By Alexander Billet
I am loath to defend the likes of Britney Spears. I, like many others, cringed when MTV dressed her up as the sexist stereotype of the naughty schoolgirl and billed her as "wholesome." I shuddered when the media subjected us to the minutiae of her personal life, from her tour squabbles to K-Fed. I almost vomited when I heard her thoughts on the Iraq war: "I think we should trust the president." And when Rolling Stone or MTV names her the “best female artist” of any year it makes me want to blast my Janis Joplin records out of sheer protest.
But this needs to be said: the coverage of Spears’ very public meltdown is disgraceful. It is depraved, sexist, and exploitative. And while it may go without saying that she has always represented the most shallow and shameless side of the entertainment business, this whole debacle has given us a chance to see how sinister and ruthless that business can be.
Over the past several weeks, we have played the role of accidental voyeurs as Spears’ sanity has dissolved like alka-seltzer in a pool of lava. The in and out stays in rehab, the late night emotional breakdown in front of her ex's apartment, and of course the head shaving and tattoos, all with photographers in tow. Every outlet, from Entertainment Tonight to People, has signed up with the newly formed Bash Britney Brigade. Never to be outdone, the online section of Maxim magazine (that shining beacon of post-post-post-feminism) has compiled a list of roles that Spears can attempt now. Needless to say, it’s not too flattering.
And yet, this same magazine at any other given time would be salivating to plaster her across their front cover. It is profoundly sick and twisted that the same publications that ogled Spears’ breasts and asked if they were real, that chronicled her status as a virgin with pornographic fascination, and somehow assumed the right to declare her an unfit mother can now be laughing with such glee over her obvious distress.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen this, and it won’t be the last. Millions of teenage girls dream of making it big as a pop star. Record execs have their pick of the litter when finding “the new teen sensation.” Spears was just lucky enough to fit into their Barbie-shaped mold. But in the record business, dreams are only important as long as they make money. At age 16, when most kids are worrying about their driver’s license and getting caught drinking by their parents, Spears was being thrown into Catholic schoolgirl and Lolita outfits on the cover of every major music magazine on the planet. What's worse, she was presented as an example for young girls.
Playing two conflicting roles—the available sex kitten and the virginal role model—all under the constant watch of an unscrupulous and intrusive press would drive anyone up the damn wall. But now that she has buckled under the weight, Spears has become a pop diva pariah. And despite the lurid details the tabloids are willing to share about Spears’ life, the one thing they won’t touch is their own longtime role in driving her to the edge.
The message is clear: if she’s disposable, so are the rest of us.
It's hard to believe that Britney Spears would have cured cancer in a different world. But when dealing with an industry and a society that exploits the hopes and dreams of ordinary people, it is worth asking ourselves what people like her would amount to if those dreams (both hers and ours) were fostered and nurtured.
Pity Britney. Screw the industry.