Britney Jean Spears is 20 months older than I am, and as a result, the Britney Narrative has never seemed right to me; since her 1998 debut, I’ve seen Spears’s career in blurred double: the Britney I saw overlaid with the Britney the media, her handler’s, the industry, perhaps the artist herself wanted to present. Twenty months is a small enough gap that for a singer whose being seemed designed to denote youth was someone I best understood as old.
In the Britney Narrative, Spears was introduced to America at sixteen as adolescent and wholesome, appearing in her first video pigtailed and in school uniform. She was underage yet newly sexual — she told interviewers that she planned to save her virginity for marriage, yet her songs vibrated with uncontainable and teenage lust — and this is the frisson the adult men who produced for her and wrote about her picked up on. Spears was a little girl who didn’t know she wasn’t little anymore; Rolling Stone shot her in her bedroom with plush animals and lingerie.
This narrative, notably, is one defined by people who didn’t particularly have much interest in Spears musically; it wasn’t for fans, it was for the public, for people who engaged with Spears as celebrity and cultural object, not as musical performer. I don’t mean to omit Britney’s agency from consideration, but for someone who so quickly became a pop-cultural icon, her intentions in regards to her self-presentation became subservient to those of the pop culture industry tasked with defining her.
As Britney grew older, she became less untouchable and her sexuality became less illicit. She was eighteen when, in “Oops!… I Did It Again,” she confided “I’m not that innocent,” and less than a month shy of twenty when she mused “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman,” complaining of being “Overprotected.” (The album from which those songs come, Britney, also featured her most overt expressions of sexual desire to date, in the form of “I’m a Slave 4 U” and “Boys,” both of which seemed much more concerned with presenting Spears as sexual actor than sexual object than her previous singles.) Next thing, Spears, at 21, now probably entirely a woman, was kissing Madonna at the VMAs and singing about masturbation.
There are so many flaws with this narrative, but the extent to which Spears contributed to it, through the changing themes of her lyrics, videos, and publicity work, speaks to its power. And, growing up with Britney, it always seemed transparently wrong to me.
Those twenty months Britney has on me seem enormous in high school: we were close enough in age that I could consider her a peer, but I was sufficiently her junior that the youth the media insisted defined her was invisible to me. Rather, I thought, Britney was inescapably old: she was like the big girls a few grades ahead of me. (Her older sister status meant I never saw her an object of attraction either; I was interested in girls my own age.) “…Baby One More Time” wasn’t an expression of untouchable nascent sexuality and I couldn’t see any of the porny subtext the older men deciding whom Britney should be saw. It didn’t make sense to consider Britney as pre-sexual, because the girls I saw at school obviously weren’t, and they, like me, were younger than Britney. They weren’t naïve coquettes; they were wholly formed people with the same desires and maturity I thought myself to have. When Britney sang that she wasn’t a girl, but not yet a woman, it seemed preposterous, because I had just turned eighteen, and could drink and vote and fight wars, and I had no interest in pretending to people I wasn’t an adult. I assumed Britney didn’t either.
There’s a Margaret Atwood line about how “little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized,” and it should probably also apply to not-so-little girls. Britney always looked life-sized to me.
As many women since Britney have discovered in varying ways — Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, Vanessa Hudgens, etc., etc. — our culture has trouble allowing girls to become women in the public eye. They are supposed to retain a childlike asexuality long after they’ve stopped being children, and yet they are supposed to claim womanhood at the precise time onlookers are not made uncomfortable by their sexuality: usually long after they have become actually women. When Britney went through this process, we were growing up just closely enough that I could see how truly bizarre the pantomime was.