Britney Spears Was Never in Control

Why did I ever believe a teen girl could hold all the power?

Photo: L. Busacca/WireImage
Photo: L. Busacca/WireImage

The New York Times’s Framing Britney Spears documentary casts a spell. I am thinking specifically of the stretch that chronicles Spears’s rise as a teen idol, starting with the “Baby One More Time” video. I had not seen it since elementary school and was unsettled, as an adult, to watch a 16-year-old embody a schoolgirl fantasy. To make sense of the video’s popularity, the Times’s Wesley Morris suggests that to the 12- and 13-year-olds watching the video when it came out, “it isn’t the sex part that seems cool. It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool.” I felt unsure that younger-me could distinguish the control from the sexiness. But before I could think too hard about it, Framing Britney Spears was making a compelling argument: Spears’s teen image was an expression of her sexuality, and questioning the kind of agency she had in it is misogynistic.

The filmmakers achieve this by alternating between footage of Spears and her collaborators asserting that she made her own decisions and sexist news coverage that shows how much the world hates women who make their own decisions. If “Baby One More Time” made me feel queasy, I was soon reminded that America is sexist and sexually repressed. If I wondered what kind of say Spears had in the “sexy” Rolling Stone photos taken in her childhood bedroom, I was soon reassured that she was never just some puppet. If I felt suspicious of Kim Kaiman, the marketing executive who argues that Spears simply had a gift for divining teen girls’ innate desire to act sexy and mirroring it back to them, overtly misogynistic news coverage would swoop in to provide a clearer target for my rage. Spears is the one who had to go on TV and defend this image, but the women who helped cultivate it cling to the narrative that, in the words of her stylist, Hayley Hill, “people were, like, uncomfortable with, you know, her sexuality.”

If you, the viewer, share in that discomfort, you are just another misogynistic cog, using the veil of concern for your own puritanical need to control a young woman. This argument serves a narrative purpose. The central drama of Framing Britney is the conservatorship Spears has lived under since 2008, which allows her father to control her finances and personal life. By suggesting she once had complete control, the documentary fuels the sense of injustice when that control is then taken away. The result is a documentary eager to characterize Spears’s early image as an expression of female power rather than the corporation-sanctioned sexualization of a 16-year-old.

In an effort to honor Spears’s autonomy, commentators I admire have taken up the documentary’s argument. One example was on one of my favorite podcasts, Las Culturistas, which I single out because I believe that Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang mean well and because I think their reaction encapsulates the documentary’s design. Rogers says, “When you watch the whole documentary, it’s clear [the media] had been out to get her from the beginning because people were uncomfortable with her expressing sexuality in the way that she did and connecting with young girls in the way that she did.” Yang adds, “It’s not even that it was a reactionary thing. It’s that we as a society were so fucking interrogational about her existence as a really confident performer, and an attractive performer, and someone who could be very commanding physically.”

I get it. When I first finished the doc, I was devastated on Spears’s behalf and amazed by the literalism of her being denied control over her own health and finances by her father and the legal system. The barrage of toxic early-aughts tabloid coverage and opportunistic men made me feel like I needed a shower. The invasive paparazzi footage reminded me of times when I have told men to leave me alone and their response was to double down. Sad and high on feminist ire, I didn’t think the doc was lacking any perspective until I texted with my friend Laia.

Laia was a teenager in the “Baby One More Time” era and said she didn’t understand why the doc was rewriting Spears as a feminist icon. “She was the Establishment! She was what we were supposed to be: sexy and young. Not a paragon of independence.” Laia also pointed out the faulty argument Kaiman tries to make, that only boy bands were popular at the time, in order to cast young Spears as a gender warrior. “She was a response to Alanis and the rise of the ‘angry woman.’” Not only angry women, but women across the genres of pop, rock, rap, and hip-hop who were singing more openly about sex than Spears was — sexual feelings, sexual experiences.

The doc wants the viewer to believe that Spears’s performance of sexuality liberated her and the masses and that it was this bravery plus her talent that resonated with and scared people. It wants you to know that, when asked about the Rolling Stone photos at the time, Spears said to an interviewer,  “Well, I think we’re all girls, and I mean, that’s a part of who we are. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t like to feel sexy. You know what I mean? You’re a girl.”

Wouldn’t it be comforting if things were that simple? But a cursory Google search brought up other feelings that Spears had about the shoot, reflecting in a 2003 interview for British GQ:

“How did I realise [I was a sex symbol]? Probably the first Rolling Stone cover by David LaChapelle. He came in and did the photos and totally tricked me. They were really cool but I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. And, to be totally honest with you, at the time I was 16, so I really didn’t. I was back in my bedroom, and I had my little sweater on and he was like, ‘Undo your sweater a little bit more.’ The whole thing was about me being into dolls, and in my naïve mind I was like, ‘Here are my dolls!’ and now I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell?’ But he did a very good job of portraying me in that way. It certainly wasn’t peaches and cream.”

