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9 September 2021

Britney Spears and the girl industrial complex

She was America’s teen princess, and then its most famous captive. Will Britney soon be free?

By Lena Dunham

I met Britney Spears exactly once. It was December 1998. I was 12 and she had just turned 17. We were standing side-stage at a concert where her boyfriend Justin Timberlake was playing with his boy band N Sync. (Later, I waited in line for a photo and when JT rested his chin on my shoulder, as he must have with a thousand girls that night, I felt his crunchy blond curls on my cheek.) Britney stood in the darkness through the concert, in a denim jacket and crop top. It was before mobile phones and so she looked down, hands in pockets.

I recognised her from the “… Baby One More Time” music video, a new addition to the MTV rotation. Home from school sick one morning, I distinctly remember putting down my cereal and scooching closer to the television, transfixed, when it had come on. She looked natural and playful, like the most popular girl at camp, and while she clearly wasn’t an adult she had a command of her body that belied her status as a teen. Having recently switched schools, I was carrying on an exhausting charade of normalcy in an effort to court the interest of the kind of girls who had mocked and excluded me at the last place. My hair was highlighted blonde, I clattered around in platforms despite having wobbly knees, and I pretended to be interested in the advances of pimply boys in giant jeans. They called late at night and we whispered for hours about nothing, conversations that would meander into the general area of sex and then dissolve into silence. The first time I kissed someone, in a game of truth or dare, I couldn’t stifle a giggle and a spear of snot shot out of my nostril. The gig was up.

And so Britney Jean Spears, with her easy drawl and cherry-popsicle smile (it’s hard to write about her early iteration without resorting to Lolita-isms), her moves like a ballerina in a bordello and her voice, somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Minnie Mouse, seemed like the one to mimic. I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, school was full of checked skirts and stripy bleached hair, self-tanned legs and belly-button rings procured with fake IDs. (I left mine in, even after it showed signs of infection, and will always have a small ball of scar tissue, a scarlet letter so many of us early Noughties tweens share.) Once, walking across the city with a new training bra in a shopping bag, a man yelled, “Hey, it’s Britney Spears!” and I gleamed with pride for days.

And so, during that first flush of fame, I approached her – I wasn’t even sure of her name – and told her I had seen her video. She signed my autograph book with a looping heart, next to the names of Disney characters who had written me greetings when I visited their Orlando hub the year before. And then we blasted off, in search of her boyfriend.

On 21 June this year, Britney Spears broke her silence and confirmed what a fierce group of fans, previously brushed off as conspiracy theorists, have believed for years: that she was trapped in a draconian legal conservatorship that she alleges has controlled everything from her psychiatric medication to her method of birth control. “I’ve been in shock, I am traumatised,” she told a Los Angeles court, claiming that her father had forced her to do entire tours against her will.

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Control is an insidious thing, because at first it can feel like safety, like protection. You don’t know how to live your life, but someone will do it for you. And you never know what will break you. Personally, I was able to tolerate going from “original voice” to “voice of a generation” to scared and stifled in the space of my twenties. But when a colleague told me, dripping with condescension, that carrying my dog around a television shoot would limit people’s ability to see me as a professional, it triggered a two-year break from walking on to a set.

My life started to break down almost 20 years after I stood side-stage with Britney – first quietly, my body and mind disintegrating due to a mix of overwork, outsized control from professional wranglers, and the seething anxiety of being seen and criticised by millions of people I didn’t know. It first presented as illness and panic, which Hollywood doctors were all too happy to medicate. It was mirrored by steep weight loss, for which I was unduly complimented.

Just before it crescendoed, I walked into a barber in Brooklyn and asked them to shave my head. Not completely – leaving about a quarter-inch of the flame-red hair that was falling out in the shower. But enough that he asked over and over if I was sure, only relenting when I promised I would not hold him responsible if the result was as hideous as he suspected. Outside, I thought my reflection in the window was a sad little boy straggling behind his family.

I don’t know how much I thought about Britney in that moment, about the buzz cut heard round the world. But I didn’t have to, because it was in my DNA. The most publicly humiliating breakdown young women had ever known also served as a warning: this is the stigma a certain kind of display of selfhood can trigger.

