What makes a gay icon? Following a religious experience at a Britney Spears concert this summer, Lizzi Sandell explores the complicated relationship between queer fans and the celebrities they choose to adore.
Britney Spears is a gay icon. Everyone knows this. Britney knows this; that’s why she’s been throwing our community softball straight-to-gay-club bangers like “Womanizer” and capitalist treatise “Work B**ch” for at least the last ten years. That’s why she just won the 2018 Vanguard Award at GLAAD, which could basically be considered a prize for being a gay icon considering other awardees include Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and Cher. And that’s also why she decided to launch her 2018 world tour at a vast gathering of British gays—with around 50,000 people at the concert, and a further 300,000 traveling to the city for the weekend—Brighton Pride.
I was lucky enough to be one of those British gays, and luckier still to be near the front in a cosy Gold Circle spot with its own toilets, meaning that our environ didn’t smell like hot garbage until around 9pm. By that point, I was too drunk on warm festival wine to mind anyway, and busy feeling actual chills at seeing Britney onstage and living her best life—or at least, a pretty good life, certainly better than lives she’s lived previously, but one that still seems palpably tenuous. When you’re defined by fame, youth, beauty, an era, what happens when those things, catalyzed by scandal and poor mental health, start to feel like a thing of the past—a thing we’re reminiscing about rather than actually living?
Watching Britney perform was bittersweet, existing somewhere between elation at seeing a familiar performer and the eeriness of finding her somehow changed beyond her years. It felt like experiencing the gay icon phenomenon writ large, and I thought about the complex honor of being considered one. The overwhelming sense among my friends and in the crowd was one of identification with Britney’s emotional journey, and a genuine desire for her to do well. But, looking at her, I also saw her celebrity wearing on her; gun-shy, grabbed at and hounded for too long, Britney obviously no longer felt comfortable hugging the fan she brought up on stage to dance with her, but was able to theatrically spank him with a leather whip in a strange estimation of intimacy.
The first thing my (gay, male) friend commented when she walked on—3 minutes early, I hasten to add—was, “She looks good!” with more than a hint of surprise in his voice. This shouldn’t be surprising; Britney is only 36 years old, with a net worth of over $200 million, and we only have to look at Susan Sarandon, JK Rowling, or Jane Fonda to know that money has the ability to freeze the hands of time if not actively reverse them. But, of course, we are surprised. We know the many lives Britney has lived to be here, and we have lived them with her, with the kind of intimacy that only comes from watching someone bust a car window with an umbrella.
She does look good. She’s in great shape, and performed for an hour and a half of high-energy dance routines during which she barely stopped moving (except for between every three songs when she momentarily left the stage, when we cruelly joked she was being defibrillated). The gig was brimming with nostalgia; listening to early hits like “…Baby One More Time,” which she mashed up with the similarly oddly-punctuated classic “Oops!…I Did It Again” (the 90s were full of weird ellipses) brought me back to seeing the video on The Box for the very first time and having the earliest of many confusing sapphic admiration/female emulation moments. That song turns 20 this year.
It’s not as though I haven’t been to other nostalgia-heavy gigs since becoming old enough to revel in nostalgia. I saw Blink-182 headline a festival in 2010 (who, in case you’re wondering, still think it’s funny to replace any lyric with the word “butt”), and I saw 5ive (Britain’s answer to the Backstreet Boys) at a weirdly horny middle-aged reunion gig a few years back. But one question lingered during Britney’s gig, this decidedly more feminine experience, one that didn’t cross my mind during other trips down musical memory lane: is she happy?
Why does this question plague me? Why does her success seem precarious? Is it because we all know she still doesn’t control her own money, living under the “conservatorship” of her parents? Is it because she seems to have given up touching her fans, and singing live? Is it because she seems just a little, tiny bit spaced out, and her smile just a little bit tight?
Besides, why do I care so much? I’m not a Britney stan—or part of the “Britney Army” as it’s known on the Internet—I’m just a #90skid who was regularly woken up by her Furby screaming and loudly moving its mechanical beak or whatever. I was actually too tomboyish as a child to earnestly buy in to Spearsdom, and as early as 2002, I can remember kids at my school changing the lyrics to her ill-fated single “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” to “I hate Britney Spears” at a school disco. I’m not sure that it was every really cool to like Britney, except to a certain sort of girl at school who didn’t like me because I insisted on wearing the same pair of orange Umbro shorts to school every day. But as we (me and Britney) have aged, she has taken on new meaning to me.
