This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. How does a millennial begin to tell the story — her story — of Britney? The first time I saw,
I really appreciated and enjoyed this piece but speaking as a Black woman, I want to flag that the shoehorning in of an intersectional perspective at the end was a little odd and unnecessary. This experience of seeing Britney's teenage image as something attainable with a little more work is I think fundamentally a white perspective. And that's okay! I still appreciate the analysis! But " how much more intense that feeling of loss must be when it’s not just ideals of femininity you’ve spent years chasing, but ideals of whiteness and straightness and able-bodied-ness as well" doesn't quite encompass the difference in experience.
I'm probably about ten years younger than you so Baby One More Time came out when I was in elementary school, but by the time I was in high school I had a best friend who had a similar "girl next door" look to Britney that all the guys in my class were obsessed with. I know what it's like to compare yourself to that standard, but it's really a completely different experience when it is literally not attainable, even if you do 1000 situps a day as the woman elsewhere in this thread did, because you are Black.
It's also worth recognizing that Black girls have different reference points available. The Writing's On the Wall by Destiny's Child literally came out about a month after Baby One More Time. We had TLC. In a few years, we would get Ciara. We saw the midriffs too, but whiteness didn't have to be a part of the equation when it came to ideals of attractiveness as portrayed by pop stars. And of course, as you know, Black girl/women artists never get the madonna/whore treatment. Black female sexuality is instantly perceived as mature in the same way all Black children are perceived as older than they are; never afforded innocence. In fact, the way that most white pop artists signal their maturity is by infusing more and more Black cultural reference points and musical styles into their performances (Miley is an obvious example; and then there's Ariana Grande whose entire popularity rides on racial ambiguity even though she is white).
Anyway all this is just to say, if you don't have space in your argument to really tease out these differences, it's okay to just own the whiteness of your analysis. But it feels a little hollow to throw minorities a bone at the end.
"But her midriff — and the fashion trends that followed it — were probably the root source of my disordered eating over the course of the late ‘90s and early 2000s" - I'm so glad you mentioned this, because I relate. I was 11-12 when Baby One More Time hit TRL. I remember reading in a magazine that Britney did 1,000 situps a day. So I started doing 1,000 situps a day. It's also the same time period where I gained 10-15 more pounds than many of my thinner peers (whose stomach looked a bit more like Britney's than mine) and then spent 2~ decades disliking my body for those 10-15 pounds. I'm not saying any of this was Britney's fault at all. But gosh, I look back at the "cultural icons" of my youth - first Pam Anderson, then Britney and Christina... and yeah, it explains A LOT of how I've internalized femininity.
I agree that there's so much more that needs to be addressed about what Britney means as an icon. I say "means" because, as Anne knows, there's so often a temptation to locate celebrities in the past, when they're often still alive and continue to be meaningful. There's so much to come to terms about the gender, sexual, and racial politics of that era, especially for those who bore the full brunt of it in adolescence, but also for those of us who were a bit older (I was 30 when "Hit Me Baby" hit), and were just old enough to design, as well as still consume much of this media.
I can't quite put my finger on what the late 90s-mid 00s "feel like" 20+ years later, but there's a particular kind of joyfully, blissfully disavowal (and even mocking of) suffering (even post 9/11), as if buzzkills were the only things that could stop the party. Granted, there's plenty of media that cut across this (e.g., the best TV of the mid-late 00s, the brainier end of emo), but the cruel, conspicuous-consumption aesthetics of the Clinton-Bush era (including, as you point out, the particular post-feminist aestheticizing of girls and young women) would last at least all the way till the economy collapsed in 2008, morph into something a bit different but just as insidious in the social media era, and haunt people all the way till today. And that's why it's important that a Britney doc not just be about Britney in 1999, 2004, or 2007, but Britney, and us, in 2018, 2019, 2021.
Who do we have to email to get an AHP-produced Britney doc
It's sad to think how Britney's legacy has been affected by her personal life. I was a teen in the 90s so she was my era too yet somehow I have never thought of her when you see these most influential pop stars of all time lists going around twitter. Whilst I don't think she's as vocally talented as Lady Gaga, Beyonce, P!nk etc she certainly earned her place on that list. She was pop music in the 90s. I'm so glad people are reviewing how we treat stars going through difficulties. I remember Whitney Houston's driver speaking at her funeral and asking people to be nicer to these stars. That it shouldn't take their death, or a decade long manipulation of somebody's private life for us to appreciate them. We could never imagine how difficult it is in that spotlight. And when you don't have people looking after your best interests, or if you fall into addiction, public reaction can get very very unforgiving. We are all guilty of it. We all watch these award shows to criticize fashion, speeches and performances on twitter. I remember Evan Rachel Wood calling people out for doing that, and how it used to make her dread going on red carpets knowing what the scrutiny was going to be like online. I hope we get better and that Britney gets control of her life.
