This past weekend, Britney Spears wed dancer Kevin Federline, marking the second marriage for the 22-year-old pop icon. Earlier this year, she entered the dignity of the married state at a 5 a.m. ceremony in Las Vegas, marrying high school friend Jason Alexander. Fifty-five hours later, the marriage was annulled.
In the beginning, Spears was a doe-eyed, bubble-gum pop princess, her earliest photo shoots and album covers projecting a carefully-constructed image of an innocent Southern girl — a wholesome, card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club. But once a fan-base of impressionable and adoring pre-teen girls was established, and — more importantly — parents felt comfortable enough with her to finance their pre-teens’ Britney binges, the marketing scheme shifted. As soon as her albums rose up the charts, and the video awards began piling up, Britney tossed off the Mickey Mouse Club beret and there’s been no looking back.
In March 1999, at the age of 17, Spears posed for her first magazine cover for Rolling Stone with photographer Mark La Chapelle. Clad in her underwear atop a pile of silk sheets, Spears enthusiastically shred her butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth image. “I said to her, ‘Let’s push it further and do this whole Lolita thing.’ She got it. She knew it would get people talking and excited,” La Chapelle told Rolling Stone. Their plan worked. In the wake of the buzz from the photo shoot, Britney candidly informed a Rolling Stone reporter that “Holy Roller religious people made such a big deal about that photo, and I didn’t really get it. That’s the way I’ve always been, and I thought that photo was a good representation of who I really am.”
Flip over one of her CDs and you will find further evidence of her transformation: while her debut album featured titles like “Soda Pop” and “Email My Heart,” later releases included “I’m a Slave 4 U” and, most recently, “The Hook Up” and “Touch of My Hand.” Regarding the last song, Spears defends its tastefulness on her website: “Some people may think it’s a little much, but that’s where I’m at with my life. … It’s not freaky freaky, it’s just a little freaky.” Got that? A little freaky’ is significantly better than ‘freaky freaky.’
Yes, we all understand that as Spears aged from a teenager into an alleged adult, her artistic choices matured as well. But what about the young girls across American and across the world who devour every CD, every video, every magazine photo of their favorite singer? What happens when a middle-schooler flips on the television and sees her idol — the very same girl who proclaimed to be just like her — scantily clad in white garters?
The cultural consequences of Britney-blowback are more serious than many parents realize. A recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation found a positive correlation between sexual content on television and adolescent sexual behavior. “This is the strongest evidence yet that the sexual content of television programs encourages adolescents to initiate sexual intercourse and other sexual activities,” said Rebecca Collins, a RAND psychologist who headed the study. “The impact of television viewing is so large that even a moderate shift in the sexual content of adolescent TV watching could have a substantial effect on their sexual behavior.”
And although the study specifically targeted television content, the results similarly implicated other media, including film, music and magazines. “Indeed, we should note that, because TV viewing of sexual content is probably related to exposure to sex in other media, our results may reflect at least partially the influence of music, magazines, or movies,” RAND’s psychologists concluded.
I don’t envy pre-teen and teenage girls today. They are inundated with mixed messages: parents and teachers expect them to be normal, then Britney Spears tells them it is better to be “freaky.” Too bad Olympic champ and soccer great Mia Hamm has chosen to retire. Young girls need the role models in cleats, not garters.