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Leaving Britney Alone

photograph of Britney Spears walking through crowd at event

In 2008, writer Stephen Elliott asserted that “It’s challenging to engage in a serious conversation about Britney Spears.” That conversation is no less difficult to engage with in 2021, though the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears encourages us to try.

Much like Marilyn Monroe before her, Britney Spears is a deeply troubled and troubling figure in pop culture. Their lives even follow the same basic arc; a beautiful but exploited blonde girl becomes a much-lauded sex symbol — the embodiment of beauty for her particular generation and cultural moment — and then the whole world watches with glee as she comes crashing down. The difference is that Britney was able to reach a place in her life where she could counteract the narrative that has accrued around her. Framing Britney Spears does this work admirably, reframing her family life, turbulent relationships, and mental health struggles for the age of Me Too. In particular, the documentary examines the questionable way the media treated her, and forces us to ask uncomfortable questions about our collective obsession with the pop star’s messy life.

This story certainly makes us question the ethics of celebrity worship (and celebrity hatred), but the documentary’s version of Britney’s life has made some of the women who grew up with her image uncomfortable. In particular, the filmmakers try to suggest that Spear’s sexualized schoolgirl persona was something she herself crafted, and that interpreting her brand or her songs as misogynistic is to deny her agency. The prudish American public simply resented her overt sexuality, which was a component of her artistic vision. As Tavi Gevinson notes in an essay for The Cut, the documentary has a very specific agenda that this position serves well. Britney is currently enmeshed in a legal battle to break free from her conservatorship, so emphasizing her ability to make choices makes perfect sense.

This image of picture-perfect blonde beauty is something Britney fought for control over, and the evolution of her public persona demonstrates that struggle. The infamous hair-shaving incident is the most iconic episode in her life, and by specifically shaving her hair, she dismantled her own appearance in a way that counteracted her public image. Even her voice reflected a discomfort with her status as an icon. In a review of her 2016 album Glory, one critic describes how “as her career progressed, Britney and her producers began, rather gleefully, having some fun with the fake. Her futuristic-sounding pop songs became sonic laboratories, explorations of emerging technologies in Auto-Tune . . . On songs like the electro-pop collage ‘Piece of Me,’ her voice is robotized to the point of sounding posthuman.” It’s easy to read this shift as the material embodiment of feminist writer Adrienne’s Rich’s observation that “The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”

But at the same time, there’s something not quite right about reframing Britney as a feminist icon. This is less about whether or not Britney Spears, the human being, holds views that we might describe as feminist, or feminist-aligned. Rather, it’s about whether Britney Spears, the cultural icon manufactured by a corporation, embodies misogynistic stereotypes. In her essay, Gevinson quotes a friend (who, like Gevinson, grew up with Britney’s music and image) on the documentary: “[Britney] was the establishment! She was what we were supposed to be: sexy and young. Not a paragon of independence . . . She was a response to Alanis [Morissette] and the rise of the ‘angry woman’” figure in popular music. As Gevinson explains,

“The filmmakers do not acknowledge how Spears’s agency may have been compromised by her age, the stakes of wealth and fame, or the influence of the adults around her. They also do not engage the messier implications of the virginal-but-sexy stereotype . . . it is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there were not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified if they are old enough to be discarded.”

So what purpose does it serve to rebrand an artist who represents the epitome of Western beauty standards and behavior as a trail-blazing feminst?

As the public became more aware of Britney’s struggles under her conservatorship, fans began to mobilize. Last April, a group of protesters gathered outside of a city hall in Los Angeles, holding “Free Britney” signs and chanting in unison. Though the protest may have been just a little tongue-in-cheek, the fact that Britney’s fans borrowed political language and set dressing for the sake of their idol speaks to the broader narrative her story has been subsumed into. Whether we hurl vitriol at her or politicize her pain, she must always be a symbol for something, her beauty and tragedy must be appropriated for some end. We can read her as a misogynistic fantasy, a sexualized teenager acting out the fantasies of older men, or we can try to reclaim her as an image of strength. Either way, it seems that we simply can’t leave Britney alone.