The filmmakers do not acknowledge how Spears’s agency may have been compromised by her age, the stakes of wealth and fame, or the influence of the adults around her. They also do not engage the messier implications of the virginal-but-sexy archetype: Here is a girl who can perform sex for an audience’s benefit, but who, thank God, has not yet been tainted by experience. America’s response to Spears was puritanical, but so was the fantasy her image fulfilled.

Among all this trauma — Spears’s, mine, that of many women who grew up in the ’90s and early aughts — I can see why a viewer would find relief in concluding that Spears was always in complete control. But it is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there was not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified until they are old enough to be discarded.

Like Britney Spears, I was professionally photographed, lying across the bed in my childhood bedroom, when I was a teenager. I had been 18 for a month. The shoot was by a male photographer for a fashion magazine the summer between my high-school graduation and my move to New York to star in the play This Is Our Youth. In the photo, I am lying on my side with my head propped up on my hand and wearing a vintage houndstooth romper my friend had just given me, my arms and legs bare. My head is tilted down, and I’m pouting, with heavily lined eyes and straightened blond hair. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable in the moment; I don’t remember how the location or pose was decided; I don’t even remember what the photographer looked like. If anyone who was there told me the whole setup was my idea, I would believe them. I remember that the romper had symbolized, for me, my new life starting, and it’s very likely I was eager to update my public image as a sexually active being after extensively documenting an adolescence where I favored bulky layers and granny glasses.

Unlike in LaChapelle’s photos, there are no silky sheets or stuffed animals. Still, when I see the photo now, I just see another thin white able-bodied blonde girl being sexualized. There is absolutely nothing else happening in it. It is not a portrait of someone with a discernible personality, just a pout. Now, at 24, it represents many things that I despise.

I have been on all sides of such image-making. I founded Rookie, an online publication for and largely by teenage girls, when I was 15, nearly ten years ago. I edited it until I was 22, when it folded. We commissioned photos from teenage photographers and accepted submissions from our teenage readers. Occasionally, one of these photos was questioned by one of our readers for sexualizing its subject. For most of Rookie’s existence, I couldn’t see what they saw. I responded by pointing to the fact that these were teen girls innocently photographing their friends. When this critique was leveled at photos of girls in Girl Scout uniforms or cheerleader outfits, the fallacy seemed obvious: These were normal teen girl activities before they were fetishes!

I still think the context — who took these photos, their relationships to their subjects, and their place in a publication not intended for the male gaze — is important. But some of the poses and camera angles are more obviously suggestive to me now. I also see why I, and my fellow teen collaborators, thought that the photos were simply artsy, playful, or sophisticated: They resembled the images that we had absorbed. For me, that meant a mix of fashion magazines, movies, music videos, and thousands of sourceless photos that I inhaled from Tumblr.

This is not to implicate those photographers — after all, I was the editor with the final say, and adults worked at Rookie, too, and were in the awkward position of having a teenager for a boss. Nor is it to suggest that either Spears or myself is complicit in our own or other teen girls’ exploitation. Even young women who are not megafamous have typically picked up on what makes them appear valuable by the age of 15. Their capacity to perpetuate these standards doesn’t mean they are not also victims of these standards. If anything, it shows how girls’ bodies and sexuality are so deeply regulated by a society that despises women and fetishizes youth that some of us learned how to carry out its work all on our own.

There is no need to believe it’s either Everything was Britney’s choice, and therefore she was always a sex-positive feminist or Nothing was Britney’s choice, and the evil adults made all her decisions. Both assertions sound desperate to protect her respectability — another version of her purity, in fact — as a prerequisite for compassion. They remind me of how readily conversations about abuse and assault focus on the moral character of the victim in order to confirm that they have indeed been victimized.

In the flurry of recent Britney Spears commentary, I thought of a few men who would be relieved to learn that it is considered anti-feminist and sex-negative to suggest that there is anything dubious about sexualizing teenagers. One of them already had a good handle on this argument when I was 18. He seemed to believe that, given my professional credentials, I was above harm or that my purported emotional maturity implied consent — because if you are really mature, you are a willing and enthusiastic sexual partner, and if you don’t already know that, perhaps a few rounds of badgering, defying your “no” and “That makes me uncomfortable,” will teach you; surely, no one as powerful as you would ever actually do something she didn’t truly want to do.

He also seemed to believe, like I did, that my status in the world canceled out the power he wielded as an adult man. Perhaps people around me also worried they would be doubting my autonomy if they suggested I was in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship. I wasn’t interested in holding the feelings of those who tried. I myself struggled to see the power dynamics at play because I held fast to the assertion that teen girls are as intelligent and capable as anyone else. I had built a career on it.