Britney shaving her head is so iconic that if you type “Britney head shave year” into Google, it simply spits out “2007”. At this point in her life (she was 25), Britney had been slut-shamed – a concept not yet in existence – by both the ex she had watched from the concert’s wings (still thriving) and the US’s best-loved news anchor. She had been fetishised as America’s sexiest virgin. She had been married twice, once for less than the length of a long weekend. And she had been joined by a litany of early-Noughties paparazzi bad girls who made alcohol poisoning look like a fashion statement. Later that year she lost custody of the two children the press had told her she didn’t deserve to have. And yet her suffering shocked us, and we watched as if a car crash was happening in the middle of a forest glen: this really isn’t the place for this, but it sure is interesting.

Like Britney, I tried to mediate it with wigs and hair extensions. After the dissolution of a long-term relationship, I was pictured walking alone, my fake hair a mess and eyes hollow, drinking a huge Starbucks. Nobody had to call me crazy in the caption – the context made it clear. Girl without any hair and without any boyfriend walks to car.

But what people don’t see, behind the shaved head or the unstable rant or simply the loss of a smile, are the ingredients that got you there. This involves control, administered so expertly and invisibly that reacting against it can only be perceived as an act of ingratitude and psychosis. It involves the fetishisation of your youth and your body until you spend those resources so freely that they dry up prematurely. And it involves a sense of voicelessness, despite everybody hearing what they believe to be your voice. It can seem as if the only way to buck this imprisonment is to blow up your own avatar, but she just happens to be you. This is the cocktail, as deadly as Xanax chased with vodka.

When Britney broke down in 2007, we mourned her culturally, as if she had died. The recession was upon us – and nothing signalled that society had lost its sheen like our all-American princess going off the rails. We got glimpses of the new controls on her life: her kids were with her on a limited schedule; in 2011 she got engaged to her former agent (something that might be considered a Hollywood alliance, but sounds to me more like a Forties starlet’s prison). New songs such as “Circus” tried to convince us that Britney was still having sexy fun, but I often thought of the 2002 film Crossroads (an unsung cinematic gem, written by Shonda Rhimes), in which Britney played Lucy, a valedictorian virgin searching for her birth mother – the sparkle, the yearning and the moment at the end when she asks her father to please let her go so she can pursue a big life.

When Britney returned to us – not even a year after her breakdown – we expected her to look and behave like the woman we had always known. So when she stepped on to the stage at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards in sparkly lingerie, her hair extensions platinum-blonde, she knew she faced an upward battle. She was a 25-year-old divorcée with two children under the age of two, and her body looked, well, normal: still the hottest mum on your block, but no longer the untouched teen sensation. We now had evidence that she wasn’t a virgin and, frankly, that this entire flirtation with her audience was non-consensual. As she moved, she resembled a woman forced to dance for a king in a fable: dead-eyed seduction but no passion. Critics and fans alike savaged her with such vitriol it was clear they’d had the barbs waiting. The fact was, no matter what she did, Britney could only really prove the national thesis, fulfil the cultural prophecy: that she was washed up, busted and crazy. It was too soon for anything else.

And so she worked harder and smarter, or so it seemed, to claw her way back to a place in the sunny spot of American favour. What we didn’t realise was that a team led by men was spearheading the reinvention, moulding her act, and that – as we would have known, had we been paying attention – they always had been.

This maddening loop – a woman is tortured in small degrees by her circumstances and the public, called crazy and, in her efforts to clarify her position, only enhances that perception of her – is a classic. It’s there in the downfall of women from the fictional Tess Durbeyfield to the all-too-real Whitney Houston, and, as a survivor of its claws, I can tell you it feels something like a childhood tantrum writ large.

We all remember the feeling of our parents placing a boundary on us and how, by wailing against it with the full force of our rage, we only lost more privileges. They say Hollywood is like high school, but for me notoriety has felt more like being placed on a bedroom time-out, banging the locked door with my fists until I collapse into fitful sleep.

For Britney, none of this turned out to be metaphor. Despite making millions of dollars for men who deemed her fit to work, she was told she couldn’t drive, see her friends or repaint her kitchen cabinets.

About a year into my public life, someone claiming to be my college boyfriend published a long entry on Craigslist’s “Missed Connections” forum, describing in rich detail a relationship that I had never had. He discussed my body, mortifying details of “our” sex life, and seemed generally both angry and horny in my direction. When it emerged that this was actually the creative experiment of a writer’s assistant on a hit show, his boss contacted me to apologise and say the writer would be reprimanded. Checking him out on IMDB, he seems to have been promoted instead.

