Monday, October 12, 2009

On Britney [Music Monday]

Hi. I'm RMJ, and I’m a reluctant Britney Spears fan.

It took some time to come to terms with this, but it's undeniable. I listen to her songs constantly, and went to see her in concert last month . Said concert was awesome, and problematic (her circus may not engage in animal abuse, but it had many other issues – particularly with ableism). Even this qualified endorsement is a 180 from my hatred of her in my feminist youth. I’ve gone from conceptualizing her as a dumb bimbo colluder profiting solely from her body and oppressing less beautiful women to liking her music and finding great sympathy for her. How’d I get here?

In a way, Britney was a formative part of my critical voice on pop culture. Though I was already a 13-year-old feminist when she became popular, I hadn’t learned to view all pop culture through a critical lens. As puberty began, the dastardly expectations and pressures of being a young woman became a present and confusing part of my daily life. Britney was not too much older than me, and she was the expression of everything that society wanted in young women – sexual, innocent, beautiful, slim, shallow.

At 13, 14, 15, I was none of these things, and I knew it. I didn’t even want to try – instead, I made the ugly, boundary-breaking, lawless Janis Joplin my idol. Britney’s expertise in playing this role played a great contrast to that which I was not, and the rewards she reaped were painful to watch as I sat in the detention of self-hatred that those same standards provoked.

When I came to college, I was able to re-make myself and faked confidence until I was actually and truly confident in myself. And shortly after – I believe in the second semester of my first year – I began to embrace Britney, whose poppy, fun, catchy music had held a secret appeal to me since Toxic came out in high school. Now that I liked my body, now that I was traditionally feminine, now that I too was reaping rather than rejecting the rewards of socially normative beauty, she wasn’t a threat – she was a friend. I understood why she colluded because I had discovered the joys of fitting in and the privilege of beauty.

But while my social standing was rising with my comfort in my body, hers fell with age and life changes, giving me more reason to be sympathetic to her. Though she’d weathered attacks before, in most cases, the behaviors that were critiqued (e.g. her breasts) were the same qualities that brought massive rewards. When she dared to marry a man below her social station and fame, she was no longer It – she was just white trash. Marrying someone other than Justin Timberlake was seen as a rejection of the station she’d “been given” and brought out the latent classism that comes with a Southern accent.

Her hard work and privileges (wealth, beauty, cis, het, white) failed to save a shift in her public persona from teen queen to classless opportunist, further ingrained by policing of her parenting and mental disability. She is, after all, a woman – the inherent social vulnerability of her body finally betrayed her when class and age and mental disability and motherhood intersected.

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