I’ve thought a lot about Britney Spears over the years. Her name even appears in the title of the first essay in my book, Conversations with my Body, called “Between Baalat Teshuva and Britney Spears”. This was one of my first blogs in the Forward Sisterhood in 2009, in which I shared my journey from yeshivah girl to Orthodox feminist. Britney Spears seems like an odd icon for a former yeshivah girl’s obsession. But in my mind at the time, she represented everything we as women/girls were not supposed to be. Exposed. Sexy. Flaunting our body. Performing our bodies in public. Totally out there, physically, for the world to see and watch.
I used Britney Spears as an example as the extreme opposite of the overly-covered, overly-controlled, desexualized Orthodox woman. What I argued – not only in that essay but in many essays and talks throughout my career – is that there are a lot more choices for us than fully-covered or fully-Britney. That in the dichotomy that so many of us were presented, you were either the quintessential ‘angel’ or a ‘whore’, depending mostly on how you dressed. I framed it slightly differently – that there are a lot of possibilities in between Taliban Women and Britney. I wanted to break that down, to argue for women’s choices, women’s comfort, and women’s desire. I also wanted to deconstruct the ubiquitous Orthodox line that women and girls must dressed so-called ‘modestly’ – that is, in maximum body cover – in order to contain our wild sexuality. I wanted to say that a woman who wears pants or short sleeves is not necessarily some kind of out-of-control sexualized performer. What I ended up saying is, don’t worry: if we dress so-called ‘immodestly’ it doesn’t mean we will turn into Britney Spears.
Sorry, Britney. No, seriously, I’m sorry for all those assumptions I was making about you.
My argument was flawed. Seriously flawed. Not because I am suddenly ready to cover my body again. (No way!) It’s that I actually don’t think there is anything wrong with the way Britney Spears dresses or performs.
Britney Spears is not a cautionary tale. She is a powerful woman. And actually, right now, I’m finding her inspiring.
Yep, this week I’m drawing inspiration from Britney Spears. And I would like to take back some of the things I’ve said about her and replace them with some new thoughts.
I have been following Britney’s story about her conservatorship. I listened to her testimony last week about her ordeal, in which she talks about her complete lack of freedom to make her decisions about her life – how and how much she works, what medications she takes, who comes in and out of her home, who gets to see her naked. She talks about her complete lack of privacy and body autonomy, to the point that when she said there was a dance move she did not want to do, her conservators put her on lithium as punishment. She spent a month on lithium in a brain fog, in which she couldn’t work, and had nurses and therapists coming in and out of her house without her consent. She was institutionalized against her consent. She is not allowed to be alone in a car with her boyfriend. She is not allowed to go to the doctor alone. She cannot get married or decide for herself when she wants to have a baby. They are not allowing her to remove her IUD, which frankly is a form of forced sterilization. She works seven days a week, ten hours a day, rehearsing and performing for years on end, without having a say – something she likens to sex slavery. It’s not exactly the same, obviously, but the similarities are striking. Add it to the fact that she has no control over her own money or passport, plus the experience of no control over who sees her naked, and her point becomes striking.
This portrait of a talented, hard-working, extremely successful woman who has been stripped of power over her own life is, frankly, infuriating. It doesn’t matter that she is an A-list celebrity. Even superstars can be abused. She has been working since she is 17 years old, she has endured her share of sexism and paparazzi exploitation, and she is a human being. It’s like the gilded cage – a person can live in a castle and still be a prisoner.
What really disturbs me is the ease with which the court system, as well as public opinion, can take a powerful woman and render her incompetent, or insane.
I remember when she shaved her head, in an act of pain and fury that was caught on camera. Britney Spears bald! As if that was all the evidence the world needs that she is insane. What kind of woman would do that to herself? Bald? I mean, come on, right?!
(I highly recommend following Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley unpacking this whole issue of baldness and women.)
More than that, I feel like it was the rage that doomed her. We all know what happens to Angry Women. There is no room in this world for women who show rage. None. No matter what we are dealing with that brought up that rage. (See Soraya Chemaly’s phenomenal book, Rage Becomes Her for more on this.)
There was one moment in her testimony when I found myself truly taken aback. It was when she described her performance. She talked about how she personally choreographed her routine and trained 16 dancers on her own – and it wasn’t just ‘good’ it was ‘great’. She is great at what she does. (She then went on to explain how it was during those routines that the conservator tried to impose a dance step that she objected to, which led to the forced lithium…..Absolutely infuriating….)
I am surprised at how surprised I was at this description. About how much she loves her work and is proud of her knowledge, skills, and creativity.
Why was I surprised?
Because this description, perhaps more than anything else she said, completely undid everything I had been taught to think about women like here. She doesn’t dance and perform from a place of sexualized oppression. She comes from a place of power, joy, art, and freedom.
This description completely flipped the script about women and the extremes of body cover/uncover. It is entirely possible that the Britney Spears example is one of power.
That is not to say that I’m in favor in any way of all the oversexualization that our culture does to girls from the time they are toddlers. I’m not in any way supporting what the fashion industry does to us or to our daughters. (Follow Peggy Orenstein’s writings on this topic)
I am saying that women who choose to use their bodies for art, power, performance, or passion, can be celebrated instead of feared or tsk-tsked. We can embrace this instead of clutching at our pearls.
I love the pride Britney Spears takes in her work. That is what I wish for all women in the world. That we are able to create with passion from our hearts, to love our creations and the way we bring them into the world – and that we are free from controllers or haters who have power to change who we are. That is all I want for myself, for my daughters, for my granddaughters, and for all the amazing women in the world.
And I want to take back the thought that I had all those years ago that aspiring to be like Britney Spears is a bad idea for girls. Why? Why is it a bad idea? Why is dancing your heart out on stage and letting your body become a work of art for the world to enjoy watching – why is that a bad thing?
When I wrote those essays, I was still entrenched in a lot of Orthodox thinking. The idea that women’s exposure was unhealthy. That women’s dancing and use of sexuality in performance are wrong. I am releasing that now. I think it can be quite a beautiful, even stunning thing.
And the world absolutely needs and deserves to receive women’s artistic spirits. In whatever ways we choose to express that art.
Mostly, I’m inspired right now by the way she is taking back her life. This process, of talking back to those who tried to own her and control her – that is something I am watching and learning from. I bet there are many women and girls out there doing the same.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning Jewish feminist author, anthropologist, and activist. Her latest book Conversations with my Body: Essays on my life as a Jewish Woman, is available at www.lionessbooks.com/shop