For a moment this week it looked as if pop singer and rebellious cupcake Britney Spears was about to marry her former backup dancer Kevin Federline sooner than expected. It turned out that she was dressed in wedding white just to shoot a video for her cover of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative." Still, her face adorned the cover of People magazine, where she grinned desperately next to Federline and his perplexed-looking 2-year-old daughter; the accompanying story was about Hollywood's successfully blended families. Then came word that the lovebirds were being considered for "Newlyweds," now that shiny warblers Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey have grown too long in the tooth for the reality show. The prospect of Spears' opening her hormone-racked heart and home to cameras inspired such delight among bored Web surfers that the New York media blog Gawker soon posted several homemade petitions urging NBC to back up the rumor with a contract.
"Not only will I, the Undersigned, tune in, but millions of others who, like me, will enjoy a front-row seat to the most glorious downward-spiral of the last decade," read one of the petitions.
Oh, it's so not funny.
Usually, I would be the first to wriggle with pleasure at the misfortune of an overpaid affront to feminism. My empathy for former tween celebrities and their reality-show lives usually extends no further than to Tinkerbell Hilton, whose recent abduction was surely staged to compete for press attention with aunt Nicky's Vegas wedding. I'm not a fan of Spears' music, have not paid more than glancing attention to her romantic history or her career. But ever since she took up with this Federline, I have become strangely invested in her personal story.
And not just invested -- downright maternal. Each time I see her face or cellulite-pocked ass cheek staring out at me from the cover of a glossy weekly magazine, I crumple a little bit with a futile desire to protect her, to keep her from exposing yet another of her open, bleeding wounds to an infectious public.
I just feel so sad for her.
And it's not just because Federline is a punchline to that old "Saturday Night Live" ad for Bad Idea jeans. He left his ex-girlfriend, actress Shar Jackson, with whom he had one child, when she was eight months pregnant with their second. He promptly shacked up with Spears in a series of hotel suites and expensive resort locations. He favors a wardrobe of wife-beater tees and trucker hats. Though he failed to show up for his daughter Kori's second birthday, Federline did arrange to bring his offspring and fiancée together on the set of Spears' perfume commercial, ensuring that the good people at People were there to capture the moment. He also threw the paparazzi a bone about a month ago by staging a scene on a hotel balcony in which it looked very much as if his famous girlfriend was fellating him for the cameras. In short, the guy is a douche bag of the first order. And she's responding in kind -- publicly grabbing his crotch, trolling around Los Angeles in a top that reads "I'm a virgin, but this is an old T-shirt," and telling a British talk show host that the last thing she put in her mouth was "a dildo." God bless her, she's 22 years old. She's doing a version of what many of us do at 22: She's showing off her sexual precocity for real, not because someone pushed her onto a stage with a python wrapped around her shoulders and told her to strip. Right now, Spears probably thinks those blow job pictures are a hoot. Give it a couple years, honey.
But that's OK. This is what youth is for, falling for bilious jerks that your mama doesn't like. Feeling the thrill of being wanted, desired, feeling the power of turning someone on, knowing how to have sex. Her obviously misplaced affection for this dude is the first sign she's ever given that she and I might share some DNA. Not that Federline was ever my type. But at least I now know for sure that Britney and I are both Homo sapiens, female.
And that means we have a lot more in common that I had previously believed. I was oblivious to Spears when she first appeared, a 16-year-old chickadee strutting around in pigtails and Catholic-school duds, urging her baby to hit her one more time. She didn't show up on my radar screen in any lasting way until 2000, when the "Oops I Did It Again" loop began to trill endlessly in my head. I became curious about her then -- what was this pink fleshy creature? Her toned little body looked so smooth and seamless that I was always surprised to see it marred by a belly button. And when this little thing would grind away onstage, it was somehow hollow, as though she were imitating moves she didn't actually understand with pitch-perfect clarity. It turned out she didn't understand them; she was one of those dastardly millennial preachers of virginity.