A week before Pride, I was having dinner with my wife, mum, grandma, and two close friends who also happen to be a lesbian couple. Miraculously, we were all getting on very well; I’m finally at that age when mixing friends with family (i.e. proper adults) is actually a viable thing to do, but it still can be excruciating and there are still huge generational gaps to fill. But nan was telling us charming non-sequitur stories and everyone was having a nice time and I felt sincerely lucky—and not in a “This is a story about a girl named Lucky” sort of way—that I was able to introduce my family to not just my life but my gay life, especially as my wife and I had recently been snubbed by my other grandmother at a wedding.
I like to think occasions like this are a good learning experience for my family, who are entirely accepting of the gay thing but occasionally miss the mark. In light of the upcoming Britney gig, we got to discussing what makes a gay icon. I’m not sure that my family understood why we were so excited to see this not-quite-relevant pop star. “Do you actually like her music?” my mum asked incredulously (she also hates Madonna.) “Is Britney gay?” said my grandma. Obviously no, but it did get me thinking about why our icons are who they are—why they are usually female, and usually violently straight.
Historically, we’ve chosen Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Judy Garland over people who were actually gay (who were then mostly men and mostly conspicuously out or only rumored to be) or people who explicitly played with gender roles. More recently, in these tolerant times, we’ve given queer musician and notorious girlfriend-swapper St. Vincent the title of “celesbian” rather than gay icon, and lesbian pop star (a previously unknown entity) Hayley Kiyoko a new moniker entirely: lesbian jesus. Singer Miley Cyrus, pansexual and non-binary, complicates the narrative; she probably is a gay icon in the making, but I can’t help but think that it has more to do with the very public disaster of growing up Disney, having weird daddy issues, and that “Blurred Lines” moment, than the time she fingered Stella Maxwell after a Victoria’s Secret show (which was awesome, by the way).
I’ve always thought that being a gay icon had something to do with tragedy and perseverance.
It also seems to encompass a certain relationship to femininity: overt, often exaggerated, somehow flawed. It plays into other concepts like drag culture, camp, gender identity, performing sexuality… I suppose the LGBTQ community sees itself reflected in these complex, glamorous, imperfect, and very public female experiences, and that we recognize the double-bind of being a woman in the public eye. Queer sexuality can make us conspicuous, trapped between satisfying people’s expectations of queerdom while avoiding limiting stereotypes, navigating our own desires around those of society at large. Being the gay kid at school can be a little like being a starlet, noticed and notorious. That’s why we are drawn to the most fabulous but also the most conflicted figures.
This could be considered the “Mommie Dearest” effect. The release of Joan Crawford’s daughter’s 1978 “tell-all” memoir, which alleged that the Hollywood star was an alcoholic and abusive parent, did little to diminish her popularity as a gay figure; indeed, I would go as far as to say that it improved it. Joan Crawford is a mainstay of drag act emulation and camp movie events, and unflattering portrayals by Faye Dunaway, and more sympathetically, Jessica Lange have only secured her place in the gay pantheon. Spun a certain way, this can seem sinister. Could it be that Britney’s substance abuse problems, and legal trouble over her own children (she lost custody in 2007 and, over a decade later, it’s still only partially restored) actually endeared us to her more? Does that mean that we wanted her to fail?
I’ve struggled with this—the idea that the gay community, so readily dominated culturally by white, gay men, somehow thrives on sacrificial womanhood. But identification with failure and will for failure are not the same thing. The resonance of these negative aspects of our icons derives, surely, from a sense of collective societal exclusion and emotional damage, rather than a vulturous lust for tragedy. As things improve for us culturally (in some parts of the world), imperfectly and haphazardly, perhaps our attitudes towards gay icons will change and broaden too; while we will continue to hold up troubled stars like Demi Lovato, there is perhaps now room for more untroubled allies like Ariana Grande to exist and be celebrated as gay icons on a less complicated platform.
Over time, the relationship between Britney and her gay fans has become reciprocally loving and supportive in a way that is moving; Britney shed a tear during curtain-call in Brighton, and she wasn’t the only one. Nostalgia is frowned upon in these politically fraught times, but if we can begin to heal our collective trauma through music and the personal triumphs of our gay icons, lifting up those who champion us, we can all be stronger (than yesterday).
Lizzi Sandell is a British writer and an editor at powerHouse Books in New York.