforgivable" aspect of her performance. And now that she
can bare her midriff without shame, she is considered healed. Her father,
cried during the documentary because his daughter was "beautiful"
again. Talk about unhealthy messaging.
During that flabby midriff
era, Britney may have been the controlling her life and image the only way she
knew how: by flouting public requirements. The reality is we don’t
know what Spears really thinks or feels beyond the clues she offered
on TV. What we do know is that her handlers, parents, managers, paparazzi
and the public may have irreparably damaged her life for profit and
gratification, leaving her trapped between being a wind-up-toy and a
train wreck. Perhaps that’s why so many are rooting for this woman’s
comeback, even as it feeds a vicious cycle for her and all of us.