THE pigtails, the knee high socks, that pencil tapping impatiently on a notebook.
I don’t need to re-watch the video to double check any of these details, Britney Spears’s debut single and its accompanying video are seared into my memory as I imagine they are for anyone who became a teenager in the 90s.
You had choices to make – Britney or Christina, Take That or Boyzone. Of course, the boy band rivalry was between fans. You picked a camp and defended them loyally and completely.
The Britney vs Christina Aguilera rivalry was framed as being between the two women. Both successful, both talented, both beautiful: there was no way the tabloids could let them share their success. Oh no, there had to be a feud. A misogynistic media needed women to be rivals.
It needed women, also, to be kept in their place, even if it had no real sense of what that place was other than always in the wrong.
Britney’s fall from grace was spectacular. The paparazzi pictures of her shaving her hair, of her beating a photographer’s car with an umbrella, of her driving with her infant son on her knee – these are all easily recalled.
Britney is vividly back in the public eye due to a recent documentary about her current situation and an ongoing Los Angeles court case, in which a judge is deciding the future of conservatorship that restricts her freedoms. The legal arrangement is more usually used for people with dementia or mental illness, and, since 2008, it has stopped Spears having any say in her estate and removes much of her autonomy as a person.
In the recent New York Times documentary about Spears and the conservatorship, Framing Britney Spears, a selection of footage, viewed through a modern lens, in particular a post #MeToo lens, made for stark viewing.
A clip of one of her earliest TV appearances showed her, clearly enjoying herself, demonstrating a precocious talent, performing Love Can Build a Bridge on the talent show Star Search.
She was just 10, a child. At the close of her performance, the host Ed McMahon, a man in his 60s, remarks on her attractive eyes and asks if he can be her boyfriend.
This was foreshadowing: Spears’s experience of the public eye and her vast fame was one of endless misogyny.
Interviewers were fixated on her virginity. She was an all-American girl from the Bible belt and a greedy public wanted to know more than it was entitled to about her body. It wanted her to be able to enforce boundaries while refusing to accept any boundaries for its own prying.
Endlessly there were stories about whether she had undergone breast augmentation with “before” and “after” photos of her – some with a smaller chest, some with a hearty bosom, all designed to objectify Spears and have the reader ogle her boobs, which they happily did.
Once she began dating Justin Timberlake the media could barely restrain its grotesque obsession with whether the relationship was consummated. When the relationship ended and Timberlake released the song Cry Me A River, the media narrative around it, the hype, was that this was a melodic response to Britney’s cheating ways. All sympathy was encouraged towards the man and Britney’s public image fell from virgin to whore.
Timberlake has since apologised, both for his treatment of Spears and also of Janet Jackson. When they performed together at the 2005 Super Bowl half time show, he ripped off part of her clothing in a pre-planned stunt, leaving her breast partially exposed.
There was a firestorm of condemnation but the hail of criticism hit only Jackson, while Timberlake’s career continued to accelerate.
In Britney were embodied all the classic tropes: women are bitchy, women are difficult, women are not to be trusted, women are unable to handle their own affairs and, worse of all, women are crazy.
The Star Search clip goes on to show a tiny Britney, first pleased with herself then looking dismayed and uncomfortable at Ed McMahon’s question. Very briefly she is unsure how to respond before settling on, “Well, it depends.” Spears, clearly, has been raised as other girls are raised – to be polite, to deflect, to not upset men.
That style of response stays with her throughout her career. You see it in other televised interviews and read it in magazine articles. This is the endless slog of womanhood, learned young by Spears. Be nice. Try to bend to expectations.
And as a result of this calculated acquiescence to a media determined to undermine her, she was portrayed as simple when she was nothing of the sort. She was mocked and she was bullied.
“What has Britney Spears lost this year?” ran a question on the TV gameshow Family Feud. Her children, her mind and her dignity were the answers.
A young girl who was sexualised by a misogynistic media from the earliest age , a girl who was repeatedly questioned about her virginity, her body and her sexual appetites before being shamed as a slut and a bad mother, ends up, she claimed in court this week, forcibly sterilised.
Among the many distressing elements of Spears’s testimony to the court, the 39-year-old claimed she would like to marry her boyfriend and try for another baby but that the terms of the guardianship order mean she is not allowed to stop using her contraception.
The media and the public were obsessed with what she chose to do with her body and now her body, she claims, is not her own.
Fiction is full of women who fall foul of oppressive forces who want to control them. The conservatorship is the ultimate means of controlling a woman whose talent and wealth were too much for a patriarchal society to cope with.
The girl who was never allowed to be a woman on her own terms has been utterly infantilised by the conservatorship, stripped of all decision making powers.
Over the past few years an online movement has sprung up – Free Britney. Fans of the singer have tried to leak sealed court records, they have called for her to be emancipated from legal guardianship.
It is yet another irony of Spear’s story that vast publicity aided in breaking her but that global publicity of her story may be what saves her from oppressive legal guardianship.
Spears’s story is a modern fairytale, an allegory for the damage wrought by misogynistic structures. The ending is still to be revealed but, like all powerful tales, it should leave us asking questions – have we done enough to atone and stop history from repeating itself?