Back in the 90s, Britney was sold to us as the virginal prick-tease. But does that image have a sell-by date? Here, we look back at the marketing of Britney’s sexuality, from “Baby…” to “Glory”
You saw Britney Spears’ performance at the Billboard Awards earlier this year, right? And you’ve probably also seen the kinda underwhelming video for her new single ‘Make Me’ too. She’s looking hot lately, right? And you’re surprised, right?
Britney’s new album, Glory, comes out this Friday. Now that her body is back in phenomenal shape, it’s hardly surprising that Team Britney have decided to push the “sexy angle” once again in order to promote her new album, as it’s served her well ever since MTV first beamed ‘…Baby One More Time’ into our lives back in 1998. But is it still possible to buy into the idea of Britney as the ultimate, unobtainable sex goddess? Britney was sold to us as the virginal vixen, the tease, the ultimate jailbate fantasy—but segueing that image into adulthood hasn’t been so smooth. As a pop star whose rise to fame was so hinged on being “not yet a woman,” is it possible for Britney to transcend her V-card roots, or does that particular type of sex appeal have a sell-by date?
Video for Britney’s new single, “Make Me”
Legend has it that the original concept for the “…Baby One More Time” video involved Britney playing some sort of superwoman character battling aliens. Unimpressed with such a deeply uncool idea, it was Britney herself who proposed she portray a bored school girl fantasizing about getting out of class and winning back the boy of her dreams. “She put forward the idea of the Catholic schoolgirl uniform,” said director Nigel Dick, “and she was fully conscious of the ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect of the imagery.”
And yet Britney pleaded blissful ignorance to the moral panic she inspired amongst parents and religious groups, protesting: “All I did was tie up my shirt! I’m wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I’m wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those — it’s the style.”
The meticulously executed image control Team Britney exercised from 1998-2000 was masterful and lucrative. She sang songs that portrayed her as lovesick and obsessed with boys, dreaming of the perfect relationship, and curious about but ultimately afraid of intimacy. This artful contradiction was extended and intensified by Britney’s image, with the crowning moment of her teen queen ascendency being her cover story for Rolling Stone’s April 1999 issue. The David LaChappelle photo shoot was dangerously provocative, and Britney knew it. When Britney’s manager walked in to discover his client brazenly exposed, he called a stop to the shoot, and Britney agreed with him that things had gone too far. But the moment he left the room, she unbuttoned her shirt once again, told LaChappelle to lock the door and to carry on snapping.
Two engrossing “has she, hasn’t she?” mysteries were added into this already potent mixture of innocence and experience. There was a big question mark over Britney’s breasts. Following a two month break after suffering a dance-induced knee injury, Britney re-emerged with a markedly more voluptuous figure. Of course, puberty is a fickle mistress and growth spurts happen, but her newfound assets seemed to be deliberately displayed when she returned with a performance at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards (of all places) with no bra beneath her tight, white crop top.
There was also Britney’s much-contested pledge of celibacy. It was one thing for Britney to be the totally sexy but oh-so-unaware girl next door, but it was quite another for her to be a proud virgin. It was a strike of marketing genius.
The great “never-to-be-had” was the vital detail that set Britney apart from her pop foremother, Madonna. Madonna came unto us a fully-fledged autonomous woman in control of her life, image and sexuality, whilst Britney was sold to us as a wholesome teenager, yet to be undone by worldly pleasures. Where Madonna had once mocked the valuation of female chastity on “Like A Virgin,” Britney promoted it.
I doubt that Britney’s marketing team were steeped in reading the works of Simone de Beauvoir when working on their sales strategy, but reality reflected the French writer’s assertion that, “The young girl’s purity allows hope for every kind of license, and no one knows what perversities are concealed in her innocence. Neither child nor adult, the virgin is one of the privileged exponents of mystery.”
