She Pop: Sacrificial Virgins: On Britney Spears, Aging, and the Lure of Female Pain

I have an exciting piece of news for you: Britney Spears has been making music for ten years, because you are getting old and will die someday. True, scientists have not yet discovered a direct causal link between Britney Spears having been around for ten years and the fact that time marches ever forward, bringing you with each moment closer to the grave! I am fairly certain, however, that this "mortality" thing is more or less directly her fault.

I can remember a time when I hated Britney. This time, in case you are wondering, would be my senior year of high school. We were both eighteen. (DEATH! DEATH COMES EVER CLOSER AS TIME PASSES! THE LIGHT, IT DIMS!) I disliked her, not because she was so sexual - pop stars have pretty much always been overtly sexual, so that was no suprise - but because her sexual appeal was based on not having had sex. Her image was so obviously manufactured to straddle the virgin/whore line, to give men a forbidden sexual thrill whilst reaping the rewards of public purity. She did a video in a sexy schoolgirl outfit; she proclaimed her own virginity. She posed for a magazine cover in her underwear; she did an inspirational book with her "best friend" and "mama." And I, being of precisely the right age to start getting attention from older guys who made creepy comments about my "innocence," really resented Britney for stoking the fires of teen girl fetishists. I believed, for some reason, that if Britney weren't willingly being objectified, I wouldn't be objectified against my will. 



You know: I typically find, when I resent another woman, that I'm attributing power to her that she does not possess. It was easy for me to hate Britney because I thought she was in control the whole time. I didn't get that she was just another girl, dealing with the same bullshit attitudes about her sexuality and sexual availability that I had to cope with. (Teen girls: don't have sex! Even though you are so SEXY. And will stop being sexy as soon as you actually HAVE SEX!) She'd chosen, on some level, to cash in; I'd chosen, on some level, to check out. But I can see the point of view of people who cash in, these days, and I can recognize that neither choice really comes from a place of power or control. It's just what people do in the face of limited options. And, as a high-schooler, I didn't understand that Sexy Virgin Britney Spears, as manufactured by her record label and managers, might not be the sole creation of Britney Spears, Person - that she, actually, might feel powerless in the face of the Britney Spears Media Machine too. And, yeah, some of her stuff was really bad, and some of the things she said in public were really dumb, and maybe she did make some bad decisions, maybe she continued to make worse and worse decisions, but, you know? We were both eighteen once. And I'm really glad that my early twenties were not broadcasted to the world at large. You could find some faults there, is all I'm saying! 

I always like to think of Britney as the reincarnation of Neely O'Hara. Neely, lest we forget, was the immortal heroine of Valley of the Dolls, a child star who got famous, got married, got un-married, got hooked on The Drugs, got institutionalized, got un-famous, got un-hooked on the drugs, got famous again, and so on and so on, in roughly that order, ad infinitum. It's all good trashy fun in the book, especially since the book is terrible. How over the top can this woman get? How out of control? And so on, and so on. It's when you realize that you're having fun watching another person's life fall apart (Britney - or, hey, Judy Garland, on whom Neely was based) that the sick feeling starts to kick in. 

Why do we like our female stars to suffer? There's no question that we do; consider - God knows I do, in dark moments when there is nothing else to post - the mass hysteria over the prospect that Jessica Simpson may be near-catatonic with depression due to dog loss. This isn't a story. This is a vague, unexceptional event dressed up to look like a story because it has the promise of public female suffering. Spears is a source of interest just because things happen to her - big, exciting, terrible, painful things - and people like to watch stories that are big and exciting for them and painful for someone else. Women, more often than not - women we can paint as crazy, or slutty, or bitchy, or stupid, or out-of-control, women we can use to scare other women, women we can point to and say, look! That's who not to be. Which is just as damaging as pointing to a woman pretending to embody some unattainable ideal and saying, look! That's why we don't like you. Because that's what you're not. It just feels powerful, hating those women, because for once you're not the one being shamed. See, also: Megan Fox Hatred 101.

Britney managed, for just about one second, to embody every contradictory message about female worth out there - wholesome, but sexy, but pure, but dirty, but "girl next door," but glamorous - and we venerated her for it. Then she slipped up, and we took great joy in tearing her to pieces. See? She's actually having sex now! See? Her innocence was an act! Look! The girl we encouraged to be an unthinking, largely unspeaking body didn't turn out to be a nuclear scientist! My God! Her body is capable of gaining weight! SHAME, SHAME. 

At a certain point, Britney Spears lost her worth, in the public eye. When she had children, gained weight, lost the fascination of the new. When she became a grown-up; when she became publicly known as a flawed, suffering person instead of a cartoon; when she stopped pretending to be a fantasy. And, of course, now she's in the "comeback" stage of the cycle. Which was inevitable. Every sacrificial victim gets a comeback, if she doesn't die first. And that might simply be because, after you've torn someone down far enough, there's nothing else to do but build her back up. We love women when they're too young and too inexperienced to be anything other than vessels for our desire. We love them when they're spiraling out of control and giving us a chance to opine about what Good Girls Don't do, to scare other women into line. And we love them even more when they let us welcome them back into the fold - when they demonstrate, for us, the benefits of repentance. 


by Sady Doyle
View profile »

Sady Doyle is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown and the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear, and Why. Her writing has appeared in The GuardianThe Atlantic, The Awl, Buzzfeed, and all across the internet.  ​

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

8 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post, Sady!

