On Britney Spears, sexual agency, and the construction of a pop star

Reflections about a girl named Britney who was made to be a woman before a person, and had a career born through personal and public conservatorship.

June 14, 2019

In 2004, Britney Spears released the music video to her cover of Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” the lead single preceding her first greatest hits album— just 5 years after the release of her first album. Critics disputed that the very act of releasing such a collection was premature; however, they failed to understand that its rushed release fit perfectly within the pop princess narrative that had been written, produced, and forced onto Spears since her debut.  The video, like the majority of Spears’s releases during the time, was overshadowed by her highly-publicized personal life; specifically, her swift and allegedly home wrecking marriage to back-up dancer Kevin Federline.

Within just the first few seconds of the video, in a rare moment of brutal honesty, Spears declared ownership over her personal and professional life— all while unsettlingly predicting the blowback that would immediately proceed in the years following. Taking the wheel of a Porsche 928, driving erratically, as if it was the first time she’s been permitted to have full control over her actions, she prefaces the song with a spoken intro that is both profound and unnerving to listen to. These words were not included in Brown’s 1988 original, but written and spoken into the universe by herself alone. In her classic breathy, Monroe-inspired baby doll voice, she tells us, that, “people can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth.” She challenges us to immediately respond to that truth— her truth. She asks “Can you handle mine?”

Without missing a beat, she unabashedly sings, “they say I’m crazy,” before ramming the vehicle through the gates of a mansion, and directly into a pool. The upper crust guests partaking in the nighttime garden party are forced to watch the spectacle unfold. Immediately rising atop of the vehicle, Spears is soaking wet, looking vaguely unhinged— and, most concerning, effortlessly seductive.

Without abandon, she continues, “I really don’t care […] that’s my prerogative.” The cinematography is just jarring enough to make you think of those old tales of sailors being led to impending doom by mermaids through the allure of their mythical beauty and enchanting voices. These otherworldly traits are entwined with the man-made concept of harlotry— and the emphasis on Britney’s fishnet-clad thighs being spread by her own hands as the line, “getting boys is how I live” reinforces that her sexuality is a weapon that she uses to trap those, much older, sailors. She’s Disney’s Little Mermaid, except unlike Ariel, who, believe it or not, wanted to leave the sea and her abusive father—who’s literally a God—before she even Prince Eric existed. Britney does wants to leave the sea for her own Prince.

But it’s clearly not about the Prince, but the freedom that he represents— a freedom that can only be given to her by someone who isn’t herself. She ultimately wants what Ariel wants. Nevertheless, after years of being groomed underwater, personal liberation (and the subsequent identity that follows) has become so intertwined with the men in her life controlling and lusting after her, that it’s unreasonable for her to expect anything else. She, thus, remains living in the sea without legs, but slightly risen from the foam— matured atop of the waters for all to feast upon. Her sexuality is, now, just that— her own. She’s asking—no, demanding—you take her. And it’s all okay because, the entire onus is on her since it’s [her] prerogative, not yours.

Except it’s not. In 2004, she was 22-years-old. At that age, sure, you project yourself as grown, but just existing for a little over two decades ultimately makes it an exhausting, neoliberal game of dress up— one would say, that, you’re not [girl], but not yet a [woman]. In 22 years, where all you do waddle in your own literal—not emotional—filth, you’re still grasping the brutal reality of adulthood. That it bites.  My concept of “adult-ing” at 22 was maxing out my credit card to avoid going to the laundromat for, maybe, what, 4 hours?

Instead, I frequently made the mature decision to venture into Winners to purchase Tommy Hilfiger boxer briefs because turning my previously-purchased Tommy Hilfiger boxer-briefs inside-out wasn’t an option anymore. I followed that with 8 hours of wandering through the clearance racks of Urban Outfitters, Zara, American Apparel, and wherever-the-fuck-else for floral-print button-ups that looked exactly like the 12 I already owned. All this before circling back home to draft up a hot take on Facebook regarding whichever injustice was happening at the time in a tone with just the right balance of quirk and scathyness. I thought about doing my assigned readings throughout the day, so, that counted as something. So, no, I was no one’s adult, neither were you, and certainly not Britney Spears.

Without social media, Britney’s career, identity, and sense of self all became one entity, and that was reliant on the high schooler’s ability to project sex appeal with a degree of chastity.

Britney, and that’s how I’ll refer to her from this point on, debuted in 1998 at 16-years-old with “…Baby One More Time.” The video prominently featured a teenage Britney in a suggestively tied-up Catholic school girl uniform juxtaposed with child-like pigtails bound together with soft fuzzy soft-pink scrunchies. An iconic staple for costume parties everywhere, but for Britney, at that point, all signifiers of how her label would market her— North America’s unspoken Lolita. She performs an intense routine of complex choreography (which she later on admitted that she enjoyed), but in the MTV era, choreography wasn’t an option for pop stars. It was an absolute necessity. Without social media, Britney’s career, identity, and sense of self all became one entity, and that was reliant on the high schooler’s ability to project sex appeal with a degree of chastity. She’d spend her down-time rehearsing dance routines that’d make this generation’s pop stars have literal brain aneurysms if they’d even attempt to think about the steps.