The "You're Wrong About" podcast's deep dive on Jessica Simpson is a great companion to the Britney doc. Highly recommend giving that a listen. You can see how the success of their daughters slowly corrupted both sets of parents and robbed these girls of having anyone who truly had their best interests at heart.
I just listened to Marc Maron's interview with Jodie Foster today and it made a fascinating companion to the Britney doc. They are obviously different people, in different eras, but they are both generation defining Disney stars. The first thing Jodie Foster credits with helping her avoid a tragic outcome is the lack of long-lens photography during her teens and twenties. It struck me as both pretty humble and probably true. I wish there was a better dialog and examination around entertainment that hurts people - whether it is tabloids or the NFL. I know that I can get my back up that something I enjoy is trash - it feels soaked in misogyny. There has to be a better way to be critical of it without making teen girls feel like garbage.
Also - this is what happens when you let yourself go - the awesome terror and the freedom of that.
YES YES YES. Thank you for writing this, AHP!
Britney's first album came out the year I started 6th grade and her influence shaped so much of my middle school years. I shifted focus to other artists as I got older (like Fiona Apple), but I've always had a soft spot for Britney (and Jessica! And Mandy! And Christina!) and think about her and those perfect abs STILL multiple times a day. HER POWER. Our obsession. It's wild.
A few years ago, on the anniversary of Baby One More Time, a 20-part podcast by Bradley Stern and T Kyle dropped. It's called It's Britney Bitch and walked through every year of Britney's then 20-year career, episode-by-episode. They're THE BIGGEST FANS and though they're sometimes critical, they're always compassionate and loving. The podcast spun-off to discuss music legends and pop culture in general, but I really think their Britney episodes are great, albeit a little meandering. I had to stop so many times to google particular performances and videos that I remember taking DAYS to download on pirating sites, my friends and I crowded around a computer monitor watching the download slowly complete.
Until we have the doc we deserve (with Britney's support and maybe even involvement... fingers crossed!) I really recommend giving it a listen. Here's the original podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/its-britney-bitch/id1437953814
And here's their new one where they sometimes do updates on Britney and the Free Britney movement https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/id1481010774?mt=2&at=1l3vpUI&app=itunes&ct=LFV_97746f646d08eb7c8128835a590e800d&ls=1
Yes, Britney deserves 10 hours. Though I could easily watch 20.
What I think about a lot is how the celebrity-industrial complex destroyed Britney, just chewed her up and spat her out.
Unfortunately she didn’t seem to have anyone around her who was thinking about her best interest, though sometimes I wonder about the friend from Louisiana who she married in Vegas. Was that an attempt to find stability and a safe space? Is that even compatible with fame these days? The conditions of fame seem incredibly warping, tending to create insane narcissists or destroy the subject. All I want for Britney is a yard with a dog in it.
I loved this piece. It puts words to many of the thoughts I've been having since the documentary came out (which I didn't even watch, lol). I remember sitting in homeroom at my all-girls Catholic school watching a VHS tape someone brought in of the Baby One More Time video. I wore a Catholic school girl uniform, but I looked nothing like Britney.
I kind of hated her, but I kind of liked her too. I remember being *scandalized* by her 2000 VMA performance, but I think I was really just threatened by her charisma and sex appeal and felt bad about myself because I knew I could never be like that. I (and society in general!) was so judgmental about these girls. They wanted to be famous and hot and party...so what? If that's what their goals in life were, that's fine. Why did we have to turn them into jokes? So we could feel better about ourselves? I'm somewhat comforted to know that the female stars of today aren't being put through this wringer (as much). But I feel terrible about Britney.
Also, I was singing "Oops I Did It Again" the other day and sort of nonchalantly started miming the dance steps and it was like from muscle memory.
I forwarded this to my wife who asked the same question I had as I read this: When are you going to product a Britney documentary?
Some of us with very little torso real estate need low rise jeans. High rise jeans end right under my boobs and quite frankly give lots of people a long crotch instead of the lean, legs for days look that they promise.