Tuesday, January 9, 2024

(FRAMING) BRITNEY SPEARS & Tavi Gevinson: Self-Sexualized Sex-Positive Teen Feminists or Sexualized Teens?

In Tavi Gevinson's New York magazine/”The Cut” piece, “Britney Spears Was Never in Control” (FEB. 23, 2021), Gevinson wrote that The New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears documentary did the following:

It made a compelling argument that Spears’ image was an expression of her teen sexuality
It deemed it misogynistic to question Spears’ expression of her teen sexuality
It deemed it anti-feminist\sex-negative to feel that sexualizing a teenager is dubious
It related that Spears’ expression of her teen sexuality is an expression of female power
And the documentary rewrote Spears as a teen feminist icon

In addition, Gevinson wrote the documentary “casts a spell” “specifically of the stretch that chronicles Spears’ rise as a teen idol, starting with the “Baby One More Time” video, but Gevinson shared that she was “unsettled, as an adult, to watch a 16-year-old embody a schoolgirl fantasy.”

“Baby One More Time”

However, once again, in terms of Britney’s teen sexuality, Gevinson wrote that the documentary purported that Britney “made her own decisions” and “was never just some puppet”.

The filmmakers achieve this by alternating between footage of Spears and her collaborators asserting that she made her 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.

The result is a documentary eager to characterize Spears’s early image as an expression of female power [...]

Yet, Gevinson disagreed with the positive assessment the documentary made of Britney Spears' teen sexuality. Gevinson implied that Britney didn’t make her own decision and that Britney was a puppet:

[...] the doc was rewriting Spears as a feminist icon. “[However] [s]he was the Establishment! She was what we were supposed to be: sexy and young. Not a paragon of independence.”

But Spears shared in the documentary that being sexy is naturally a part of being a nymphet. Britney said, “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.” Wait, was Gevinson implying that the "Establishment" force this stance upon Spears?

Ed McMahon & Britney Spears

And in a 2003 interview with British GQ, Spears answered that the Rolling Stone photographer did a very good job of portraying her - despite asking her to “Undo your sweater a little bit more.”

“How did I realise [I was a sex symbol]? Probably the first Rolling Stone cover by David LaChapelle [...] 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.” [Emphasis added]

By sharing Spears' 2003 British GQ interview, Gevinson made the point that we’ve been consistently making in our posts, which is that it’s two-way street - both the "Establishment" and Spears are guilty of using her teen sexuality (i.e., the allure of a nymphet) to make (a lot) of money. (e.g., LaChapelle/Rolling Stone: “Undo your sweater a little bit more.” Spears: “But he did a very good job of portraying me in that way.”)

Even Gevinson appeared to agree with our “two-way street” assessment: "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."

The “90’s Lolitas Volume 3: Wild Things, Cruel Intentions and Britney Spears” episode of the You Must Remember This podcast (October 9, 2023) shed more light on the “Baby One More Time” video and the LaChapelle/Rolling Stone photoshoot. For example, per the podcast, the catholic school girl uniform with the blouse tied above her midriff was 16-year-old Britney’s idea. Karina Longworth narrated:

Nigel Dick had been directing music videos since the beginning of MTV, and was responsible for image-defining videos for artists as diverse as Guns n’ Roses, Oasis, The Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion. [In] Dick’s idea for the “Baby One More Time” video […] Britney would have gone to space with animated characters that looked like Power Rangers. The story goes that she saw the treatment and thought it was lame, and offered her own idea: she would play a bored student who daydreams about breaking free from class and dancing in the high school’s halls.

“Your initial reaction to this is, I'm being told by a 16-year-old-girl what I should do…,” Dick said later. Then he rationalized, “This girl is 16 and I'm a grown man; perhaps she has a better perspective on her audience than I do. So I swallowed my pride.”

When Dick suggested she would be wearing a t-shirt and jeans in class, Britney suggested a catholic school girl uniform. When she showed up on set, she thought the blouse she was supposed to wear looked, in her word, “dorky,” so she tied it above her midriff.

16-Year-Old Britney Spears
(LaChappele/Rolling Stone)

Longworth narrated that Dick recalled that Britney wasn’t “pushed” into anything raunchy; however, she needed to be restrained. And Larry Rudolph, Britney’s manager at the time, related that being “squeaky clean” wasn’t natural for Britney, because she wanted “sexier”.

As Dick recalled, “She genuinely wanted to go down that road. It wasn’t like we pushed Britney into doing anything. Most of the time you have to hold her back a bit.’”

This was the standard line from the middle-aged men who worked with Britney: they wanted her to project wholesome virginity, but she kept wanting to look sexier. As her manager Larry Rudolph put it, “The record company wanted to keep things squeaky clean, and she went along with it at first. But it quickly became clear that it wasn’t natural for her.”