This video turned Britney, the small-town girl from Louisiana, into Britney, the pop princess— the worldwide superstar. The outfits, the concept, the breathy and moan-like vocalizations which she used in “…Baby,” all became mainstays for the rest of her career. Though, she was still a girl, her debut allowed men to have a sneak peek at her desires without guilt. She signaled the woman that she would become— the woman they already saw her as. Her team made sure to remind us that every major creative decision was hers. The prerogative of a teenager paying their income, and the living expenses of her mother, father, older brother, younger sister.

Her second single, “Sometimes,” cemented Britney’s precarious status at the nation’s pop princess, and the perception of her as North America’s “Lolita,” would stay for years to come. The rosy, newborn essence of the track, makes the listener—well, me—want to become born again for at least a few days. It cushioned the sexual image that was embedded in “…Baby,” and made herself more palatable for parents to buy her CDs and merchandise little girls who wanted to be her. Britney couldn’t embody sexuality without simultaneously proselytizing innocence and personal virginity. That would make the teenager a whore; a teenage whore. And Max Martin, and her record label knew that.

At that age, we’re still trying to figure out we are— you know, Perks of Being a Wallflower shit. But, Britney wasn’t afforded the same luxury— she was explicitly told who she had to be. Two directly conflicting identities not based on her interests or talents, but her underage body. The “Sometimes” video wrapped it up neatly in a tight metaphorical soft pink bow. It climaxes with Britney, and her back-up dancers, dressed in all white, coming together into a heart formation that reminds us, that, like a young Monica did in Friends, she calls “it” her flower. The lyrics and its video, and its bolstering of Britney’s virginal status— well, it made the identity-shifting effects of the Jonas Brothers’s purity rings years later seem like a pee in the pool compared to the BP oil spill it did for Britney.

It was later revealed through her mother’s tell-all during her “meltdown era,” that, the pop princess did in fact have sex before her debut. Teenagers have sex— it happens. In high school, in the movies, in television, probably in your own backyard. It happens. For Britney, however, it couldn’t and, therefore, it didn’t. She had to bury that, hide it from the public and herself, and keep moving along for the sake of her and her label’s fiscal wellbeing. She had to grow up, and infantalise herself.

This exhibition of Britney’s contradictory roles couldn’t be more illustrated than in the cover of the April 15, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone, depicting her now 17-year-old-self laying on a fuchsia velvet bedspread— a very risqué tone of pink signifying womanhood. In the photo taken by David LaChapelle, it’s as if she’s being consumed by someone else’s labium—being directly centred in the photo, it’s almost, no certainly, alludes, to her being positioned to be entered by older men. The belly button— I won’t go further about the belly button. If that’s not enough to make your skin itch, Britney is wearing a striking black halter bra, the definitive symbol of power in female sensuality.

Yet, she still retains signifiers of girlhood in the royal purple Teletubby (Tinky Winky) she’s cradling— further reinforcing her fundamentally pop princess status; the corded telephone she’s holding directly to her face, though, it’s pretty obvious she’s not speaking to one of her home girls; the soft pink top barely draped over her shoulders; and the child’s polka-dot pajama bottoms securing her chastity. It’s all tidily headlined for us as she gazes, mouth half-open, directly into the reader’s eyes, “Britney Spears: Inside the Heart, Mind, & Bedroom of a Teen Dream.” I don’t know about you, but I think I have eczema now.  


Britney’s virginity became a focal point of her interviews. She couldn’t discuss her artistic endeavors publicly without reporters asking whether she had done the deed yet, why she’d chosen to wait, or if the person she was dating at the time—most famously Justin Timberlake—had marked his territory. Time and time again, she was publicly forced to respond to these questions alone, as if she was being a defendant being prosecuted by the American public. Deny, deny, deny. No one saw this as inappropriate, so, what reason did Britney have to?

There was no Megan’s Law in Britneyland, and dial-up internet couldn’t tell us if she truly had agency— that same dial-up internet also had countdowns, plural, leading to the Olsen twins 18th birthday, so, take that as you will. What matters is that Britney was oversexualized beyond comprehension, and everyone around her allowed that to happen. They pushed it to happen. We may look back at her early career performances as groundbreaking spectacles—because they absolutely were—it doesn’t negate the physical and emotional toll it takes on a person just entering early adulthood.

In 2000, an 18-year-old Britney, now “legally” an adult commanded the stage at her first solo performance at the MTV VMAs— dominating the entire broadcast. Body hidden by a black tuxedo, began the performance with a short cover of The Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” she promptly tore off the suit while sing-telling the world that they can’t tell her how “tight her skirts should be.” Underneath, she revealed a skin-tight, jewel-encrusted, flesh-coloured outfit. In that one moment, approximately 2 million baby millennials, including me, realized they were queer as they shouted “YAAAAAS” at their CRT televisions. On the other hand, disgusting older men all over the world rejoiced as that tuxedo was a figurative banana— and peeling off its skin meant that she was ripe, and ready for consumption. “I’m not that innocent,” repeatedly mimed Britney as she danced intensely betwixt several shirtless men. Like “Prerogative,” the performance and song itself placed her in an authoritative position, in spite of her age.

