Britney Spears Was Never in Control
February 23, 2021 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Content warning for abuse and assault. "If you, the viewer, share in that discomfort, you are just another misogynistic cog, using the veil of concern for your own puritanical need to control a young woman. This argument serves a narrative purpose. The central drama of Framing Britney is the conservatorship Spears has lived under since 2008, which allows her father to control her finances and personal life. By suggesting she once had complete control, the documentary fuels the sense of injustice when that control is then taken away. The result is a documentary eager to characterize Spears’s early image as an expression of female power rather than the corporation-sanctioned sexualization of a 16-year-old."

"The terms that so many stories of sexual assault are forced into, and the demands placed on victims and abusers to look and act in a recognizable way, make the thought of naming my abuser in public seem like something that would only cause me more pain. So does the possibility of any self-appointed vigilantes attempting to do so on my behalf. The notion of monitoring a mob I didn’t ask for sounds exhausting, whether this mob is coming for his head or mine. The awareness that my experience would be transmuted into a fascination with his moral character makes me want to get offline forever. It is easy to imagine a world where audiences’ infatuation with fame takes priority over a survivor’s needs.

Going back to the Fiona Apple lyric, I have been preyed on by men who are dads now. It is maddening to see virtuousness ascribed to them just for fathering children, because it makes me second-guess their actions. But their actions have already happened. I was there. Seeing them rebranded as dads, I become desperate to provide a corrective that would reflect my reality. It also makes me feel bizarrely obligated to protect their families, as though I am everyone’s mother. Then I resent the obligation. I am not their publicist or friend. I have no responsibility toward people who raped and exploited me or who taught me to hate myself by valuing the things a woman can never be: infantile, guileless, inexperienced. Pure.

Yet I feel one. What a burden, to carry around not only what happened but the fear that if I do not control myself, my next unexpected trauma response could easily lead to a social-media post that would blow up all of our lives. This infuriates me. I did not ask for this (non-systemic) power.

No matter what I choose, I also carry the sense of responsibility toward other survivors or potential victims. By not naming my predators, do I enable them to do more harm? By acknowledging nuance in my experiences, do I hand over the tools for any reactionary who seeks to weaponize the “gray area”? Do I cause other survivors to doubt their own authority or create a more hostile environment for those who wish to speak?

Claiming victimhood comes with more baggage than I can begin to cover here. It’s why my brain long chose denial and rape apologism, even as I had panic attacks during sex, relived moments of violence and pleasure at random intervals that sent me into days-long spells of depression and anger, edited my web browser and apps to avoid mention of my abuser, and pursued experiences that would re-create the thrill of being a secret sex object, which introduced me to more of my rapists. Years later, distraught by how much power these events still had over me, I sought out trauma therapy at the advice of a psychotherapist. I continue to work through a distorted relationship to desire and to my body. Are these the colorful sexual experiences my abuser thought I would go off and enjoy once the sands of time signaled his next chapter and sent me out into that natural habitat, my “prime”?"
posted by Carillon (28 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
This is a great article, thanks.
posted by frumiousb at 4:21 PM on February 23 [1 favorite]

There's an article by Mara Wilson in the NYTimes today with a very similar theme.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:30 PM on February 23 [16 favorites]

surprised it's primarily autobiographical, only peripherally examing speers. still, valuable read.
posted by j_curiouser at 4:38 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]

I really appreciated this essay. Thanks for posting it.
posted by somedaycatlady at 4:52 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]

"I myself struggled to see the power dynamics at play because I held fast to the assertion that teen girls are as intelligent and capable as anyone else."

I read this piece right after finishing "The Cult of the Difficult Woman," an essay from Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror, and I feel like both of them are warning about how being invested in narratives about lean-in/girlboss feminism--and the weaponization of same--can obscure dissections of actual power dynamics. And Gevinson: "[I]t is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there was not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified until they are old enough to be discarded." It's related to what Mara Wilson says too (linked above): "A big part of The Narrative is the assumption that famous kids deserve it. They asked for this by becoming famous and entitled, so it’s fine to attack them. In fact, The Narrative often has far less to do with the child than with the people around them." The Narrative is not the territory. Confusing the two does harm to real women and lets harmful enablers off the hook.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:05 PM on February 23 [20 favorites]

I want to boost the signal for Mara Wilson's op ed that Jess the Mess noted. It's well written and thought provoking, and well worth your time.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 5:28 PM on February 23 [6 favorites]

I think Gevinson's piece makes a lot of good points but it needed some better editing. I don't mean that in a mean way -- just good editing makes pieces stronger.

