The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Shameless

By

2000 was the year of my Bat Mitzvah and my first time away at camp. It was also the year of Oops!… I Did It Again, Britney Spears’s wildly successful second album, and her first scandal at MTV’s Video Music Awards. I began the year as a casual Britney fan and ended that same year absolutely obsessed with her.

At the time, I already had a copy of …Baby One More Time, just like every other girl I knew. The first music video that I remember clearly is “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” with its saturated colors and daring shot down Britney’s shirt. I recall seeing the video, perhaps for the first time, as part of a New Year’s countdown on the eve of Y2K.

By the end of that year, I had seen all of the big videos during my Friday viewings of TRL, and I had a favorite: Britney’s much darker, much grittier “Stronger.” It remained my favorite music video for the next decade (Lady Gaga replaced it in 2011).

But my Britney fandom wasn’t just about the music or the videos. It was about the blonde, smiling face that decorated my bedroom, my lockers, and my notebooks for the next few years. It was about the girl herself and her infectious laugh. Her movie was my favorite movie, her novel was my favorite novel. And she began to appear in my novels, first in a work of fan fiction and later as a thinly veiled fictional character. I persuaded an eighth grade teacher to let me make Britney the subject of a presentation on risk-takers. She was everywhere in my teenage life.

The problem with loving Britney herself, not just her music, was that she was constantly criticized. And as she was slut-shamed (a term and a concept I didn’t know yet) for revealing costumes and sexualized dance moves, I, too, felt shamed.

My friends all knew about my Britney obsession, and most had grown tired of her by the time we got to high school. Some tolerated my fandom as an eccentricity. But there were others who actively disliked Britney, or perhaps simply enjoyed riling me up. My blind faith in Britney certainly made me an easy target.

I was oversensitive about anything to do with my idol and took anything said against her much too personally. But in each criticism of her there was also a criticism of me. I wasn’t called a slut, but I was dumb enough to like a celebrity who was going out of style. The fact that the harshest critics were Yao and Grace, two of my smartest friends, just made their barbs hurt more.

I know now that they were right about some things. After seeing Britney’s Las Vegas show this February, I can no longer believe that she would never lip-sync; the music was so overproduced that I’m sure it was prerecorded. (I enjoyed myself anyway, of course.)

But comments about Britney the performer were never the ones that cut the deepest. Comments about Britney the person were much worse. There are things that seem insignificant now, like the debate over Britney’s virginity (she claimed to have it, I believed her, and they were sure she was lying)—I don’t know what upset me more, the possibility that she was lying or the possibility that she’d done something that still seemed so incredibly taboo to me. Today, I’m more disturbed that we put so much weight on Britney’s virgin status, or that we thought it was any of our business to begin with.

Britney’s sex life had nothing to do with me, but there were other criticisms of her that hit me harder than any of my friends could possibly know. Yao tended to throw the word “silicone” around as an insult—as usual, I firmly believed Britney when she said she’d never had plastic surgery, while Yao was sure she’d had it. She made those accusations the same year that I began wearing a silicone prosthetic in my bra to conceal my breast asymmetry. It already felt like a shameful secret, something no peer could ever know about. The comments about Britney only added to my fear of being caught. Silicone was looked down upon, and my eventual plastic surgery would be absolutely unacceptable, so I told no one.

When I was sixteen, I was late to lunch one day after meeting with a teacher. I found my friends at our usual lunch spot on the floor by the front office and settled in to join them. I hadn’t been there long before I found out exactly what they had been talking about in my absence. Preethi had made a comment about how I only liked Britney so much because I was a lesbian, and Leslie took it as true and asked me about it.

My friends and I teased each other all the time, and it was generally harmless. But this time I couldn’t just brush it off, possibly because I took anything related to Britney so seriously. I spent the rest of my lunch period hiding in the bathroom, like a scene out of Mean Girls, and I sobbed to my mother when I got home. Our consensus was that I was definitely not a lesbian. I was not (and never have been) sexually attracted to Britney. I liked boys. I couldn’t possibly be gay.

Spoiler alert: I now know that I’m a lesbian.