In the years immediately following these experiences, I struggled to square my belief that teen girls can do anything with the inkling that I had indeed been too young for encounters I classified as “complicated” or “gray” and now see plainly as assault and abuse. Believing that teen girls can do anything had helped me believe in my artistic pursuits, create Rookie, and gain access to a world where my professional peers were grown adults. Rookie was realistic about the challenges girls face, publishing a wealth of great writing about consent, gender dynamics, and sexual assault. But editing these articles did not make me impervious to the issues they described.

If teen girls — or young women — are encountering adult men socially, they are navigating norms and expectations that were built to rationalize men’s behavior. They are not inured to power imbalances or how power may complicate consent. They are not historically taught to leave a sexual encounter the moment that it becomes violent or to subordinate men’s desires in favor of their own pleasure or safety. They are taught to be responsible for the actions of sexual predators, who receive a vast margin of plausible deniability. When I’ve met 18-year-olds in the last couple years, I have been struck by the fact that even if someone is precocious, it is their youth that makes them precocious. If you can still be considered “mature for your age,” you are not an older person’s equal. This observation can easily go from an act of respect to license for harm.

At the same time that young women are disadvantaged by age and gender, youth does carry currency, which can be mistaken for power. If you are a woman, however, this currency is not on your terms. When my abuser said he thought that it was I who “had all the power” while he was a hapless, insecure, wealthy, much-older-than-me man who didn’t know what he was doing, I at first believed him. I was in a splashy phase of my career. I did get us into parties. I was insecure, too, and terrified of appearing naïve, but I was also aware that my youth was an asset, no matter how uncertainly I wore it, and from that I could muster up a performance of self-assurance, and so: I was outwardly confident. But as the writer Anna Wiener put it to me, “Confidence is not a vector of power.”

Nor is being “in your prime” according to a society that is chiefly concerned with maximizing men’s pleasure. But any claim to total powerlessness ignores the way youth is intertwined with our society’s conception of beauty, which means it can help enforce existing hierarchies.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote in her essay “In the Name of Beauty,” “beauty isn’t actually what you look like; beauty is the preferences that reproduce the existing social order.” Beauty is capital, has serious material advantages for white women at the expense of all other women, and grows in value based only on the exclusion of others. The thin white sexy-but-sexless virginal archetype is not rooted in youth, novelty, and hatred of grown women alone but in anti-Blackness and the equating of white femininity with victimhood.

When I entered the world of adult men as an 18-year-old, I was aware that I’d been granted access, visibility, and currency through my whiteness, thinness, cis-ness—what Janet Mock calls pretty privilege — as well as my social status. I could not reconcile my awareness of my power — and all the safety it promised — with the idea that I was also vulnerable in any way. But at the same time that beauty can confer currency, it also enforces, rather than cancels out, male dominance. Cottom writes in that same essay,

“Black women have worked hard to write a counternarrative of our worth in a global system where beauty is the only legitimate capital allowed women without legal, political, and economic challenge. Beauty is not good capital. It compounds the oppression of gender. It constrains those who identify as women against their will. It costs money and demands money. It colonizes. It hurts. It is painful. It can never be fully satisfied. It is not useful for human flourishing. Beauty is, like all capital, merely valuable.”

With beauty as the only such capital, being considered “in your prime” is not a position of power if you are a girl alone in a room with a man. The deceitful notion that you have power because you’re considered desirable centers male desire, rather than your own pleasure. “In her prime” hurts men, too, by teaching them to see women as commodities and to define their own self-worth according to what they can obtain. It leads to Moby logic (“I was a bald binge drinker who lived in an apartment that smelled like mildew and old bricks, and Natalie Portman was a beautiful movie star”) and to incels who choose a life of violent hatred against half the population.

This value structure hurts everyone, even though the ignorance and spiritual emptiness that it preserves for those with power is by no means equal to the violence that everyone else must suffer as a result. I’ve heard this so many times that I don’t know who to attribute it to, but it always bears repeating: Having power is not the same as being free.

My abuser was not free. I think the beliefs he held about men, women, and power hurt him, too. That is why he needed an outlet for abuse and came alive in our arrangement. This is not to suggest that you can only commit violence that is proportionate to your suffering but that it is possible to commit violence based on conditioning by the dominant culture alone. And because the conditions are there for you — not for everyone — to do what you want without accountability.

I believed some of the same lies he did, so I made for a sufficient outlet. I thought I was too exceptional to be taken advantage of. I believed that fears he had about getting older put him at a disadvantage compared to me. I agreed when he pointed out that I had a young adulthood of sexual experiences ahead, and so how much of an impact could he really have? I was disposed of when I made the mistake of becoming too much of a real person and when my body shut down and could no longer engage in sex. I’ll never know for sure if he was intentionally punishing me for growing up or ceasing to exist as his sexual object, and I have no reason to trust whatever he’d tell me now, but it’s too late: I already internalized the timing as proof of my expendability.

