While it has been a few years since Britney Spears ruled the music world, culturally she’s still a hot button topic. She’s simultaneously sought after and criticized by the press. Her new record, Femme Fatale, is good, but is it good enough? And why does everyone still care? Calvin College professor Christopher Smit sought to address those issues in his new book, The Exile Of Britney Spears. He posits that both Britney’s rise and downfall sprung—at least in part—from the public’s consumption of her music, character, and life. Smit will be in town for a reading at Quimby’s April 23, but The A.V. Club caught up with him beforehand to talk about some of his arguments, including why it was so shocking to see Britney’s crotch.
The A.V. Club: Your last book was on film and disability. How did you get interested in Britney Spears?
Christopher Smit: I teach pop culture, and I teach media studies. I’m firmly planted in the land of popular art. I would say that, on one very thin level, I’m very interested in her at an academic level, because I wonder about female celebrities and female bodies as part of most of my work. So, she’s on my radar that way.
In a more meaningful way, I’m a lover of music and pop culture as well. People, like my students, talk about her and loving her, and so that was another entry into her world for me. Also, I was alive and breathing in the ’90s and early 2000s, and you couldn’t not pay attention to Britney for a couple of years there.
The real heart of why I wrote the book, though, is that I care very deeply about my students. I teach at the undergraduate level, and undergrads are very wonderful creatures, at least where I teach at Calvin College. They’re intense, smart, and ready to gobble up life.
I was teaching a course on gender and sexuality in rock music, and we were listening to Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, and then analyzing that record. The guys in my class felt pushed back against the wall, by the record and the typical feminist rhetoric in her music, until one of the female students in the class admitted to having been raped as a young girl. She explained to them how that makes a woman feel, and how it gives a woman trepidations about her body and worries about every physical experience from there on. They got it. That sort of living, breathing argument made them shut up and listen.
That was one of four or five stories of abuse and body issues that had come up in my office or classroom that year from young female students fighting to understand what it meant to be in a world where it seemed that bodies were more important than anything else. If I’m honest, that’s why I wrote the book. I had to start making sense of it myself and had to help others make sense of that violence of imagination.
AVC: You have a chapter called “Consuming Toward Exile” where you suggest that we—in part—did this to Britney. What do you mean by that?
CS: I think that some people who read the book feel accused by the word “we.” I use it a lot in the book. What I mean by “we” is that if you’re like, “You know, I don’t buy records by Britney, go to her concerts, wear her T-shirts, and I’m not the audience you’re talking about,” well, we can no longer have a media system in which we feel that we’re not giving permission too. We’re by proxy contributing to the media world, now more than ever with new media and social networking. So if you contribute at all, you give permission to what happens in the larger sense. People aren’t fans, but they will look at the headlines, watch shows that mention her, go to films that objectify other women, or continue to adhere to narratives and stories that are told to us that deny women selfhood. To say that it’s our job or our work means that our dollars, our attention, our very presence in a media context means that we’re not free from responsibility. Part of what I’m doing there is nudging the reader and myself. I’m in that “we” as well. I’m not Walter Lippmann talking from the top of the banister.
Also wrapped up in that idea of “we” is Britney Spears herself. She’s not out of the envelope of responsibility. She’s certainly part of this. If you read the chapter about Paris Hilton in the end of the book, I’m going toward sort of a mob mentality. We’re all working against her.
AVC: So, by no means is Britney just a pawn that we push around.
CS: No, she does have agency. I think it would an anti-feminist book if I claimed she didn’t. It would be a mistake for all of us to free her of her volition. She’s a talented person. Perhaps her talents aren’t being praised in a way that matches up with what she really offers us, though.
Also, [being] someone who’s grown up in the business of popular culture and in the industry means that she has no doubt made decisions about outfits, performances, and lyrics. She certainly has a role here. We don’t learn enough if we only blame her, though. That’s the problem. If we give her too much agency, it gets us off the hook. We’re past the point where we say, “Oh my God, look what she’s doing.” If that’s the only thing we’re saying, I had no reason to write the book.
AVC: Your chapter about the “Baby One More Time” video focuses a lot on her becoming “a body.”
CS: “Baby One More Time” is, for me, sort of a coming out party for her as a sexual body. There’s the sense that she puts on this new role. Before that we’d known her vis-à-vis her role on the Disney Channel. All of the sudden here’s this developed woman in front of us, and yet she’s still dressed like this coquettish young girl. I carefully say that she’s a sexual woman and yet an innocent child at the same time. At least, the video presents her that way. The video offers her as sort of a pure body, that we are to know her through her breasts, her buttocks, her body as a sexual object.
She then enters a schematic of other bodies that are recognizable to us in that form, whether it’s through other music videos of that time or the past, movies, or porn. She becomes recognizable as a body.
That’s what makes the video so monumental beyond the sort of Catholic imagery and “female body as saint or whore” metaphor that I use throughout the chapter. This intro to her body into the archive of other female bodies is a paradox that elevates her to stardom, but lessens her to just one more pair of breasts. It’s the paradox of all young female celebrities: They are felt and believed to be, by fans, this unbelievably new thing—when really they’re just a carbon copy of breasts we’ve seen before. That’s where real oppressions happen, when you become an imprint.
AVC: Rather than us chewing her up and spitting her out, you believe we shit her out?
CS: That’s the part where this argument goes theoretical and into some psychoanalysis for some other Freudian thinking.
My thought here is that if we’ve consumed her and exiled her, we’ve done our work. What are we left with? That metaphor of digestion seems to work. Everything is consumable. We seek things out to eat, consume, and crap them out.
