When I was 10, I was desperate to grow up. I’d sit on the sofa for hours, flicking back and forth between music video channels; the glow of the TV burning into my slowly decaying retinas. It was during these marathons that my life changed unexpectedly, yet permanently, as I witnessed a moment that now lives in the golden glow of my core memories. It was the very first Britney Spears music video.
Hit Me Britney One More Time
Before me on the TV screen was this woman – nee, girl (not yet a woman) – singing with the passion of someone much older than 16. Her earnest gaze cracked through the TV screen and into my soul. Britney Spears embodied everything I craved about being a grown up. She sang about the types of heartbreak I knew I was going to feel one day… and I couldn’t wait.
I was obsessed.
I was going to become Britney Spears. It would be me twirling basketballs around in my hands, gazing mournfully at a boy who had no idea I existed – or maybe did, but had hurt my feelings in a way that I couldn’t articulate without a choreographed dance number. I would be the one my friends gathered around every Saturday at the diner for hours, giggling and flirting with the same boy who hurt my feelings only one or two dance sequences before.
In the almost four minutes it took Britney Spears to permeate my 10 year old consciousness and big, wide open heart, I saw my future play out before me:
- Me at 16, clutching frothy milkshake cups
- Tapping my foot impatiently against tables in class
- Holding my fluffy pen (which I already had thanks to my Cher Horowitz obsession that had manifested a few years before) and looking every bit the beauty my new idol did.
I know I’m not alone in my feelings; we all felt it, even if we deny it now. Britney Spears awakened something in prepubescent girls everywhere. She ignited feelings inside us that we didn’t quite understand, but that kept us asking her to hit us, Britney, one more time – even now we’re in our collective 30s.
We were both girls, not yet women
When I did reach the tender age of 16, my aesthetic had been thoroughly corrupted by moody boys in bands, all smelly and sweaty, playing their instruments with such wild exuberance that I constantly blackened my eyes with thick kohl in the hopes of finding a sensitive rebel heart of my own.
I looked more like Robert Smith from The Cure than I’d have liked, but I digress…
All the feelings I was feeling still left room in my heart for Britney Spears in the privacy of my bedroom. In my private sanctuary, my CD changer was loaded with a constant stream of angry punk, desperate emo screams, evergreen pop punk and the original Queen B.
Under the glow of the colourful fairy lights (staple of any teenage girl growing up in the 2000s), posters of boys in rock bands glared down at me in disapproval as my awkward, long body attempted sexy dance moves and passionate lip-syncing.
No matter how dark my aesthetic, there was still an enormous chunk of my soft, probably broken heart, devoted to having the opportunity to stare lovingly at a boy who hurt my feelings – and Britney Spears was responsible for that.
She was a goddess among mere mortals; out there doing her own thing, singing and performing for millions of adoring fans. She was SO lucky – and she was a star to boot.
Or so we thought.
Not so lucky, but still our star
As a hopeless, anxious and eternally earnest romantic, I grew up with a specific vision of my adulthood. When I was studying at college, and then at uni, I’d spend far too many Friday nights in, emailing with my dad.
Sometimes he was far away, and sometimes he was only downstairs, but each time we’d chat about how much I wanted to accomplish: the novels I wanted to write, the columns I wanted to be so profound, they’d slip into the permanence of pop culture consciousness. I’d also tell him about the type of grown up I wanted to be:
Wildly successful, appropriately rich and deeply loved by someone fantastic and deserving of every single piece of my heart.
My dad responded the same way each time: with unwavering confidence in my ability to achieve it.
Yet, despite this idyllic vision, my twenties were rough. I was consumed by a relationship where I was controlled, hurt, mocked, belittled, abused, stolen from and gaslit daily. At points I had little to no control over my appearance, my appetite, my hair, my emotions, my social media accounts, and even my bank accounts. Everything was taken from me to be monitored, consumed and judged by someone else (and their mother).
My life seemed fine on the exterior, but I was isolated, lonely and unloved.