I really liked Wilson's.

I don't think we, as a culture, have quite reckoned with the commodifying of young (white) women's sexuality under the guise of it being "empowering." And it's not that I don't think young women expressing their sexuality can't be empowering -- it's just, well, like a lot of things, it's complicated.

(The older I get, the more I just regard "sexuality" as a neutral thing, if that makes sense. People being sexual is just another part of the human experience. I also get that a lot of people -- too many -- don't agree with that.)

Maybe Spears felt like she was in control of her image and doing the things she wanted to, even if she actually wasn't.

I'm not one to take the power away from a teenage girl. I was one!

I have talked about that I was around 14-15 and had a lot of friends who were older men online. And to me, that felt very powerful -- these were people taking me seriously and listening to me and treating me like an adult! That's how it felt like from my end. They ... may have other ideas and the older I've gotten, the more I've reinterpreted those experiences. But at the same time, it doesn't take away how I felt about it when I was experiencing it.

The culture around young women in the late '90s and early '00s was incredibly toxic. No one is denying that. Mostly, I think we all treated Spears pretty badly and set her up for never really having a chance.
posted by edencosmic at 6:08 PM on February 23 [11 favorites]

This sentence from Gevinson's essay....damn: "Appearing bad, it turned out, was a more urgent issue to him than causing harm."
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:15 PM on February 23 [4 favorites]

Just wow.
posted by firstdaffodils at 6:26 PM on February 23

This essay is so good. It really captures the conflict between respecting the agency of girls and young women and recognizing that doesn't always acknowledge power dynamics.
posted by Mavri at 6:55 PM on February 23 [3 favorites]

Wow. The moment I found myself wondering, "I wonder if we know who her abuser was," I read this passage:
The thought of naming my abuser in public seem like something that would only cause me more pain. So does the possibility of any self-appointed vigilantes attempting to do so on my behalf. The notion of monitoring a mob I didn’t ask for sounds exhausting, whether this mob is coming for his head or mine. The awareness that my experience would be transmuted into a fascination with his moral character makes me want to get offline forever. It is easy to imagine a world where audiences’ infatuation with fame takes priority over a survivor’s needs.
Just great writing. I've never read something that makes the distinction between "power" and "currency" as Gevinson does in this essay.
posted by HeroZero at 7:49 PM on February 23 [19 favorites]

As someone who has experienced sexual assault, though not to the level of Tavi, I appreciated the messy nature of this essay.

I think we owe survivors a chance to document their actual experience of trauma and its aftermath and I don't think that will ever fit a neat clean narrative.

You might think spending a portion of an essay where you discuss your abuse instead defending the editorial policies at the magazine you used to run is odd, but I think it accurately reflects the painfully slow process of re-examining yourself and your own potential culpability afterward.

I hope someday society will mature enough to listen to the actual experiences of people less privileged than Tavi and Britney.
posted by zymil at 8:08 PM on February 23 [21 favorites]

Exceptional piece with quite a few deep cuts. Thanks for posting.

The power vs. currency distinction is something I think about in relation to my own experience and observations of cultural assimilation. Assimilation confers currency, but power still mints the coin.
posted by dmh at 8:12 PM on February 23 [2 favorites]

When I’ve met 18-year-olds in the last couple years, I have been struck by the fact that even if someone is precocious, it is their youth that makes them precocious. If you can still be considered “mature for your age,” you are not an older person’s equal. This observation can easily go from an act of respect to license for harm.

posted by chavenet at 1:00 AM on February 24 [24 favorites]

I really admired Gevinson's work on Rookie, and the insight and clarity she brought to the experience of being a teenager. It's heartbreaking to know someone used that maturity against her.

One quote in the article has a bitter relevance to Australian politics at the moment:

This is why I don’t care if men accused of assault have good relationships with their wives or daughters or women they deem valuable. How do you treat women you have no stake in protecting?

