It's Britney!: Growing up with a teen sensation and realizing I need to support women
She’s so Lucky, She’s a Star
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One day when I was 13, I was in a car with a bunch of older teens and I heard “Hit Me Baby One More Time” for the first time. We were driving to get fast food after a community theater rehearsal for Pippin and the seniors in high school had this incredible glow. You forget how much you idolize older girls when you are a young teen. You see these glowing girls and you think “one day in future I’ll be as assured as them.” One of the girls who was kinder than she needed to be and reminded me of Dawn from the Babysitter’s Club, said “oh I love Britney Spears.” I had no idea who that was. The older girl and I talked about being outsiders and having family outside of Ohio and wishing we were anywhere but Ohio. She listened earnestly and never made me feel embarrassed. She was awesome. The next year, everything was Britney Spears and I disliked Ms. Spears as an artist and as a person. She was everything basic and everything I was not. She was 3 years older than me and she was the kind of teenager I did not want to be. I hated how everyone thought she was so pretty. Britney had this amazing ability to be pretty no matter what era she was in. You know people who are stunning but look terrible in the era they grew up in- see many people in the eighties and early 2000’s- you could plaster Britney’s face on any era and she’d still be pretty. Pastel glitter eyeshadow? -Pretty. Dark lip liner and neutral pink lipstick that looks terrible on everyone else?- Pretty. Low rise friggin’ jeans? (the bane of everyone’s existence in the early 2000’s) Pretty. How? I don’t know. She has that aura about her. You can say a lot about Britney but you can’t deny she has an aura and whatever it is you react strongly to it. 14 year old me was over it. I thought she was bland. I thought her voice was terrible. Teenage me heard this song and shuddered at how saccharine it was:
As a bookish, curvy teen, who took everything way too seriously she was anathema to me. I couldn’t escape her no matter where I went. I remember going to the library and seeing the periodical section with Britney Spears on the cover of Rolling Stone with her in a bra and the purple Teletubby. I was like “ugh.” I think at the time I was thinking “this is creepy and wrong” but I didn’t have the words and I felt like she enjoyed it and was making it bad for all teenage girls to be taken seriously. Add purity culture and the fact they never really let her talk-it was a hot mess. All these adults were like “countdown to when she turns 18”, “she’s so hot”, “every teenage girl wants to be like her.” As an adult, I can see the layers of her persona. I can see her as a projection of a teen dream and being a trope and the camp involved. She was the hottest and it seemed like she couldn’t fail. Even my punk rock boys, who wrote anarchy symbols on everything thought she was extra beautiful. How could normal mouthy hormonal girls compete? I also think that a lot of my issues with her stemmed from crop tops and low rise jeans. May that trend never come back. I thought her fashion sense was atrocious. Who wears an entire denim outfit that isn’t Jay Leno? If I had her money I would have totally gotten pink hair extensions like a boss.
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She’s too big, now she’s too thin
Flash forward about 9 years, I was a senior in college and we had watched Britney make terrible life choice after terrible choice. From marrying someone on a dare (remember that?) to marrying Kevin Federline. All of her songs seemed to be more aggressive sexually. I was on Pinterest looking up pictures of Britney and I noticed there was a gap from like 2003 (aka the snake era) to 2007. She was partying with people during the flashing the crotch when getting out of a car era. People said she did it on purpose. She went from being America’s Sweetheart to America’s Embarrassing Cousin. I can’t imagine that kind of downfall. I really can’t. Also by this time I remember thinking I was so lucky to have a life that was not in the public eye. I had made tons of youthful mistakes at this point and I thought “how lucky I am to not be famous.” I finally understood what Britney meant in her song “Lucky.”
