The Unexpected Lessons of Growing Up With Britney Spears

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We took a break from analyzing dead British authors to talk about Britney Spears in English class my sophomore year of high school. I don’t remember what was said, exactly, but I can tell you for certain that we took the conversation seriously. The teacher, a brilliant guy with a radical bent who viewed such issues through a decidedly second-wave feminist lens, wanted us to think about what it meant to have a singer basically the same age as us twirling around on MTV in what amounted to a naughty schoolgirl uniform, singing, “Hit me, baby, one more time.”

While they had certainly made their way into the cultural conversation by 1999 — the year when, on January 12, Spears released her debut album, …Baby One More Time — contemporary “sex-positive” feminist ideas about women owning their sexual agency were (unsurprisingly) not part of anyone’s vocabulary in that class. We didn’t know about “slut-shaming,” and hadn’t done much thinking about how our culture tends to blame young women in the spotlight — and not the many adult decision-makers around them — for being poor role models.

Still, there must have been Spears defenders; her song was so ubiquitous on campus that year that even if you didn’t own a radio or TV, you knew it because you’d heard people singing it. For my part, I was a 14-year-old alt-rock weird girl who nonetheless ended up watching a lot of TRL, and had already formed the opinion that Britney and I were not on the same team. Largely for the reason that we would have been sitting at very different tables were we ever to find ourselves in the same cafeteria, any comments I may have contributed to the debate would not have been supportive.

Strangely, as hostile as I was to her — or, really, the idea of her — then, that class discussion left me with the enduring, semi-conscious understanding that Britney Spears and I were peers. The teenage girl is, for better or worse, a figure of endless fascination for popular culture, and at just the moment when I was growing into that identity, Spears was becoming its most recognizable, idealized example. At the turn of the millennium, I experienced her presence as, in at least some senses, my most visible representative in the mainstream media as a kind of ongoing, low-level crisis. In a way that I assure you is more flattering to her than to me, this girl and I did not even seem like the same species of animal.

And so I spent my teenage years mostly ignoring, but sometimes openly scorning, Britney Spears and all that I believed she embodied. I could have stood to do some critical thinking about what we had in common — what being part of her age and gender cohort meant, what it was like to feel judged before you’d even figured out who you wanted to be in life, and how the nonstop hyperventilation over where she belonged on the virgin-whore spectrum might come to shape ideas about female sexuality that would follow the women of my generation long after we’d graduated high school. What I did instead was cede the realm of teenage-girlhood to Britney, piecing together my identity in corners of the culture that seemed to value something different from shiny hair and plasticky-perfect midriffs.

It became possible for me to lose track of Spears in college, where the friends I made and the hours I kept discouraged much awareness of mainstream music and media. Aside from that Madonna kiss and a few barefoot, junk food-eating paparazzi photos, she hardly registered on my consciousness again until 2006 or so. That was around the time when Spears’ public profile was undergoing a surprising change of Upworthy-headline proportions, as her divorce from Kevin Federline and apparently questionable parenting judgment made her a weekly feature on tabloid covers.

I really tuned back in when she reached her nadir, in 2007, with the rehab and especially the head-shaving. At first, I admit, my interest was as prurient as your average People magazine reader’s. And then it dawned on me that those photos of a newly bald, umbrella-wielding Britney were registering as familiar because they reminded me of Divine’s Dawn Davenport at the end of John Waters’ Female Trouble, onstage and waving a gun at the audience, her face disfigured and her hair cut into a deranged mohawk, shouting, “Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?”

What people forget about Waters’ movies is that they’re not just gleefully anarchic, amoral, left-field trash; they have plenty to say about the straight world. Dawn Davenport might be the best (in that she’s the most hysterical) example of a woman destroyed by the arbitrary, absurd beauty industry and the celebrity culture it fuels in all of cinema. And less than a decade after Britney Spears appeared as both the paragon of teenage girlhood and the battleground for every debate about same, here she was, looking ready to shoot us all in the head for refusing to just leave her the fuck alone.

By now, her public-meltdown days are behind her, and the Britney the world knows is a very different one from either of those previous incarnations. Medicated and under the conservatorship of her father, she’s back in shape and releasing albums and settling in for two years of performances at Planet Hollywood in Vegas. She’s not the chart-topping, album-selling machine she once was, but she’s still got the attention of the world. For a few years there, she was trying to become an adult; now, as a 32-year-old mother, she’s stuck in what seems like a futile attempt to recapture her teenage heyday. This isn’t an unusual narrative for women who become international pop stars before they’re old enough to vote, but for Spears it’s just been so crushingly literal.

After 15 years of growing up with Britney Spears, I realize that, misdirected concerns about role models aside, my teacher was right to be worried. I don’t envy or blame Britney anymore; I think she’s surrounded by horrible, selfish people, and I’d challenge anyone else in the same situation to deal with it in a more constructive way. But now I know what happens when a girl who’s introduced to the world singing “hit me, baby, one more time” in a sexed-up schoolgirl uniform — a girl whose career has had such an impact on so many other girls her age and younger, whether we liked her or hated her — tries to find her way to adulthood. And I don’t like it all.