The following year, Britney, again, overshadowed every performance at the VMAs, performing “I’m a Slave 4 U,” the lead single to her self-titled third album— the third in her then three-year career. The single dropped every façade possible, minus her virginal status, with lyrics such as “all you people look at me like I’m a little girl” and “leaving behind my name and age.” The staging was set with exotic, captivating, and dangerous animals; and a bikini-clad Britney, now 19-years-old, began the performance in a literal, not figurative, cage alongside an actual tiger. She intros, “I know I may be you, but, I’ve got feelings too. And I need to do what I feel like doing. So let me go and just listen,” before staging herself free. She continues to the performance with her characteristically complex choreography, with camera angles frequently zooming onto her body until something truly wild happens. She grabs a seven-foot yellow Burmese python—named banana, and I’m being completely serious—and drapes it on her shoulders. Britney was quite plainly affixing a phallus onto her body, and that’s that on that. She won the night, but that was a penis.

And then, it began to collapse. Britney and Justin broke up after an alleged affair with noted Y2K-era pop choreographer Wade Robson— and so an essential part of her identity was stolen in the process. Justin, like, everyone else in her life, used this opportunity for his own gain. They weren’t married, but he took half of what Britney had—except it wasn’t her wealth—rather her an identity she worked her entire life to sustain. He went on 20/20 in 2002, and revealed to the world that she wasn’t a virgin, and that her virtue was now forever his. He continued to drive the witch-hunt as leverage to craft an identity outside of *NSYNC, earning himself his first solo hit record with “Cry Me a River.” The second single off his debut effort charted at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 contained targeted lyrics that were less-than-thinly-veiled, and the [popped] cherry on the cake was the video featuring a Britney look-a-like. It was his, and the entire world’s, Scarlet Letter for Britney. Her image wasn’t rooted in innocence anymore; she became a dangerous woman.

Britney became Britney Spears; and sex and desirability became the be all, end all. “Getting boys became how she lived,” and she perfected it until she couldn’t anymore. Apologies for the fondue I’m about to spring on you, but a person can only pretend for so long before they break. There were clear signals that she was at a loss. In her Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer in 2003 where Diane Sawyer bluntly explained to a now 22-year-old about the year she had— traumas that she clearly buried in her mind. Britney’s reaction was reminiscent to her 2001 VMA performance, specifically, the portion where she was in the cage with the tiger, except, there was no escape. The tiger—the realities of her lack of control and self—was on full display, and she couldn’t open the cage, and continue the performance. She repeated “ew […] strong Britney, strong Britney,” as she broke down into tears, moved back, and asked filming to stop. She was speaking to Britney Spears, and not Britney— the person. She never had the opportunity to meet her.

Fast forward to her infamous “meltdown era” which stretched from 2004 to 2007. She desperately wanted to be a part of a world outside of the ocean— a place where she could finally breathe and walk freely. To finally not be an object, but recognized as a person, which unfortunately meant attaching herself to men who she believed would love instead of lust for her. Even more, establishing a nuclear family that would never see her as a tool for sexual pleasure— and children that could depend on her to never use them the same way she was used. Unfortunately, a lifetime of not knowing who she was resulted in a 55-hour marriage and annulment, and another marriage to Kevin Federline, to which she later admitted was a mistake for all the reasons stated above.     

She became the poster-child for mental illness jokes everywhere— the last time society collectively decided it was suitable to take down a woman who was clearly on the verge of death.

After her divorce, she truly broke in 2007. She became the poster-child for mental illness jokes everywhere— the last time society collectively decided it was suitable to take down a woman who was clearly on the verge of death. She shaved her head, had an understandably poor performance at the VMAs, spoke in a British accent, and being brought out on a stretcher stretched out of her home after locking herself inside the bathroom with her children. Most importantly, she lost the last piece of her identity that she had— her sex appeal, and everyone was more than aware of that. People were more concerned that their pop princess, our nation’s sex doll, our former “Lolita” was too enmeshed in trying to keep it together to focus on keeping herself ripe for consumption.

She was swiftly put under conservatorship the following year, making a prolific comeback with Circus and its lead single “Womanizer,” with a video where she lies naked in a steam room— an announcement that Britney Spears was sexy again, so, let’s forget about everything else. It was released with an accompanying 2008 documentary called Britney: For the Record, which I’d say, is the first and last time we truly heard from Britney, the person, before she went back to becoming Britney Spears.

Defeated, and alone, she states to the camera while filming the music video for “Womanizer”, “[…] there’s no excitement, there’s no passion… I have really good days, and then I have bad days. Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day […] When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear but they’re really not listening. I never wanted to become one of those prisoner people. I always wanted to feel free.”

This is Britney’s reality in 2019, and I don’t have any funny quips to make the situation any lighter. Britney has, was, and is forever in a state of being used. And that’s just really sad. She’s sad.

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