The worst was when she came back on the scene and performed and everyone talked about how fat she was. Fun fact, at the time she was skinnier than I have ever been. I realized that people were reveling in her downfall. The same press and media that had been building her up were delighting in tearing her down. It was quite the time. I think now, we know better a little bit, but at the time it was concern trolling of the highest degree. When Britney sang “She’s too big now she’s too thin” I felt that. I realized that Britney and I were on the same team for the first time in my life. Everything I thought she was immune to, in her pretty bubble, was temporary. She was a woman and we’d most likely be friends. When she shaved her head and attacked that car with an umbrella, she was hurting. If I was constantly in the public eye, I might do something that crazy too. The times in my life where I have been hurting the most, I was lucky to not be in the public eye. She had one of the most public breakdowns in history and she survived. It’s incredible. It’s inspiring. She’s a survivor. She is someone I look up to. I realized that I was all about forgiving people who made all kinds of mistakes but I couldn’t forgive her for the projections that I put on her. It changed how I looked at women and it changed how I looked at my own feminism.
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I’m like the Ringleader I call the Shots
Britney Spears songs being empowering? I couldn’t believe it. But here we were. When I was underemployed out of college I watched her videos and realized she was always multiple people in them. Was she trying to tell us something? Was she trapped? My M.O. is always being too hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist. If I don’t do things up to the standards I set for myself I can get really upset. When Britney was breaking down, it was like all the horrible things I thought about myself were being thrown at Britney. She was ugly. She was crazy. She was easy. She was dangerously impulsive. I wonder if other women had some kind of feminist awakening watching her. I realize too, women of color do not get these second chances in the media and their narratives are very different. This is horrendous and unacceptable. It was like people were hoping she’d hurt herself. People describe that time as a “trainwreck.” Well, we made her that way. We forced creepy sexuality on her when she was way too young and then when she started acting like a human woman (giving birth, getting married, etc) we came down on her hard. I don’t ever cheer for people trying their best to better themselves to fail. I think it is a terrible character trait and it is one of my biggest red flags. Because all the things I projected on Britney were my own insecurities. That isn’t fair to her. She’s an icon and that has baggage with it. There’s this idea of the duality of virgin/whore and Britney was in this weird Venn diagram in the middle. Now I want to go to her house, see her tiny furniture, and talk about being a mom with her. I think she’d be the kind of person you’d get cocktails with at a Cheesecake Factory and laugh so hard you cried. I bet she has a weird sense of humor. I want to hear what she actually has to say. At the end of the day, we are both older millennials from flyover country in our thirties and we have more in common than I like to think. Do you know how I said she had that “pretty girl next door” quality? She still kind of does. I am so proud of her for branching out into perfumes like Midnight Fantasy (Magic Begins at Midnight) Maui Fantasy (Aloha from Hawaii- xoxo Britney) and Prerogative (a fragrance for all). I would absolutely love to see her in Vegas. I’m so proud of her for coming back. I know her father has a conservatorship and I know she is rumored to have bipolar disorder (someone write a dissertation on that!). I take meds for my mental health too. It’s ok. I adore her and wish her nothing but the best.
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Once I became Team Britney, I became more accepting of my own vulnerability and other women. Women who were intimidating. Women who made life choices I didn’t agree with but it was none of my business. I was at a party and one of the people there was going off about Britney Spears. He was talking about how she was crazy and worthless when I said I was forever Team Britney. I said “why do you hate her so much? Did she hit your car with an umbrella? Why do you care? Get over it.” Don’t insult other women in my presence. Check out her post-breakdown albums Circus, Femme Fatale, Britney Jean, and Glory.Do you have a celebrity that you grew up with and learned that they were cooler than you thought? Do you have a Britney Spears memory? Quite a few of mine are of odd fashion choices like she took the 2000’s aesthetic and just ran with it like that weird athletic sock on her wrist and forearm look. But in retrospect, it’s really charming. My husband and I binge watched Pen15 which is about awkward millennial teens in that culture. They said they went to being 13 because it’s such a visceral time and you have so many memories. Watching it, I was like “yep this is painful.” The actresses are amazing and it’s so hard to watch because of the emotions. So why when you are that hormonal and young were we supposed to look to Britney Spears as a role model. It was bad for everyone involved. I think teen celebrities are allowed to be more outspoken and themselves. I think we all learned the hard way with Britney.
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