Most of my days are suffused with a broad kind of sadness, a sadness that is made up of worldwide panic, and mixed with a personal anxiety that my, at times, recognizable and yet endlessly incomprehensible routine could stretch into the foreseeable future. It is a large amorphous sadness that lies in wait, ready to be triggered by the most unexpected, seemingly mundane events or memories. For me, the last few days have been punctuated by a particular sadness borne of nostalgia and the remembrance of cultural misdeeds. What I was feeling was melancholy at the rediscovery of Britney Spears. As with many days during the pandemic, I found myself researching random events or phenomena and this time I was drawn to the controversy surrounding Britney Spears and her conservatorship, an ongoing saga since 2007. As I found myself looking through Spears’s Instagram, I felt a deep well of sadness for what we, as a society, had put her through. As I viewed the heroic, unflagging optimism with which she still chooses to meet us, I realized that I was looking at, not merely a pop icon, but a woman whose truthfulness and idealism is an inspiration. In a post dated September 16th, 2020, Spears captions an image “Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing for hours ??? Making lots of plans for the day then canceling [woman shrugging emoji] ??? Whatever it is …. I am trying to find more ways to give myself more self-love ….. and feeling confident in my divine feminine body !!! I experience so much joy and passion ….. and always try to find ways I can demonstrate that to you all !!! I hope you are also finding ways to find joy and happiness… GOD BLESS YOU ALL !!!!”
There is a sensitivity and a relatability to these posts, as if a dreamy-eyed friend is reaching out to you. Her Instagram account is filled with images of flowers, tea cups, kittens, and fairies. It is a place infused with hopeful wonder; a kind of prayer for the world to be a little kinder, an incantation for idealism, as if dreaming a little beauty into the world can be the thing that sets you free. Contrasted with her early career and the way the world treated her, it is a poignant reminder of the frailty that each one of us holds within ourselves, a reminder that behind the impenetrable facade of the pop star, there is a deeply sensitive human being (a thing that we often forget). It is a thing that, in mid-2007, was far from anyone’s mind as we all gleefully consumed the emotional and mental breakdown of Britney Spears. I’d like to say that this occurred during the early years of modern celebrity and that the boundaries were not yet drawn between the public and the private; that we were merely craving an inside look at the lives of the people who shaped our culture and our world. In short, I’d like to be able to say that we just didn’t know any better. But we did know better, or, at least, we should have known better. We had already had to contend with the public ridicule and humiliation that had swallowed the lives and careers of women such as Tonya Harding, Monica Lewinsky, Courtney Love, and Anna Nicole Smith. We had been through it before. We had watched on as women who failed to live up to all of the myriad and often contradictory expectations that are put upon women were mocked and became mere punchlines as they navigated drastic and often dangerous circumstances. We watched on, delighting in their pain and refusing to accept their stories of abuse and trauma, refusing to see any vulnerability, as if accepting their precarious position would force us to come to terms with our own, a thing that we could not allow ourselves. We had been through this all before. Britney was no new phenomena, yet we let it happen again. We voraciously consumed her pain and laughed at her for signaling a humanity, a crack in the image that had previously seemed impenetrable. But we’ve always had a morbid fascination with the destruction of the perfect image, relishing the details of the downfall, perhaps because it makes us feel superior. Think of Marilyn Monroe, in many ways a parallel to Britney in terms of fame and public persona. We relish the image of Monroe because she is forever beautiful and young. In other words, we relish her because of her tragedy, because she did not survive.
According to a Vox article that lays out the details of Britney’s conservatorship, in 2007, when she shaved her head, she was heard “telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair…” For anyone who was alive during this period of Britney’s all too public life, the image of Britney shaving her head is an infamous one, etched into our consciousness with the guilt borne of moments too intimate for our knowledge. For it is with simple statements such as this that we realize the true toll of our obsession with her. We realize the depths of our entitlement, as if our love for her music decreed that her pain was our property as well. So, of course she attempted to force a distance between her and the ravenous consumption of her image. It was an act of desperation for peace, for a moment of silence against the roar of our derision, it was Britney attempting to place a barrier between herself and her image and, for a moment, it must have felt like a revolution. It was a drastic attempt to carve out space for herself in a world that wouldn’t allow her to be a complex woman, that only allowed for the exploitation of her image. Imagine for a moment the horror of Britney’s daily reality, the excessive scrutiny and the endless parade of people pawing at you. Escaping by almost any means necessary becomes an instantly understandable, even recognizable, desire.
Britney Spears has always been resolutely all-American; a promise through which we, her audience, could hone all of our aspirations about love, womanhood, and success. She was the image of perfection for so long, that the fracture seemed somehow both inevitable and cataclysmic. But even though this, she is also the image of the survivor. The image of resolute optimism. And even after we betrayed her with our ridicule, she offers us a glimpse of her dreams, of life as she prefers to imagine it. For that we should feel extremely lucky because it is a sweet dream of a simultaneously simple and magnificent life, graceful, innocent, and excessive in its girlishness. Sometimes it is necessary to retreat into these created worlds for our own safety, a fact that Spears’s Instagram feed appears to acknowledge. Britney’s tale is one of resilience, but it is also a cautionary tale about fame and the ways in which we, as consumers, relate to fame. All too often, we end up feeling entitled to the pain and suffering of our idols. It has been thirteen years since Spears had to retreat from public life for a brief time and I want to believe that we have changed as a society, but the truth is, if it were to happen tomorrow, to another pop star, I fear that we would not act any differently. We can see Britney and her story as a plea that we strive to be better, because we need to be better. We were given the perfect pop star, and instead of protecting her, we tried to destroy her.
Grady, Constance. “Why Britney’s Fans are Convinced She’s Being Held Captive.” Vox. Last modified August 19, 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/21328341/britney-spears-conservatorship-explained-free-britney.
Spears, Britney (britneyspears). “Just a Touch of Rose [red rose emoji]/ Ask yourself today … am I truly happy ??? What makes you happy … coffee [coffee emoji] early in the morning ??? Dancing…” Instagram, September 16, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CFNPd6nAWlr/?igshid=fh8ispkuibdl.