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Britney Spears, Outsider Artist

The real, albeit unwitting, meaning behind Brit’s acting-out.

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Until she shaved her head, I had not spent a moment thinking about Britney Spears. All I knew was that she sang music for 12-year-olds, was nicknamed “Pop Tart,” and lived in Paris at the Hilton, or something like that. She just seemed to be a piece of the celebrity trash that’s always sloshing around. But the photographs of her shaved head stopped me short. They were fascinating.

Online, I caught up with the divorce and the party binge (sans her two baby sons), the pantyless paparazzi photos, and the vomiting on her entourage. After the hair came off, she’d gone to a tattoo parlor and, weeping and screaming, inked a kiss on her wrist and a cross on her hip. The next day she was wearing a cheap Marilyn wig.

What the press, which was busy moralizing (“her poor little boys”) and faux-empathizing (“she needs help”), never acknowledged was that Spears’s crack-up was the most interesting performance of her life. She seemed to be trying, with befuddled brilliance, to tell the truth. She recoiled from celebrity culture by mortifying her own flesh. She stripped herself, publicly, of her sexuality. She presented herself as a grotesque. Few gestures are as symbolically rich as the shaving of a head. That’s what monastics do when they reject the flesh to dedicate themselves to the spirit. In boot camp, soldiers lose their individuality with their hair. Delilah cut off Samson’s to make him defenseless. The French, after the liberation, shaved the heads of collaborators.

Unlike Madonna, Spears has never called her own shots. She is just a money-making toy adults sell children. The press rarely calls her “Spears.” That might suggest she’s human. She’s Britney, the singing Barbie. A concoction. She was first marketed as a child celebrity—beginning as a Mouseketeer—and then, when she filled out, transformed into teen cheese. Her mortification of the flesh at 25 is just the latest example of how bizarrely troubling American society finds the female body. (The current hysteria about anorexic fashion models, who treat the body as something to be designed, like clothing, is another example.) The sacrificial standard was, of course, set by Marilyn Monroe. It made perfect sense for Spears, after her mortification, to hide as Marilyn.

The latest news is that Spears is dropping in and out of rehab. Will she OD or commit suicide like Monroe? Will she have a Grand Guignol death like the fat-obsessed Anna Nicole Smith? No one publicly asks those questions, but that’s what everyone wonders. Her rejection of rehab is provocative: The doctors may be treating the wrong addiction. They would naturally like to restore “Britney” to health, whereas Spears obviously wants to get rid of her dolldom. Asked by a photographer why she shaved her head, she answered, “Because of you.” At the hair salon, she said she was “tired of everybody touching me.” Out of the mouths of babes.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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