There's an unfolding scandal here: it appears that the Government covered up the rape of a junior staffer by another staff member just before the 2019 elections. When the story broke last week, and the victim accused the Government of mishandling the incident, the Prime Minister explained why he was starting an invesitgation as follows:

"Jenny [his wife] and I spoke last night and she said to me, you have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?"

The response was not positive.
posted by davidwitteveen at 1:49 AM on February 24 [17 favorites]
posted by Beholder at 3:13 AM on February 24

We're up to like the third or fourth wave of people who once regarded Britney Spears with contempt/dismissal being brought on board Team #FreeBritney and it's maybe maybe halfway to critical mass. It's great that we're all still learning things about ourselves and The Culture for how we treated her, but it'd also be positively terrific if this woman could get out of conservatorship before she started getting AARP flyers.

Britney Spears(TM) the Symbol is still doing a lot of work while Britney Spears the human being still is seeing precious little improvement on her day-to-day life.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:32 AM on February 24 [11 favorites]

I adored this essay, but also didn't get the same "Brittney knew exactly what she was doing and it was all under her control" message from the Spears doc that Gevinson (and apparently others) did. I walked away from the documentary seeing exactly the juxtaposition that Gevinson discusses - that Spears probably deserves more credit and agency than she was historically given, but at the same time that she was a young girl/teen being swept up in the machinations and handlers and structures that her fame and fortune necessitated. Both can be true.
posted by misskaz at 7:36 AM on February 24 [12 favorites]

I didn't watch the doc -- because honestly yikes -- but when Britney Spears first got famous there was a constant suggestion that the "sexier" aspects of her image were all her idea. The little histories crafted about the "Baby One More Time" video included the line that the plaid uniform + tied shirt wasn't a knowing invocation of the Catholic school girl trope, but rather "something Britney thought would be fun," etc. Looking back, that was absolutely part of the strange, Bush-era "having it all ways" approach to sex. Here is a sexy young person Bob Dole can ogle...but she's not presenting herself this way because she is trying to be sexy...she's really surprised your mind went there, actually...have you signed the virginity pledge yet? etc.

You're Wrong About pod did a few episodes covering Jessica Simpson's autobiography, and it's interesting contrasting what Jessica Simpson says about getting pushed into diet pills and scantily-clad dance routines with the very wide-eyed take that Britney was just born in a bikini doing a hip-thrusting dance and the adults who profited off of it (her parents, her record label, the music video folks, etc) were just as surprised as anyone.

(As others have stated, better, in this thread, of course teen girls have agency. But teens frequently don't have the same understanding of how their behavior is going to read to non-teens, nor the ability to deal with it in a way that isn't kind of traumatic. I still remember the stomach-lurching discovery that wanting to be attractive to people my age translated to much older men hitting on me. I can't imagine how much weirder and worse it would be if there was a whole enterprise built off my seventeen-year-old self performing sexiness.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:39 AM on February 24 [14 favorites]

It really captures the conflict between respecting the agency of girls and young women and recognizing that doesn't always acknowledge power dynamics.

I know how ridiculous a statement I am about to make but if the adults around girls and young women behaved responsibly with the interests of those young women in mind, there wouldn't have to be as much conflict in allowing them to act with agency.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:44 AM on February 24 [10 favorites]

but it'd also be positively terrific if this woman could get out of conservatorship before she started getting AARP flyers.

Unlikely, unfortunately. It's extremely hard to escape a conservatorship even if you are a regular person, if you are profitable the vampires aren't going to let go until every drop is drained and every penny gone. And the courts are usually active participants in this.

Which is what makes it so tragic that she was blackmailed into signing herself into one by holding her children hostage. Sure, she likely needed mental treatment, but we have millions of people in the US that have lifelong mental illnesses who don't permanently lose all their rights because of it -- they check into mental hospitals if needed and then can leave.
posted by tavella at 8:48 AM on February 24 [10 favorites]

This was very, very good. And not what I thought it was going to be based on the title and pull quote. I feel like I watched Gevinson growing up (largely I think out of jealously as a much older person who would have loved to have had the same possibilities at her age), and it's true that her media identity was always as someone not just wise but savvy beyond her years - which I imagine is just the sort of image that can be weaponized by someone older.

Thanks also for the Mara Wilson piece. I think her note about having family support is so crucial - and at the same time, I'd be shocked if I learned that Gevison didn't also have that support. It may be a necessary protection, but the deck is still stacked against women and especially young women who dare to stand out in any way. There's no way to win.