I was too much for everyone: too loud, too opinionated and too me – no one liked me. But I was also not enough: not pretty enough, not smart enough, not interesting enough – I didn’t deserve the love I craved because no one liked me.
I was so ashamed that the vision I’d laid out in my mind’s eye had cracked. I was the embodiment of the failure I’d never wanted to be.
Life became almost too impossible for me to carry on with on so many occasions; it was heavy, like I was carrying a huge basket of rocks that was perpetually being added to, and I genuinely wrestled with my existence – or the continuation thereof – in almost too permanent ways.
It was a really bad time for me.
And I was no one. I certainly wasn’t one of the world’s most beloved pop stars. Even with all of those feelings in my past, still memorable enough to inflict damage on my present well being, I still can’t possibly imagine what Britney Spears was going through – or has continued to go through these last 13 years.
Britney Spears was born to make us happy
Of course, this is a scene we’ve seen played out throughout history. Young women, surrounded by powerful men in suits, calling the shots, controlling the money, behaviour, attitudes, friends, relationships, schedules… These women are commodities to be exploited and milked for absolutely everything, until they become too tiresome, too much, not enough…
Britney Spears was just 16 when she was thrust into a world that everyone dreams of, and she became public property. Even as fans, we treated her like a commodity and we exploited her – and we have to take responsibility for that.
We watched, and actively participated in, her meteoric rise. We purchased CDs, bought concert tickets, gobbled up every media appearance, magazine shoot and endorsement she featured in. We ate it up and then Oliver Twisted our way back to the front of the queue to ask for second, third, fourth helpings.
Her fans made it possible for the men in suits around her to continue milking their cash cow, because we wanted more. We wanted a piece of Britney and we expected her to comply – just as eagerly as her dad, her management and the legions of paparazzi did: we wanted our pay day, and we felt Britney owed it to us.
And so we watched and participated in her inevitable and devastating crash too. We made it possible for her to be hounded, followed, judged and decimated on a public platform. We enabled a 13-year long conservatorship that has sucked every joy, every slither of autonomy and piece of Britney Spears into a painful, torturous abyss that she’s been forced to endure.
We were her fans and she was our commodity.
We’re to blame too.
Hashtag Free Britney
What Britney described to the world last week is nothing short of a living nightmare. A version of hell that even the most twisted minds would struggle to manifest without some completely insidious underlying motive.
Enter Jamie Spears.
As shocking as it is to learn that a woman’s own father has imprisoned her to exploit her millions, I don’t think I’ll ever forget some of the things she said. Being gaslit into staying silent, being told that her adoring fans wouldn’t believe her, having her body autonomy stolen from her for over a decade… it’s beyond cruel. Beyond shocking.
As a feminist, this is the type of thing that consumes my everyday reading, but I never thought that Britney Spears of all people would endure this.
Breaking her silence was a definitive moment in time; a shift in our collective consciousness that will be there for the rest of our days. We’ll talk about how we witnessed a 39 year old woman – perhaps for the first time in her life – speaking for herself with eloquence, strength and passion as she described the life she had stolen from her.
Hot tears spilled onto my cheek as I listened to my childhood hero describing the hellish existence she’s been forced to endure. Anger swept my chest as I remembered that as women, we’re still not listened to, we’re not in control of our own livelihoods and bodies in a way we should be… No matter who we are, how famous we are.
A woman – a childhood hero, a celebrity, a star – who just wants to go see her pals, go for a drive with her boyfriend, have a baby and get married… All of these simple pleasures we take for granted are closed off to Britney Spears because of an arrangement her own father put in place over a decade ago.
We’ve all failed Britney Spears in some way. But now that we’re finally switched on to what she’s experienced we can start to make amends. We can learn from our collective ignorance and reconsider the power structures and environments in place that enable powerful men to exploit women for their own gain.
This could mean deciding once and for all to smash the patriarchy, for sure. But for Britney Spears, it just means being able to have a manicure and go for tea with her pals.