I've enjoyed all the She Pop pieces, but this one takes the cake. You've done an excellent job here analyzing a complicated phenomenon -- the hatred of Britney -- that has been around since she hit the radio and often tempts us feminists too.


she is a victim of monarch trauma based programming. spare her.
let us not condemn her personally as she has never meant harm.
us might get along if she was allowed to make friends.
it is just something within ourselves we lack
or we disdain. the pressure of stepping inside the assembly line
so we rebuke the archetype. as of late her programming shattered.
i think she endures with such a graceful aplomb. think about it.
she can only speak with her eyes.
in interviews despite the berain of tears and ignorance (not her fault for being sharp as a napkin) she fuels herself with wishful hope
that there is a reason she is on ths earth. it takes more courage to suffer than die.
and i cry and pray for her. ever since i seen her in real life. it was ten feet away but
she is a force to contain.
compare her sex appeal to that of recent disney slaves.
britney spears is compelling alluring (libra rising)

if youve ever been raped or beaten, and i get my dose, you are impelled with a rage to act out. i was beaten this morning and can barely construe my thoughts. you dissociate
there is no time for tears or scattered thoughts but repression and adaptation.
i didnot finish reading your article, as i am ready to collapse into the mattress buti like what i read.

I do feel for her

This really does hit home to me because when she first came onto the music scene, I was a freshman in high school AND I went to a Catholic school, and it really pissed me off that she did her video as a schoolgirl, because after that, whenever I said that I went to a private school, every single person would ask if my uniform was like hers in the video.

I never liked pop music, and I listened to bands like Hole and Alanis Morsette when I was at that age. I was never interested in the boy bands or girl pop and still aren't.

And unfortunately the person that reminds me more of the Neely O'Hara character is Lindsay Lohan. I think she's much more worse now than Britney Spears is because she has no one to check her. Spears is lucky because now she has her dad and is seeming like she's getting help for her supposed mental health issues. Lohan, on the other hand, keeps going down the downward spiral.

And I was honestly just so happy when Spears sough treatment. I don't know her, nor am I an expert in psychology or anything, but that woman needs to go back to Louisana and just chill out for a year and be with her kids. So does Lohan. And it's split: There's the trashy tabloid freaks who want celebrities to suffer and have drug addictions and mental problems or sex tapes. And then there are people like me who honestly and sincerely want these women to get better.

It seems that tragedy seems to befall women more than men: Anna Nicole Smith, Marilyn Monroe, Spears, Lohan, Judy Garland, etc. How does it get that bad and how do their friends let it get that bad? Sorry, I'm rambling but I'm just about sick with the way the media treats famous and talented women and I think it's about time we stick up for them and not treat them as if they're unflawed.

And what I think is so horrible about how Spears is being treated by the media, is that she might not have even been a virgin when she got signed to her record contract, and she was manufactured by her record label, and when it got to be too much to uphold, she cracked, and I don't blame her for it. And the media and the public blasted her for it, for not upholding an image that might not have even been her.

So yeah, kudos to a great article. I just hope that in the future, women can be actresses and singers and be famous without having to uphold an image and not be criticized when that image fails.


This is a comment because the photo caption made me choke coffee all over my monitor. Congratulations, you've got yourself a fan; this piece is great.

Specifically, this piece is great to me because I'm a recovering member of an all-female, nominally-religious school who had to wear my (in truth deeply unflattering) school uniform out in public on the bus every day. As a member of said caste, I hated Britney Spears like fire. Hated. Loathed. The comments, they were the bad in advance of the single, and in the aftermath I learned to wear jeans instead; jeans and my dad's hoodie. I hated the music, the message, and the fact that she was a wealthy success at eighteen. She represented in one tiny pink package everything that made me uncomfortable about growing up; the uncertainty about paying for my future, the horror of my body and the way people looked at it, looked at me, the way everyone around me really liked it. Liked her silence, liked the vapidity of the music. The implicit threat that this was it - this was the way to succeed, that this was the option. Sell yourself. Sell something that can't be had. Sell it in pink, the colour that is also a ghetto.

Sometimes it's like Britney and her contradictions - like the author and myself, born at exactly the right moment at the start of the echo boom - is chasing me. It was terrifying to watch her entire evolution, always knowing she's almost exactly my age. It's hard to see people your own age and think anything other than "There but for the grace of having nothing whatsoever in common with her go I." The horrible question is always there though; what if we do have something in common? And then the fear of the public shame starts back up again.

Britney Spears is the representation of everything I ever hated about being a girl. I'm so glad someone's printed something about this, something funny, witty and approachable that hits the nail smack on the head. Validation. Hooray. Expect wide cross-posting.

aka snobographer

When Britney shaved her head and went at that paparazzo's car with her umbrella, for a minute there I was kind of hoping she was going to go all Wendy O Williams on us. Just the punk rock fuck y'all attitude though, not the self-destruction. I've never been a big fan of Britney's, but the way the haters went after her made me feel like rooting for her.

As Elvis Costello sang way

As Elvis Costello sang way back before Britney was even born, 'you want her broken with her mouth wide open because she's this year's girl.'

This is a great article.

Similar to one I pitched about a year ago. Bitch replied "We think everything has already been said about Ms. Spears." I'm glad they've rethought that position.

Add new comment