Perhaps it was my own recognition of her pedophilic appeal that leads me to feel such enormous cultural guilt about what's happened to her. She was playing a devilishly destructive role, talking about her virginity at a register audible only to the kids who idolized her. Sex is dirty, sex is wrong unless you are married, she was telling girls who might have had a shot at guilt-free sexual liberation. Meanwhile, she was winking at their fathers, suggesting, in horrible ways, that she was dancing for them. But she was doing all of it without the conviction of a woman who understands even a little bit about what her powers are. She was a teenager who was being rewarded -- with money and fame and adulation from millions of fans -- for gyrating and praying and keeping clean and singing dirty. Her handlers dressed her in flesh-colored body stockings, while her mother -- cheerfully reaping profits from dirty old men -- proselytized about their shared mother-daughter love of Jesus.
And then Britney grew up a little, behaving in her life as her creators had asked her to behave onstage: shying away from purity and heading straight for men, cigarettes, booze, junk food. It coincided with her becoming legal and thus much less interesting to her pedophilic public. As soon as Britney grew up and began to break the fembot patterns her handlers had set for her, we as a culture stopped fetishizing her, and behavior that had been labeled coquettish and flirtatious in her youth was now filed under "slutty" and "cheap." Class is a major factor in the knee-slapping hilarity of Spears' free-fall. Everyone is aware that this is a girl who came from backwater Louisiana. And everyone, from bloggers to tabloid editors to me, above, is careful to make note of Federline's grubby T-shirt, his and Spears' shared taste for Cheetos, his scruffy hairdos and pregnant girlfriend. Even Britney's acne, carefully covered by expensive makeup during her reign as sparkly kewpie doll, is now offered up for our jeering consumption. As far as American media and society are concerned, fat, dirt, junk food, drug use, bad skin and raw sexuality in grown women are low class, and therefore valuable only as an irony-laced punch line -- think Chloë Sevigny at a Target opening in Brooklyn -- and not much else.
Spears seems well on the way to losing whatever professional or monetary rewards she was able to reap from her meteoric childhood ascension, in part because she was never the motor behind it. She was processed food: created and packaged and put on shelves. All the people who are close to her -- from her mother to her managers to her shrinks to her friends to her songwriters -- are the very people who made her so widely available, who have profited from her. Maybe she's sick of being told what to do and how to do it and what to wear and what to sing and how to look good and when to take a break, but her insulation from self-sufficiency has left her declawed, unable to make sharp choices to preserve herself. She probably should have had the chance to see through that marriage to her childhood pal Jason Alexander a few months ago. As screw-ups go, it wasn't so bad. He was an old friend; she could have figured out a way to undo a youthful snafu, could have learned from cleaning up her own mess. But her handlers arrived with mops, sending the bummed-out groom back in coach.
So no wonder she's freezing out people who tell her that Federline is bad news. I'm sure that half of his appeal is that every time she tells someone she's putting dildos in her mouth, every time she grinds into him on a beach chair, every time she tells the world she's refusing to sign a prenuptial agreement, she's giving the team that got her into this public predicament the finger.
But every young woman -- and young man -- should have someone whose voice they still want to hear. Someone who hasn't bilked and whored them and prevented them from developing a sense of self. Someone they trust enough -- even when they have their fingers in their ears and are shouting "I can't hear you!" -- to listen to, just a teeny-tiny bit.
And even though I don't know her, have never met her, and was late to her fame party to begin with, I want to do a stranger intervention. I want to take this young woman aside and say, Britney? Get. A. Prenup. Do not let this guy take half your money, along with your heart and your self-respect. Preserve what you can get out of what happened to you as a kid: your bank account, at least. It's not that I think she should stop seeing him or anything. Let her have her fun, get her heart broken. I want to tell her that I get it, I really do. He makes her feel good about herself in a way that doesn't require 2,000 sit-ups a day, powerful in a way that isn't about selling millions of records. She told People magazine that she'd "kissed a lot of frogs" before finding "her prince." And I understand that it must feel that way, especially after that protracted video-for-video shootout and devastating breakup with Justin Timberlake.
But I want to give her a tip -- and this is coming from someone who is still hoping to find her own prince: When he does show up, he's not likely to already have a girlfriend in her third trimester. (Heads up, Clare Danes.) And he's not going to be anxious to have pictures of you blowing him appear on the Internet. And hopefully he'll insist on signing a prenup, because he'll care enough about you to want to make sure you know that he -- unlike everyone else in your life -- isn't in this for the cash. He'll be in it for you.
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