For Britney’s second album the plan was relatively simple: keep the image the same but up the ante. ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ was an ode to Britney’s and womankind’s prick-teasing powers, letting the public know that Britney was in on the joke and keen to indulge her conflicting suggestive message. As Vanessa Grigoriadis perfectly put it (in the most fascinating article ever written about Britney Spears): “She is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation.”
The “deflowering” seemed to take place when Britney turned 19 and entered what I like to call the “I’ve Done The Nasty, I Liked It, And I Want Everyone To Know About It” phase. ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ was Britney’s coming of age anthem. She lamented the world’s view of her as a “little girl,” the accompanying sweat-fest video featured a choreographed orgy set in a sauna, and she gave an iconic performance of the track with an albino python draped around her rippling body – a symbol with phallic connotations, as well as allusions of biblical sin and evil.
Her third album, In The Zone, saw her entering the most overtly sexual phase of her career, featuring songs about the joys of masturbation (“Touch Of My Hand”), orgasms (“Breathe On Me”) and her active libido (“Outrageous”). Having posed for Esquire wearing nothing but a butt-skimming jumper in one shot, and in another concealing herself with just a pair of white panties and strings of pearls, Britney still declined to acknowledge the sexualized message she was communicating. Journalist Chuck Klosterman wrote of his meeting with Spears: “Interviewing Britney Spears is like deposing Bill Clinton: Regardless of the evidence, she does not waver. It is not that Britney Spears denies that she is a sexual icon, or that she disputes that American men are fascinated with the concept of the wet-hot virgin, or that she feels her success says nothing about what our society fantasizes about. She doesn’t disagree with any of that stuff, because she swears she has never even thought about it. Not even once.”
In many ways, by selling her undeveloped sexual-self, Britney was set up to fail in the long term. For her it was impossible to uphold an image predicated by her chastity, and for us it was impossible to keep on buying into and believing it.
When Britney decided to bury her virginal past, she did so with gusto, and shit got trashy. Spears seemed to lose control of her own image and mythology when she crossed the line from the great untouchable to the prized conquest: Colin Farrell was draping himself all over her; Fred Durst was telling anyone who would listen that he’d hit it; heartbroken Justin Timberlake told the press of his nights spent crying himself to sleep over their breakup; she and Madonna swapped saliva in an MTV-sponsored faux lesbian fantasy; she was wed for a matter of hours in Las Vegas; she married again to Kevin Federline and sacrificed every ounce of prized mystery by starring in her own unhinged reality show.
After having two children and divorcing K-Fed, 2007 happened. We all know what 2007 consisted of for Britney. Despite undergoing a very public psychotic break, everyone remained fixated with her physicality, just as her press team had trained us to be from the very beginning. It was difficult to look beyond the surface trauma of 2007—beyond the shaven head, the cringy VMA performance, the Paris Hilton-encouraged crotch shots, the fake British accent.
Considering the depths Britney Spears fell to, the Britney money-making machine managed to roll on using the same old tricks, but it all felt thin, robotic and truly tired. We were fed songs that were supposed to present Britney as a sexually liberated woman—like “3“ and “If U Seek Amy“—but were we seriously supposed to believe that a woman living under the constraints of a court-ordered conservatorship was having wild, sexy threesomes? I don’t think so.
Still from the Gimme More vid, 2007
From the inception of her career, Britney entered into the same Faustian pact as many (mostly female) celebrities—she handed over her body in exchange for fame. Whilst it initially looked like the self sabotage of 2007 was the price she had to pay for her deal with the devil, it later turned out that the zombie sex-bot routine of her recovery years was in fact to be her eternal damnation. On reflection, perhaps there was never a long term career plan for Britney—no expectation that she would transcend her early teen queen mantle, or that we’d still be talking about her 18 years after her debut single. Like any woman, Britney is entitled to be as sexy as she wants for as long as she wants. Still, there’s something unfairly tragic about being sold as a sex object before you’re fully sexually developed. Because when “your thing” is being a girl, it makes it hard to become a woman.