Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Mother We Love to Hate

I’ve been thinking a lot about Britney Spears. I have loved to hate her since she became famous. People often say that the Madonna of the 80s was far more impressive than Britney. Madonna always controlled her media image and challenged norms. She shaped, refined, and constantly reinvented her persona. She still does. There’s always another religious culture for Madonna to appropriate. Britney, on the other hand, is thoroughly made by others. Madonna turned the music industry into her vehicle, but it’s clear that the industry made a vehicle out of Britney. That’s why I don’t exactly hate Britney. Yes she is vapid, but she’s more a victim than an agent. Victim isn’t the right word. She is a reflection of the dominant, American notion of femininity. The wholesome girl in an impossibly short skirt. The paradoxically virginal temptress. Safely ensconced behind the television screen, she asks to be “hit one more time.” I remember a period of about three years when her songs were as unavoidable as air. Gross anatomy lab, restaurants, a Peruvian village in the Andes mountains – I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing her. She was more ubiquitous than McDonald’s.

Then she got pregnant. A national crisis. An international crisis.

What do we do when our virginal temptress becomes a mother? We heap scorn on her. We gorge on photographs of her looking…different. As in tired and overwhelmed, not in schoolgirl-stripper condition. How dare she? She doesn’t put her baby in the car seat when the paparazzi chase her. Her baby falls out of a highchair. For a few days, it seems possible the government could take her baby away. Then maybe she could go back to creating perfectly borderline pornographic consumables and we could happy again. But she kept her baby through it all and got pregnant again. It seems she didn’t quite plan this second baby and she denied being pregnant. Then she was proud about the pregnancy on Letterman and still planning to return as diva.

Britney is not my hero by any means. As an individual human being, she’s stumbling through conflicting gender roles. Like my daughter will have to. But she is also a national allegory and this allegorical hasn’t reached its denouement. I’m sympathetic, curious, and horrified.

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