I have long believed that, when it comes to discourse on celebrity and celebrities, no holds are barred. High-minded proclamations of the sort that insist that they’re people too, they deserve respect, privacy, etc, etc are, to my mind, entirely unconvincing: celebrities are not just like you and me, and they do not have an automatic right to privacy and respect. They’re celebrities: it’s their business to strut and fret their foibles upon the public stage. And if they embarass themselves – well, all the better for the rest of us, who do well to remember that celebrities are human-all-too-human, and flawed – sometimes very seriously so – and so not deserving of knee-jerk adulation simply because they’re there. I respect that some people take the position that all celebrities should be treated nicely as a matter of course – it’s a very nice position – but I don’t really have any patience for it. If a celebrity’s being a tard, then we should feel free to say so. And laugh about it. (Mockery of quote-unquote “masters” is as old as comedy itself for good reason: it’s socially healthy for those with less power to laugh at those with more. Keeps differentials of power in proper perspective.)
All of this is a very long-winded way of defending the fact that I have taken my fair share of shots at Britney Spears. It’s hard not to: the girl wanders around without pants, crashing cars and lamenting her lost career and prattling on and on about a comeback. The great Greek comic dramatist Aristophanes – and later, Plautus, and certainly Machiavelli and probably Shakespeare, too – would have had a field day with Britney: the comely girl turned goddess-of-sorts who falls from grace into a slatternly state of confusion (a kind of female Bottom, perhaps, minus the dalliance with fairies. Or a Poptart Gloriosus, of the sort that Plautus would have adored and pilloried). One almost wishes that she would stop being so ridiculous, so that she wouldn’t be such an obvious target.
I have wished that, actually – that she’d stop being so ridiculous. She’s a mom. I know from being a mom. Even if she has sixteen nannies – and I’m guessing that she has at least six – she’s still under tremendous psychological pressure. A few years of pop superstardom can’t prepare one for the mindf*ck that is new parenthood, let alone new new-parenthood-cum-single-parenthood. In the public eye – in the harsh, harsh glare of the public eye. But still: there’s a baseline of dignity that one has to hang onto, however tenuously, once one becomes a parent. For our own sanity, and for the sake of the kids: parents need to keep it together, in some minimal way, at the very least. Staying groomed and upright, for starters. Not doing anything that’s going to cause Child Services to pay you a visit. Not stuffing your post-partum, pre-Pilates body into a few scraps of satin and fishnet and tramping dully across a televised stage. That kind of thing.
I wish that Britney had stopped being so ridiculous before she got up in front of the VMA cameras, before she’d turned Puck on herself and stumbled and fumbled her way across that stage and made herself more of a laughingstock. But she didn’t, and we are, most of us, laughing. And even though one might say that she asked for it, even though one might say that that’s what she signed up for, way back when she was a Mouseketeer and aspiring pop tart and wanted celebrity so bad that she could taste it… even though one might say these things – even though I might say these things – the laughing and finger-pointing at Britney’s VMA performance is making me a little sick to my stomach.
It’s making me a little sick to my stomach because so much of it is directed at her unstageworthy physique, at her failure to regain her taut, poptart figure after having two children, at her insistence upon squeezing those dimply thighs into fishnet stockings. And it’s not simply because I, personally, draw the line, in mocking celebrities, especially female celebrities, well short of the point of mocking or criticizing bodies (at least, the bodies that God gave them. The bodies that they buy are fair game. Oh, and David Caruso’s body; that’s fair game, too, for no good reason that I can think of. I’ve made fun of his legs.) It’s partly that, of course – laughing at Britney for being a dimply size ten (eight? six?) after bearing two children is an insult to all women, everywhere, and to anyone who was borne of woman. It demeans all of us. But it’s not that, in itself, that sickens me in the deepest part of my gut. It’s mostly this: I look at those images of Britney stumbling self-consciously across the stage in that ridiculously skanky outfit and I see myself. And I cringe.
No, I don’t see myself wearing that outfit, or grabbing some poor back-up dancer’s crotch. I don’t see myself desperately grasping for fame and adulation while shimmying awkwardly in fishnet stockings. But I do see – I have seen – myself, sometimes, desperately grasping for the girl that I used to be, the girl that I was before I became a mother. Mostly, it’s an imagined grasping, but it’s grasping nonetheless – it’s me berating my reflection in the mirror for not having lost my pregnancy weight, it’s me trying on clothes that would have suited me three years ago but are now too small and too hip and too not-me-at-all, it’s me telling myself that thirty is the new twenty and forty the new thirty which makes me, like, twenty-something and not at all old and hey, I’m still up on the cool music and the cool clothes and see? Motherhood hasn’t changed me at all!
There’s a figurative satin-and-fishnet skank outfit in my psychic closet, and I have certainly pulled it out and tried to squeeze myself into it more than once. That I have not had to confront that image in all of its sordid glory – never mind parade it publicly – is my very good fortune, but still. It’s there. It is there. It is.
So it is than when I click through on those videos playing and replaying and replaying again the footage of poor Britney wandering, sad and self-conscious and disoriented, through her VMA performance, I feel sad. Sad that she wasn’t able to let go of some old dream of herself, some old, pathetic notion that she is and always will be girl. Sad that – from the looks of it – she woke up from that dream mid-stage, as the lights hit her and the music started and the elastic in her tiny satin panties cut into the ample flesh of her thighs and the giggles from the audience burned in her ears and she all of sudden knew. Not a girl, fully a woman – but a woman grasping desperately for the girl, and just not reaching her, not even close.
It makes me sad, because I’ve reached for the girl in me, the girl that I was – not so much to be her again, but to feel her, maybe. Understand her. Make her more a part of the woman that I am, whatever that means. And I’ve imagined, sometimes, that I’ve grazed her, with very tips of my fingers; that I’ve almost reached her; that I’ve come close to grasping that girl and integrating her with the woman that I’ve become and am becoming. That I’ve maybe, just maybe, preserved the girl inside the woman, and that maybe, just maybe, that girl will get the woman to fit into a smaller pair of skinny jeans.
And then I see Britney, and all I can think is: how ridiculous. How ridiculous, her. How ridiculous, me. How ridiculous, all of us who refuse to go gently into the good night of age and gravity and seriousness and dignity. How ridiculous, all of us who would fight the loss, mourn the loss, of the silly, beautiful girls and boys that we once were.
And how sad that we laugh at that, as if we none of us have fought that fight on the stages of our psyches, and lost, and mourned.
How very, very sad.