But back in high school, homosexuality wasn’t on my radar. I knew what “gay” and “lesbian” meant, but those terms were far off and unrelatable. This was back in the pre-Glee dark ages, when sexuality just wasn’t a factor in teen entertainment. While I would eventually realize that my friend’s joke was true, at the time it was shocking and upsetting.

Being uncool was something I was used to. Being gullible didn’t matter because I believed. I can’t even fault my friends for the plastic surgery comments when they were unaware of my own relationship with silicone.

But being a lesbian was personal.

Another reason why I was so sure that I couldn’t possibly be gay: her 2003 VMA performance was one of the lowest points in my years of loving Britney. I still haven’t quite gotten over Madonna kissing Britney.

As a teen of the early 2000s, I loved the VMAs. The show was packed with my favorite stars. Unlike all of those “real” award shows like the Grammys, the people I liked actually won. There was only one problem—that each year, Britney did something that resulted in scandal and slut-shaming. Each year I watched, hoping she would behave herself. Each year, she didn’t.

The infamous “Oops!… I Did It Again” faux striptease didn’t strike me as problematic when I watched the show live. It seemed nothing more than a quick change, something that was in no way out of the ordinary for Britney, and a transition between songs. (Watching it now, I’m not entirely sure why the word “striptease” was used when there was no teasing, just the split-second removal of tear-away garments.) Her nude costume was no more revealing than what she wore in videos and performances. The only scandal in my living room that night was my father’s irritation at Britney covering a Rolling Stones song.

I also saw nothing wrong with her 2001 “I’m a Slave 4 U” performance. I was excited about the music and the dancing. The famous snake didn’t seem transgressive. It was gross, but the tiger she shared a cage with at the beginning of the number was a lot more alarming to me.

Even though I didn’t see what the fuss was all about in 2000 and 2001, I did feel the backlash. The days following the VMAs were exhausting. My friends were handed new ammunition, and the topic would come up frequently in the magazines and TV shows I used to keep tabs on Britney. As always, I felt compelled to defend her.

I was hopeful that things would change in 2003. I was looking forward to seeing Britney perform next to Christina Aguilera. I also knew that performing with Madonna was one of Britney’s major dreams, and I was thrilled to see her achieve it.

I was especially happy that, for the first few minutes, Britney didn’t seem to be courting controversy. Next to the more aggressive Madonna and Christina, she came across as the innocent. In the moment before the moment everyone remembers, Britney watched, wide-eyed, as Madonna slowly removed Christina’s garter. She seemed just as surprised as the rest of us, even when Madonna drew her up from the stage and brushed the hair out of her eyes. And then, of course, came the kiss that made the performance famous.

I don’t think I paid much attention to anything after that.

This time, I knew that a line had been crossed. I knew what the scandal was going to be, and I was angry that I would have to deal with the comments and criticism the next day. Britney had put me in the crossfire yet again.

And this time, I couldn’t defend her. The controversial moment was impossible to explain away. What could I say, beyond pointing out that Madonna was clearly the instigator? Two women kissing was so out of the ordinary that it just seemed wrong.

I can’t really explain what it was about the infamous kiss that bothered me so much, or why it continues to bother me. I’ve grown up into the kind of person whose favorite Lady Gaga videos are the ones where she kisses women, but I still cringe at the image of Britney and Madonna. Back in 2003, there was certainly a sense of betrayal—Britney had, after all, walked straight into a scandal again. It didn’t help that, rather than letting the performance be an anomaly, she recorded “Me Against the Music” with Madonna and hinted at another kiss in the video. She was unrepentant, and I was unprepared to argue on her behalf as I always did.

But why now, when I am passionate about the need for more of a lesbian presence in pop culture, do I still get uncomfortable when I watch that performance? It brings up something visceral, something left over from a girl I haven’t been in years.

Perhaps the problem is that the kiss marked the beginning of the end for me and Britney. I remained a fan until she married in 2004, but that was unforgivable. I lost interest, or tried to, and followed her marriages and eventual breakdown from a distance. It was only years later that I put together the pieces—that Britney was, in a way, my first love, and I was jealous. Maybe I’m just jealous of Madonna, too.

