Sarah Sluimer, like many women of her generation, had never recognized Britney Spears’s suffering. The awake millennials have still not completely freed themselves from the assumptions from their adolescent years.
In the documentary Framing Britney Spears from The New York Times a famous woman is perished by an army of hunting paparazzi and a perverse interest in her young body and sex life that culminates in global slut shaming. Britney Spears has been under her father’s tutelage for twelve years: she has been deprived of any right to self-determination. I found it, like everyone else, quite disconcerting. But at the same time I realized how strange that is. Because haven’t we known for much longer how Spears was crushed between the wheels of the white, male pop industry?
The disgrace may not even have much to do with what happened to her, but with the fact that we are only now in great numbers outraged about it.
I realized that until I saw the documentary, my image of Britney Spears had remained unchanged: solidified in 2001. As 14-year-olds, we thought about Spears as what the media was telling us. We had no pity. When she passed by again in grainy photographs, with big, frightened eyes and grown-out extensions, we shuddered, as if in a serious car accident. Once she disappeared from the leaves, she became a relic. We didn’t really think about her anymore.
Only now are my adolescent assumptions about her changing. Britney smashing her umbrella on a paparazzo’s car: not a sign of unhinged aggression, but justified anger. Journalists’ angling for the possible loss of her virginity: not exciting, but revolting. The revenge clip for the song Cry Me a River from her ex Justin Timberlake, with the cheating Britney lookalike: not an abandoned romantic’s plea, but a pillory.
Back in time
At the same time had the archive footage in Framing Britney Spears, which I hadn’t seen in years, Proust’s madeleine effect on me. Flash. I am 14. I wear low-rise jeans, which I always uncomfortably lash on, and at a school party I am pressed by a boy against a coat rack full of musty coats. ‘You don’t have to say, what you did I already know, I found out from him’, over the speakers. He wipes the sticky lip gloss off my mouth roughly. We speak, not because I really want to, but because I don’t intend to be a blue virgin in the eyes of the others. I peek at my classmates through my eyelashes. For a moment I am very satisfied, because they are indeed looking and pointing at me. But after a few seconds, the fear overcomes me that I have made the wrong decision, that that kiss is actually ruining it for myself.
Flash to a movie night with girlfriends where we 13 Going on 30 watch, in which a 13-year-old girl magically transforms into a beautiful 30-year-old woman, who winds the world around her finger with her uncomplicated cheerfulness. And have sex with adult men in between. Or Mean Girls, where the leader of the popular cabal is already called a ‘back-stabbing slut faced hoe bag’ in the first scenes. Deserved, the film tells us. Just like the main character of 13 Going on 30 teaches us that it is important to remain approachable and girly sexy if you want to achieve something in life.
Another flash. A jaded afternoon in bed, leafing through Break Out! Photos of the cross of young stars getting out of a car. I press my nose against the paper to see if that thong has moved to the side. No pity, because then they better think about what they are wearing. My friends and I also wear cycling shorts under our skirts on the bike, don’t you? One page further: overexposed shots of a drunken Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan with smeared makeup and hanging bra straps. “Expired cats,” reads the caption.
We the girls thought we were free. We were not bothered by anything. We did not see the limits of our freedom of movement. Not only did we go along with the toxic system that dominated our (pop) culture, it shaped us in our defining years. A teenager who read about the – then known – marriage of 27-year-old R. Kelly to 15-year-old Aaliyah, did not experience any internal protest, but was only mildly interested in such a fact because of its relative obscurity.
Later, when we were in our 20s, not much changed. Amy Winehouse died in 2011, something we considered “tragic but inevitable.” That same year I went to the movie hit with my college friends Bridesmaids, then a progressive comedy, because for the first time – miraculously – women turned out to be funny. In the cinema, we laughed until our jaws ached at those women who shit and drank in the street disrupting a flight. We were blind to what the movie really told us: a wedding is essential in a woman’s life, false competition between women is inevitable and a woman without a lover is pathetic.