However, per Longworth, Rolling Stone alleged that Rudolph was: “marketing her as the teenage Lolita of middle-aged men’s dreams.” However, Rolling Stone’s April 1999 cover story of 16-year-old Britney was a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black. Longworth opined that:

[...] nothing in the article was as provocative, or memorable, as the photos, shot by David LaChappelle in and around the Spears family home in Kentwood, Louisiana. The cover image, in which Spears wears a white blouse unbuttoned to show a black bra and white silk boyshort panties while clutching a phone in one hand and a teletubbie in one hand [...]

In the most obviously staged image, Britney straddles a pink bicycle, looking back at the camera, which is focused on her white short-shorts, on which the word “baby” is spelled out on one butt cheek.

There are also pictures of Britney in a cardigan open over a white bra and short-shorts, standing in her childhood bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals and dolls, and another of her dressed in a blue satin micromini and bandeau top, dancing in her family’s TV room as though she’s at a club [...]

Longworth went on the narrate that Britney’s LaChappele/Rolling Stone photos were shot to “titillate”, initiate a “Lolita fantasy”, and instigate an “[...] adult sexuality into the spaces of childhood.

[...] Britney was styled in these photos, which were shot just before her 17th birthday, to titillate, and particularly to activate that specific 90s Lolita fantasy of the child who will seduce you into forgetting that having sex with her is legally and ethically out of bounds [...] The LaChappele Britney photos seem intent on reminding the viewer that you’re looking at a child, while pushing adult sexuality into the spaces of childhood.

16-Year-Old Britney Spears (LaChapelle/Rolling Stone)

However, Longworth went on to say that there are conflicting stories about the photoshoot. LaChappele related that Britney wanted to take advantage of the “Lolita thing” to “[...] get people talking and excited.” And that after Rudolph left the room, the 16-year-old mischievously “unbuttoned her shirt wide open”.

A dozen years after his photos of Britney ran alongside her first Rolling Stone profile, David LaChappele gave an interview in which he described the photoshoot as a collaboration between he and his then-16 year-old subject.

Quote: “I said to her, ‘You don’t want to be buttoned up, like Debbie Gibson…Let’s push it further and do this whole Lolita thing.’ She got it. She knew it would get people talking and excited.”

The photographer went on to describe something that happened when he was shooting Britney in her childhood bedroom at 2 a.m, ostensibly trying to get the shot of her with her exposed bra in front of all of her toys. When her manager Larry Rudolph suddenly walked in and asked what was going on, according to LaChappele, Britney acted shy and said, “Yeah, I don’t feel comfortable.” At first I felt betrayed,” he recalled. “But as soon as Larry walked out, Britney said, ‘Lock the door’ and unbuttoned her shirt wide open.”

However, per Longworth, Britney said that LaChappele “tricked” her, because she was a “naïve” 16-year-old.

This was very different from how Britney told this story. Four years after the shoot, she said of LaChappele, “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 Longworth reminded us that, per Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother, despite purporting in interviews to being a virgin, Britney lost her virginity when she was 14 - to her 18-year-old boyfriend.

The Daily Mail reported in the piece, “‘Britney started drinking at 13, lost her virginity at 14 and took drugs at 15 [...]” (4 September 2008):

Britney Spears' mother [Lynne Spears] is set to lift the lid on the troubled singer's life - with revelations [via the book Through The Storm: A Real Tale Of Fame And Family In A Tabloid World] that she was drinking at 13 and lost her virginity the following year.

Lynne Spears claims Britney was drinking not long after joining Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, a U.S. variety television show.

Mrs. Spears also says her daughter lost her virginity aged 14 to an 18-year-old high school football player soon after she quit the programme.

[...] allegedly [Britney was] caught boarding a private plane (aged 16), [when] cocaine and marijuana was found in her bag.

And per the Daily Mail, Lynne: “[...] encouraged the [teen sex] relationship because she thought it would make her more popular.” And Lynne: “[...] allowed her [i.e., 15-year-old Britney] to share her bedroom with new boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. Mrs. Spears was said to be sure the teenagers were having sex.”

Lynne’s assumption was correct, because per the Cosmopolitan piece “Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake relationship timeline” (25 October 2023), Britney revealed her in book The Woman In Me: “Justin and I had been living together, and I'd been having sex since I was 14.”

Of course, just because 16-year-old Britney had been having sex, for years, in the very same bedroom where the LaChappele/Rolling Stone cover photo was taken, doesn’t prove that LaChappele’s version of the story is correct. But does it prove that Britney was not naïve?

18-Year-Old Tavi Gevinson

Lastly, and going back to Gevinson’s “The Cut” piece, the parts of the post that relate directly to Gevinson are often contradictory. For example, Gevinson wrote that she allowed her 18-year-old self to be photographed “lying across the bed” in her “childhood bedroom” in a “romper”, because she desperately wanted to “update” her “public image as a sexually active being”.

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 [...] 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. 

But in the very next paragraph, Gevinson wrote: “Still, when I see the photo now, I just see another thin white able-bodied blonde girl being sexualized.”

Wait, is Gevinson saying that she self-sexualized, she was sexualized or both. #twowaystreet

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