We also did not talk about age or our power imbalance until he was suddenly worried about looking like a predator to the outside world. Appearing bad, it turned out, was a more urgent issue to him than causing harm. Looking like he was taking advantage of me was worse than raping me when I was too drunk to consent or coercing me into sex that I said, over and over, that I didn’t want to have. Me saying “I feel like I need to be helicoptered back to my childhood bedroom” did not set off his alarm bells, but the specter of negative PR apparently did. I witnessed one way in which obsession with identity blinds people to their own harmful actions, as though any man with a flattering self-image can’t possibly be a rapist. This is why I don’t care if men accused of assault have good relationships with their wives or daughters or women they deem valuable. How do you treat women you have no stake in protecting? This is also the genius of the Fiona Apple lyric, “Good morning! Good morning! You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in!”

I have spoken with an affirming and disheartening number of people who described experiences of predators who, to borrow phrasing from my friend Suzy Exposito, “weaponized sex positivity.” Like me, some felt empowered at the time of their experiences but have since come to see that there is a difference between having power and feeling empowered — a distinction that Brittney Cooper diagrams in her essay “Bag Lady.” Cooper writes that “power is conferred by social systems” and enables people to “make decisions that are of social and material consequence to themselves and others,” whereas empowerment is a feeling that individuals learn to cultivate when their power is compromised-to-nonexistent.

I now view some of my “empowering” experiences as violating, exploitative, and manipulative. I noticed that “gray” and “complicated” were words I used to stop questioning whatever had happened, rather than to understand it. “Formative” revealed itself to mean “traumatic.” “Creep” or “bad guy” or “pervy but not Harvey Weinstein” now strike me as wildly nonspecific euphemisms for a danger that was too uncomfortable to grapple with at the time and that, again, prioritizes men’s identities over their actions. This slow-motion aftershock has been its own traumatic event.

I try to reach across time to give my younger self the language for what really went on. I live with a low-simmering rage, accompanied by the knowledge that he could not possibly think about these encounters as much as I do, then wondering if my occasional wishes for vengeance or punishment — mere thoughts in my head — compromise my respectability, and therefore my believability, until I have convinced myself that nothing really happened, based more on how I might read as a victim (vindictive, heartbroken, always-knew-what-she-was-doing) rather than on the actions of another person (the whole reason we are here to begin with).

The terms that so many stories of sexual assault are forced into, and the demands placed on victims and abusers to look and act in a recognizable way, make the thought of naming my abuser in public seem like something that would only cause me more pain. So does the possibility of any self-appointed vigilantes attempting to do so on my behalf. The notion of monitoring a mob I didn’t ask for sounds exhausting, whether this mob is coming for his head or mine. The awareness that my experience would be transmuted into a fascination with his moral character makes me want to get offline forever. It is easy to imagine a world where audiences’ infatuation with fame takes priority over a survivor’s needs.

Going back to the Fiona Apple lyric, I have been preyed on by men who are dads now. It is maddening to see virtuousness ascribed to them just for fathering children, because it makes me second-guess their actions. But their actions have already happened. I was there. Seeing them rebranded as dads, I become desperate to provide a corrective that would reflect my reality. It also makes me feel bizarrely obligated to protect their families, as though I am everyone’s mother. Then I resent the obligation. I am not their publicist or friend. I have no responsibility toward people who raped and exploited me or who taught me to hate myself by valuing the things a woman can never be: infantile, guileless, inexperienced. Pure.

Yet I feel one. What a burden, to carry around not only what happened but the fear that if I do not control myself, my next unexpected trauma response could easily lead to a social-media post that would blow up all of our lives. This infuriates me. I did not ask for this (non-systemic) power.

No matter what I choose, I also carry the sense of responsibility toward other survivors or potential victims. By not naming my predators, do I enable them to do more harm? By acknowledging nuance in my experiences, do I hand over the tools for any reactionary who seeks to weaponize the “gray area”? Do I cause other survivors to doubt their own authority or create a more hostile environment for those who wish to speak?

Claiming victimhood comes with more baggage than I can begin to cover here. It’s why my brain long chose denial and rape apologism, even as I had panic attacks during sex, relived moments of violence and pleasure at random intervals that sent me into days-long spells of depression and anger, edited my web browser and apps to avoid mention of my abuser, and pursued experiences that would re-create the thrill of being a secret sex object, which introduced me to more of my rapists. Years later, distraught by how much power these events still had over me, I sought out trauma therapy at the advice of a psychotherapist. I continue to work through a distorted relationship to desire and to my body. Are these the colorful sexual experiences my abuser thought I would go off and enjoy once the sands of time signaled his next chapter and sent me out into that natural habitat, my “prime”?

Britney Spears Was Never in Control