I’ve always been somewhat prone to obsession, but my years of intense Britney fandom were the first time that I felt that strongly about an individual person. If I’d been that devoted to a male celebrity, everyone around me would have seen it as something romantic. My family and friends accepted my crush on Lance Bass as perfectly normal. I may have given my Lance poster a kiss goodnight, but Britney was the one beside my bed who I’d see before I turned off the lights. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that she was my actual first celebrity crush.

But she was more than that. I thought about Britney almost constantly, visualizing what it would be like if we were sisters or friends, and imagining her tagging along with me almost everywhere I went. I wasn’t sexually or physically attracted to her, because she came into my life when I was young, and it took figuring out that I was interested in women before I was sexually attracted to anyone. I only wanted to be closer to Britney, in any way I could.

The fact is that, all these years later, her laugh and her smile still make me feel so much lighter. The little flaws in her voice have me smiling along with her. My reaction to her is automatic.

I was drawn back to Britney in 2008, when she figured heavily in a personal essay about coming out that I wrote for a creative writing class. I returned to her music videos and VMA performances as part of my research. Seeing her again put that instant smile back on my face. I missed her, and I picked up a copy of Circus several months later. I was nervous when I put it on for the short drive from Target back to campus, but I didn’t have to be. Britney was back, and so was I.

She wasn’t the same Britney, of course, and her marriages and children made it difficult for me to relate to her the way I once had. But her music still appealed to me, and all traces of her breakdown during the period when I did my best not to care were gone.

Several years and two albums later, I flew to Las Vegas (the city where Britney married for the first time) to see “Britney: Piece of Me.” I’d seen her live in 2001, and she’d blown me away. Just like when I bought Circus, I was terrified that she’d let me down. But every time I passed a sign with her face on it, I was grinning like my high school self.

Like Circus, the show impressed me. I’ll concede that Britney probably wasn’t singing, but she’s still the flashy performer that she’s always been. She could still do the original choreography for “…Baby One More Time” (minus the back flip). She was still captivating. She was still Britney.

And I was in a room with about five thousand other people who wanted her to succeed. Some of them, I’m sure, would have mocked me for liking Britney so much years ago, but the nostalgia has wiped that away, as has all that Britney has suffered. After her public breakdown and years of struggling, she’s managed to bounce back, and even those who never liked her much are rooting for her.

Nostalgia was definitely one of the reasons why I loved seeing Britney again. The theater lobby featured a handful of her iconic costumes, and getting to stand so close to the red leather catsuit from the “Oops!” video or the flight attendant outfit from “Toxic” was exhilarating. They reminded me of the good days when Britney was still a major fixture in my life. So did so much of the show.

In “Piece of Me,” Britney refers to herself as “Mrs. ‘Oh my god, that Britney’s shameless.’” This line was originally intended to be something that tabloids might say about her, since the song is a response to the media scrutiny during her downward spiral. But maybe shameless isn’t such a bad thing. In true Vegas form, Britney pushed boundaries further than before; “I’m a Slave 4 U” replaced the snake with a stripper pole, and a bondage-inspired number gave her all of the dominance of a 2003 Madonna, plus a whip.

Maybe it’s because I’m older and more secure in my identity, or maybe it’s because I’ve seen (and loved) worse from Gaga and other recent stars, but Britney’s shameless moments no longer bothered me. I didn’t even mind “Me Against the Music,” with its onstage echoes from the video.

Britney is no longer holding back, and the slut-shaming has quieted down despite this. Perhaps this is because of our adjustment to much more provocative performers like Rihanna and Gaga or simply a matter of Britney being a 33-year-old mother and not an 18-year-old girl.

A few friends couldn’t understand why I’d shell out the money to travel to Las Vegas and see the show (it was a birthday present, by the way, although I did pay $45 for the t-shirt). A few have been surprised to find out that I’m a Britney fan, but their reaction has been neutral, more “I had no idea” than “How could you possibly be a Britney fan?”

Today, no one is shaming Britney. No one is shaming me, either.

***

Image credits: Featured image, image #2, image #3, image #4, image #5, image #6. Image #7 provided by author.


Sarah Sansolo is currently finishing her MFA in Creative Writing at American University, where she also teaches writing. Her poetry will be published in an upcoming issue of Big Lucks, and she is a finalist in the 2015 Bethesda Poetry Contest. She lives in Washington, DC. More from this author →