So, what does that mean if we take that metaphor of excretion and place it on top of what we’ve done to a human being? I think the easy lesson is that she’s turned to shit, but that’s too easy for me.
I think what’s more interesting is that we’ve excreted her, but we’re fascinated by what we’ve created. It’s like a 2-year-old playing with his poop. It’s his unbelief that his body created this. It’s our unbelief that we could take control of Britney so completely that she’s now ours.
In the last chapter I talk about how, in a very grotesque, paradoxical, ironic way, birth and bowel are sort of combined. We’ve given birth through our bowel. When we see her now, we know that she’s at our whim. She’s ours. She’s us.
It’s theory and conjecture. I had a guy yesterday saying, “Did you interview anyone for this?” Look, I’m not doing journalism. This is theory. It’s philosophy and criticism. If you’re looking for proof, you’re not going to find it. If someone’s looking to stretch their imagination and make changes in their consumption, that’s fine.
AVC: You suggest that the real “beginning of the end” for public Britney was when she had kids, right?
CS: Motherhood, for me, for her was one of the few moments where she might have had the opportunity to take hold of her own life again. She could have said, “This is me, and this is my life now.” Unfortunately, she didn’t do that. I wonder if any young woman having kids on this global stage could ever do that, though.
Normally, for us, as a sexual body, we don’t really mean sex. We mean the appearance of sex. Britney is attractive as a body because of what she might offer. When we finally see that she is having sex and she has the results of real human sex, which is a child, we’ve been used. It’s over. The veil is lifted.
Her body has been used in, for me and for most people, the most beautiful way possible—but for the image of a superstar based on sexuality, it doesn’t work. Pornography is not about procreation.
When I talk about her being a mom, that’s what I’m most interested in. Why did we reject her the most at that moment? I think she got a little too close to being someone we couldn’t control. She’s real, and we don’t want to imagine her sex itself. We don’t want to imagine her crotch and vagina in birthing scenarios. I talk quite literally in that chapter about what birth does to a body. There’s a grotesqueness that I think is beautiful, but for Britney, it was just too much.
AVC: So, speaking of the vagina …
CS: That was the hardest chapter to write. It was really difficult, because I think, for me, that’s the moment. It wasn’t just the children thing. I talk about it as photographic rape.
It all piles up together, and it’s cumulative. We’ve been shrinking her down to that final moment where we, the permissive audience, get what we think we want and it’s terrible and awful. We feel ripped off. We have a sense of realism finally, but it’s too much.
There is something quite troubling about how that ended up all playing out in the press. It played out as a prank played by her. She explained it in a funny way on her blog like, “Oh, sorry, you know. Guess I need to buy more underpants.” She didn’t write it, someone else did.
So it turned into her story when it should have been our story. Why did we push so hard when that’s what we ended up getting? The picture of her crotch was at the center of what we do to women. We take all that they are and whittle them down into one or two or three areas of their bodies.
I hope we finally see how ruthless and violent and meaningless it is. Everyone was talking about it around the whole country. It was unbelievable. They weren’t talking about it on ABC News—well, maybe in some places they were—but they were talking about this tragedy of Britney Spears. That’s wrapped up in that.
AVC: So where are we now? Where does Britney stand in your, and our, eyes?
CS: Femme Fatale is getting wonderful critical reviews. Well, B+, right? The problem right now is that we’ve all been reintroduced to what I think is a more authentically powerful female narrative, Lady Gaga. Britney is still ours, but she’s the cousin that’s invited to prom by the other cousin. I think that she’s still around because she’s a name and she’s a tragedy.
I mean, the video for “Hold It Against Me” is a Gaga sort of aesthetic. It’s a Gaga video made by Britney Spears. It’s a parody, and all good pop culture is parody, but good pop culture is aware of its own cannibalism. Gaga is aware, and Britney is not—or at least I don’t think it comes across that way.
Where is she headed? I don’t know. I don’t think the tour will sell as well as people think it will. I think I would have written the same ending of the book if I wrote it last week.
Wherever she’s headed, we’re still at the reins. When I say we’re in control, people think, “Isn’t that how it is with all celebs?” And I don’t think that’s the case. I think that for Britney, there’s a sort of different type of ownership. It’s a little more sinister, obviously.
I wish her very well. I hope that someone in her organization reads the book, and that I get a chance to maybe even talk to her sometime. I don’t want to reform her, but I’d love to see what she’s thinking about and really hear her for the first time.
AVC: What would you say if you met her?
CS: I wouldn’t say much. You know that scene in Bowling For Columbine?
AVC: Where Marilyn Manson says he wouldn’t have said anything to those kids, but that he would have just listened to what they had to say?
CS: Yeah, I’d just sit and listen. I might tell her about me because I know so frickin’ much about her.
Part of the connection I feel to these issues with the body is that I’m a disabled guy, so my body is often the thing that defines me for people. So, I’ve digested myself. My mode, so to speak, is that bodies become kind of a defining thing—and that’s problematic. I would hope that, in our conversation, her and I could talk about what that’s like. I wouldn’t offer her lessons or reach her; I wouldn’t lecture her. I would try to listen to what she really has to say.
AVC: Assuming she had good things to say.
CS: I don’t think she’s stupid; I don’t think that she’s oblivious. I give her the same potential I give to anybody. I want her to have a life of good and beautiful things. It’s just that she hasn’t had that opportunity.
You’re in Chicago. Call Oprah after we’re done. She’s in Chicago, so have her set us up together.