catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 11 :: 2008.05.30 — 2008.06.13


Consuming toward exile

The breaking of Britney Spears

Editor’s Note:
The following is a chapter excerpt from a forthcoming book by Dr. Smit, assistant professor of media studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


The end result of all consumption is excrement.  We seek out our consumables, we consume, we digest, and we shit.

All kinds of consumption mix together to create the Western experience: we consume food made by others, grown elsewhere, preserved scientifically, present yet not fully accounted for, hyper-nutritious, ultra-fatty, sometimes crunchy.  We consume clothing made by others, sewn by men and women over there, on the shelf, on the body, on the ground, on the way out.  We consume images of us, others, Others, naked sometimes clothed, clothed yet somehow, according to McLuhan, naked, they serve us, we delete, we search for more, and collect ones that matter.  We consume music, by the downloads full, organizing as lists, felt but not heard, heard with others watching, galvanized as digital bits, CD trays and books put aside, in the trash, into the iPod. 

All of these consumables start as splendor and end as less than that.  They are the things we desperately want to have, at all costs, for no costs.  As a kid, for me it was fast food.  The greasy heights of emotion made possible by a White Castle hamburger spun my young eyes, and delighted me.  And when it was over, the byproduct was memorable.  But always gone.  Always in one way and out another.  This was all part of the rehearsed routine of fast food; love now, regret later.  What is more Western than this? To splurge then worry, to buy then think, to love the puppy and hate the dog.

We perform this process unwittingly.  It only comes into focus when that which we consume sticks in our teeth, or fills up too much space, or haunts us while driving to work—for example, when we ponder the consumption of Britney Spears.  To begin, ask in what forms she was offered: as a child prodigy, as a southern belle, as an adolescent plaything, as a body to be desired, as desire embodied, as daughter, mother, divorcee, drug addict, disabled, discouraged, and down.  Never as musician, never.  Continue the process; who did the offering? Lynne Spears, Disney, Sony BMG, Eric Foster White, Max Martin, Rolling Stone, MTV, VH1, paparazzi, pornographers, and, essentially, us.  We pitched her, we talked her up and mostly down, we loved her, we hated her, we praised the kid and demonized the older kid.  She was given to us first in song, yet almost immediately we stopped listening and started watching. It was her smile, her hair, her breasts and ass, her legs, her feet, her vagina.  She was an image of a woman, an image only. This is how we wanted her, this is what we consumed.

Britney Spears was consumed by children when she was a child, little girls saw her in mirrors, and for a while it was sweet to see a young girl in a Britney Halloween costume.  Then the consuming changed.  April 15, 1999: Britney appears on the cover of Rolling Stone for the first time.  Her body became the text, her eyes invited the gaze, and her stomach made us look twice.  And certainly this was by design, crafted to sell the body once safe in cotton sweaters on the Disney channel.  Walt would not be happy.   His disappointment would be a product of a shifting demographic.  Men, young and old, became the key consumers of Britney the Body.  Certainly, the girls and women were still there, they just had to shift over, allow room.

Follow the career post April 15, and see the men.  See them watching the videos of Britney in red, black and all sorts of leather, stripping off a rip-away tuxedo for them at the MTV Video Music Awards.  Next year she would fondle a python, and then trip and stumble in a bikini too small for this not-yet-a-woman woman.  In the videos, she danced in girls’ clothing, snarled the innocence away, showed us just enough, shook just enough, erotic and not, she played the Lolita and Lamb very well.  See the men looking at thousands of images online, fake pornography with floating heads, stories upon stories about favorite positions, favorite foods, PDA’s, TnA’s, her ass. They watched while the girls and women bought the albums and bubble gum.  Women watched as Britney became very rich, they listened to hear the stories, they sang along without understanding the words.  A Britney split in two by us, image and body, soul and impression, good and bad.  Really bad.

The harder we looked, it seemed the more sly she became, hiding a nipple, hiding behind the decency laws of television and the press.  Her pregnant body, naked, almost! A cultural hide and go seek, the end of which finally came.  The photograph of her in the back seat with Paris.  And when we saw her vagina, it was over.  Put more clearly, when we saw her naked, shaved vagina, the rules of the game had changed, rules that we all had agreed on. She was perfect, she was distant yet close, we reached out to her in ways that we controlled.  We were her, she was us, images and imaginations matched up perfectly.

When we saw it, it wasn’t perfect, airbrushed, smooth and clean.  Instead it was human.  It was real.  We wanted to stay in Eco’s hyperreality, in Zizek’s imaginary, in the comforts of our own imaginations.  The photograph ended it all.  And then another, her head shaved next. Another blow to our lens.

And so like all things consumed, Britney was digested, and crapped out.  She made her way through our cultural gastrointestinal tract, was broken down by the saliva of our desire, and excreted, left to be what Rolling Stone called an American Tragedy, forgetting that they started the whole thing.

And yet these metaphors of consumption, digestion and excretion let us off easy. The problem lies in the part called digestion.  Consider the fact that most of us know very little about the art of digestion.  It just happens.  It’s a process that starts up when it needs to, shuts down when it wants to, does its job without much help.  And this is exactly how we want it, and need it.  It needs to be behind the wizard’s curtain, otherwise it makes us sick.  Oils and acids, churning our consumables into feces.  Not pretty, but necessary.

As such, our digestion of Britney was too natural, too easy, too unnoticed.  Young Britney, Body Britney, Baby Britney, Broken Britney.  We shifted, and digested right through these transitions with a skipping pace.  She is down now, and it looks like for good.  With her excreted from our desires and imaginations, we moved on.

At least that is what the metaphor of consumption would have us think and feel.  This collection of reflections about the life and art of Britney Spears offers a different lens to view this story—EXILE.  The fall of Britney cannot be seen as a simple cultural inevitability.  Too many artists and performers are brushed off by our Darwinian, nationalistic belief in the dismissal of the unworthy.  The pitching of the Other.  Our response to (and creation of) Britney Spears was and is a violent form of cultural cleansing. She was dirty and real and repulsive.  We made her this way by accepting years of objectification, by buying and selling her.  To liken this to digestion is to forget that the process was and is the result of action.  We actively exiled her.

The pages that follow describe how we exiled Britney, and more importantly where we exiled her to.  She became a non-person, now dwelling in what French anthropologist Marc Augé calls the non-place of supermodernity.  The landscape of this non-place is made up of cultural image-making, spectacle-slurping spectators, mythology, stereotypes, prejudice, objectification, sex and its forms, all the isms (sex, race, class, etc.), taste, guilt, and desire. 

And, of course, Britney.

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