Still not sure whether I want to watch the documentary.
posted by Mchelly at 8:54 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]

About Britney Spears:

There certainly was a feminist critique of the way she was marketed at the time, but you were a killjoy if you pointed it out. And there was a sort of pre-ideological critique along the lines of "it's gross that we're sexualizing this teenager, this isn't new or revolutionary or girl-power, it's just the same old excuse to leer at teenage girls". I feel like Gevinson's piece pretty much uncritically accepts the whole "everyone thought this was great" thing that we tend to project onto the problems of the past. Everyone did not think it was great.

It's hard to see how we can have the current celebrity system without a feeder pipe of child/teen stars, even though it's very clear that being a child/teen star is virtually always damaging, especially for girls. If I ran the world, we'd knock the whole thing down, frankly, because there's no way to have modern celebrity without misogyny and racism.

Like, when you're sixteen you're just barely old enough to drive! You can't drink! You can't get your own birth control! You are still required to go to school! There are laws that are supposed to protect you from sexual predation by older people! And yet we're completely cool with saying that these same sixteen year olds are old enough to be basically pornified. You can't actually make porn at sixteen, of course, but you can appear in really gross, ideologically pornographic material and that's fine.

Britney Spears's early videos and promo material were gross. I remember it quite well because I'd see her photos on magazines at the grocery store, etc etc etc. It was creepy and soft core and lightly fetishy and I found it a bit shocking, actually.

A large part of sexual autonomy is "not having your sexual interests and experiments turned into commercial fetish material for another community, especially a more powerful one whose interests are inimical to your own", and yet that's what we do to teenagers all the time.
posted by Frowner at 9:10 AM on February 24 [32 favorites]

Britney's life really shows the contrast between corporate pop culture "empowerment," which is mostly about prettifying oneself and making female sexuality all about being looked at, and true empowerment.
posted by LindsayIrene at 11:07 AM on February 24 [8 favorites]

Heh. I had forgotten the necessary info to look back up something in a similar vein that I saw on the blue a few years ago, so this article was helpful for stirring up shit on facebook with my local dad who started screwing his underage child's friend the moment the friend turned 17 (which is a legal age of consent in my locality, apparently).
posted by eviemath at 5:56 PM on February 24

Lolita Podcast by Jamie Loftus (previously 1, 2). I've been binge-listening since one of my twitter people strongly recommended it as a Big Picture frame for this Britney documentary. Erudite, accessible, nuanced. Leavened with moments like audio clips from a failed Alan J Lerner musical (!). (I mean, leavened depending on how you react to layered flabbergasting awfulness. I sometimes laugh at it.)

Content warnings for every episode, obviously. I wish this podcast had existed when I was like, 10. This sentence from the linked piece above, "Even young women who are not megafamous have typically picked up on what makes them appear valuable by the age of 15" ...I said out loud, "15? Five!" If I'd listened to it at age 10 I'd have been better prepared for a lot of situations, and I haven't even personally experienced a lot of the worst patriarchal shit. I've been lucky.

Cis boys and men would benefit from listening to it too. Before, or at least with, reading the Nabokov book. Definitely before watching any of the movie adaptations. This podcast helped me get why I don't remember the 1997 Jeremy Irons version at all, which underwhelmed and annoyed me, but I had trouble explaining why at the time. Seriously, go give the podcast a listen.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:47 PM on February 26 [2 favorites]

Excellent essay, thank you for posting this.
posted by chaz at 2:44 PM on February 26

Amanda Marcotte @ considers how the narratives about Britney tie in to larger cultural & political considerations: How the abuse of Britney Spears led to the GOP's war on women.

"People relate to Spears, not because they are also under conservatorships run by controlling and greedy fathers, but because her story is such a profound symbol of what was done, in general, to her generation — especially the women and queer people who make up the #FreeBritney movement. The voyeuristic, sexist, controlling, judgemental abuse that was heaped onto Spears by the press for the first decade-plus of the 21st century was clearly the first shot in what was an all-out sexist assault on millennials. It started with "abstinence-only" and played out all the way through the election of a creepy old boomer who bragged about how he grabbed the women of Spears age "by the pussy.""
posted by soundguy99 at 8:30 AM on February 27 [1 favorite]

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