It didn’t stop with our pop culture. Recently I discussed with male friends how they (with us as smiling co-workers) at the time could still talk about ex-girlfriends and other women on their periphery. ‘Crazy’ or ‘crazy’ was a common qualification not only for celebrities. Also for ordinary women, ‘disturbed’ was used as a synonym for ‘maladaptive’, ‘sexually very active’ or even ‘noisy’. A deadly verdict, that word, with which women were definitively banned from the list of inferior creatures. You could sleep with them, but after that you didn’t have to pretend they still existed.
So we rumbled on with a cheerful mind, turning our noses at the word feminism alone, until a few years later we suddenly came to a stop. It is now 2021 and some of the adolescents of that time have become active members of the intersectional feminist movement. We have – with good results – taken up arms against things that were normal in our teenage years. Through #MeToo, both we and the stars have shared our harmful sexual experiences. Stereotypes in films and television series are heavily discussed. A movie like Bridesmaids is (except for some Dutch makers) unthinkable nowadays. Beauty ideals have been overhauled: it is not just slim, white and bare that the clock strikes.
The heyday of the paparazzi is over. Stars now direct their image through their own channels. We are in a true media revolution: the progressive struggle largely takes place online, the drivers increasingly determine what we see in this era.
But Britney, the textbook example of a victim of sexism, had to wait 22 years before she was recognized as such. A bit late for a generation that is so awake.
We apparently do not yet sufficiently realize that the virulent sexism of our youth makes it difficult for us to be truly free from oppressive mechanisms in our thinking. For those who came of age in the first fifteen years of the new millennium, there is often a difference between thinking and feeling. We now know what to stop accepting when it comes to oppression and discrimination, but we sometimes don’t intuitively feel when to sound the alarm. What we do feel without difficulty are echoes of what we thought in our adolescent years. What we were implicitly and explicitly told about men and women at the time, we sucked up like sponges and connected directly with our feelings about it.
Recognizing sexism and doing something about it is difficult for us, because we have not yet really mastered the idea of equality. Our awareness proceeds in shock. ‘Is this sexism?’ We keep asking ourselves. That’s not to say that millennials’ feminism is rational and artificial, but the anger women have been presenting as the engine of their struggles for a few years now isn’t the whole story.
I see myself standing against that coat rack again, I feel my calculations and my fear and above all: my total lack of pleasure. But in retrospect, I still don’t mind that much for myself. That’s how things went. Didn’t it bother me then? At the most, I found it tiring, that limited division into ‘whore’ and ‘virgin’ that we had to deal with continuously as inexperienced girls. Only when I imagine that my daughter would end up in the same situation in fourteen years, my heart shrinks.
Diligent moral labor
When it comes to the new mores, Millennials are staunch soldiers, but it’s not easy for them; wrapping and weighing they constantly adjust their judgment. Like compasses with a slight deviation, they wave their arrow diligently in search of north.
During this diligent moral labor, we have long overlooked Britney and his associates. Or worse, we didn’t immediately recognize her pain. So in the coming period we will have to catch up with all that, with surfaced videos showing how horrible the beginning of our millennium was for female stars. And when we are done with that, the next deburring is ready. The misogynistic nature of someone we initially liked very much. The discriminatory corporate culture in a hip magazine. An endless series of mind-boggling moments, and we will be attacked again and again.
“There already?” Yes, there too.
Yet millennials seemingly leave no room for doubt in their moral judgment. That is what other generations blame themselves: With devotion bordering on religion, Millennials devote themselves to the cause and wash the ears of the less enlightened. And are it not originally the waverers who shout themselves over? The apparent certainty with which millennials judge what is right and wrong makes others suspicious, and that is not always unjustified. Even the millennials look with envy at the younger, disarming Generation Z, who practice modern achievements with such flair and relaxation.
Yet our struggle can also be moving. At the end of Framing Britney Spears shows how a group of protesters, predominantly millennials, armed with slogans and tears, have lined up in front of the courthouse where Britney’s receivership case occurs. “Free Britney,” they have written on their boards. They speak to the press in ardent staccato. The pushy activists are initially quite annoying.
But then you see it. Free Britney is an indulgence, an admission of guilt. The responsibility for her happiness in life is the means by which the protesters can bury their former selves, the contemptuous and sympathetic adolescents. Her liberation is kind of theirs too.
So feel a little sorry for us. And with Britney, while you’re at it.