In the years that followed there were more invasive and unsettling accusations about my sexual past and physical form. Sometimes they involved other people, and I began to wonder if my presence in their lives was a curse of sorts. I look back now and see that focusing on my own destructive effect was less painful than wondering why we lived in a system where women who chose to expose themselves creatively were assumed to be OK with exposing themselves in darker ways. At the time, I settled on hating myself instead.

I noticed a change in my own prose. While I had never before thought about my audience beyond a passing consideration, I now felt them watching constantly. But more than wanting to impress them or make them laugh, I became hell-bent on telling them just how hard things had become for me. My sentences grew leaden as I used terms like “my pain” or “my heartbreak”. I was so intent on making my reality impossible to question that I became intolerable to myself. Like saying “uncle” in an arm-wrestle, I was trying to express that I was no longer strong enough to handle the audience’s side of the bargain we had made. It came out as a death rattle of self-pity: I went to Hollywood and all I got was this lousy martyr complex.

Which brings us to Britney’s Instagram. Before the probate hearing in June, the only sign we really had that all was not right in Britneyville was her social media. It wasn’t about what she was telling us, but what she wasn’t. What had inspired her to sit down and paint childlike flowers? Why was she dancing in a pair of striped boxer shorts, rolled at the waist, repeating the same hip flick over and over again? Why had she chosen this particular lace catsuit to model on repeat? After the testimony, she took to Instagram to apologise for having sold us a fairy tale on there. But to me, it seemed she’d been waving a rescue flag from the water. Mind altered by the echo chamber of fame, her sense of what she was selling was off.

My boyfriend recently asked me why the Britney story mattered. He didn’t grow up in the US and he was busy following alternative music while I focused squarely on pop, so his sense of her monolithic cultural importance isn’t complete. But what he was really asking was this: in a world where so many iniquities are grasping for our attention, why does the financial management of a troubled multimillionaire rise to the level of a human rights issue?

I explained what I believe to be true: that the exploitation, humiliation and gagging of a young Britney Spears serves as both micro- and macrocosm for the entire girl industrial complex. She had been hand-selected to lead teenage girls to gentle rebellion, only for us to discover that the choices we felt she was instigating us to make – emotional, professional, sexual – had been denied her. The young fans she inspired had more freedom than she did as a fully adult woman. And if the biggest name in pop music has neither control of her career arc nor access to her money, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

The next steps in her conservatorship case are unclear, though a date has been set for a hearing later this month. Lawyers are battling for Britney to control her own fortune. Her father has indicated he’ll step down, but when? Britney was recently cleared of battery charges after she allegedly slapped a mobile phone from the hand of an employee during a row over the care of her dogs. Like all stories, Britney’s can only ever be an imperfect parable, because it revolves around humans.

Still, we hashtag “FreeBritney”. We wring our hands over cruel 13-year-old headlines (“Britney Shears”, “Time Bomb”, “Sick!”). But our concern rings oddly hollow as we watch a new set of tweens on new platforms with avid interest, obsessing not only over their bodies but over their talent or lack thereof, their political affiliations and their break-ups. I don’t consider myself a sceptic but this is something I know: we aren’t waiting to see them succeed but to see them break.

Recently, Britney posted an Instagram photo of a wooden door. Below it was a long caption about her experience of becoming locked in her bathroom. It was a meandering story involving a middle-of-the-night bath, a cold cup of coffee, and calling her security to rescue her. But it made its analogy clear: “15 minutes went by and [security] finally said they’d send someone up to open the door … 10 minutes later … ‘HELLO ??? Is anybody there ???’… then they told me 10 more minutes !!!” she said. She started to fall asleep but decided to glug her leftover coffee instead. “I was reenergized and started speaking again!!!” she wrote. “‘Are you guys there ???’ … ‘Yes we are!’ They said, ‘Stand back, we’re going to open the door!’ It opened … it finally opened !!!!!”

I stared at the photo she had posted – in many ways the most banal social media image possible – and wondered what about it was confusing me. It took me a few minutes to realise: she was writing as if the door had been opened with great force, but in the image it was simply cracked. Enough to see a sliver of light, but not what was behind it.

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