Cardi B, Ben Shapiro, and the Pop Culture vs. High Culture Debate

black-and-white photograph of two white men sharing opera glasses ina theater box

Recently, there has been a clash of rival philosophies in the public sphere. Popular rapper Cardi B not too long ago dropped a controversial single. Her song, titled “WAP,” is incredibly raunchy, and its impropriety prompted the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to accuse it of being demeaning to women. Nonetheless, as we will see, Shapiro’s problem with this song goes far beyond its explicit lyrics. In fact, Shapiro’s criticism of WAP fits into a long history of members of dominant groups criticizing and dismissing instances of “low” culture in favor of “high” culture.

But before that, let’s treat the man charitably and evaluate his critique of the song. In a tongue-in-cheek tweet, he wrote that “it’s misogynistic to question whether graphic descriptions of ‘wet-ass p****’ is [sic] empowering for women.” It is interesting that he focuses on the “graphic” nature of the song. Of course, sex has been a part of pop music since the beginning. And it has always been controversial. The Beatles sang “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” and had their song “A Day in the Life” censored by the BBC. Ostensibly, this was for a drug reference. However the song only contained a reference to cigarettes. John Lennon said he thought the phrase “I want to turn you on” had gotten them censored. But of course, these songs could not today be called “explicit” or “graphic.” So then, maybe Shapiro has a point. Maybe these songs are acceptable but such graphic songs as WAP are not.

Alas, it is not so easy. Shapiro places rappers and The Beatles on the same level regarding “suckage.” How is this position consistent? Well, it seems Shapiro equally dismisses all pop music. We can see this from his tweets comparing rap negatively to Mozart and explicitly stating that he does not consider rap music at all. Combining this claim with his earlier one about The Beatles, we can conclude Shapiro doesn’t consider The Beatles to have produced music either. This is odd given how Rolling Stone Magazine has consistently ranked The Beatles at the top of their list of the “100 Greatest Artists.” To understand Shapiro, to see why he despises WAP so much, we must now consider how one could come to the conclusion that pop music isn’t music.

Much to Shapiro’s chagrin, I’m sure, Mozart is beloved but not as much as he used to be. The rise of popular or “pop” music starting in the 50s with Elvis Presley and solidifying with The Beatles in the 60s meant the end of classical works of Mozart and Beethoven being the standard of music. And these pop artists couldn’t have gotten a foothold without technological advancements like radio democratizing access to music. Before, you either had to go to a concert hall or play the music yourself. And you could really only do the former if you were well-to-do.

In fact, for a very long time there has existed a class distinction when it comes to music, and in fact to all of art. There is “high” art and there is “low” or “pop” art. These compose high and low culture respectively. People will argue a lot about what counts as “high” art but we can come to a decent understanding through some uncontroversial examples: the epics of Homer, the poems of Catullus, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the plays of Shakespeare, and the symphonies of Beethoven. “Low” art (until recently) would not include any writing since only the upper class could write. Additionally, few commoners would be able to afford the marble, paints, and even just paper and ink that are requisite for much of high art. And who could write a symphony without ever having seen more than a few instruments in one place at a time? Again, until recently, all but the upper class had to spend a great deal of time laboring.

Which is better, high culture or low? And is the difference really so substantial as Shapiro makes it out to be? Aesthetics is the study of beauty. When talking about whether one piece or set of art is better than another, we are usually judging them by the standard of beauty. So what makes something beautiful? One camp says that beauty is completely subjective. An old Latin aphorism expresses this: “de gustibus non est disputandum” (“there cannot be arguments about taste”). If this were true, the distinction between high and low culture would be pointless. But of course people do argue about taste. Who has not gotten into an argument about whether this or that song, this or that movie, is superior to another?

One way of settling these arguments by appealing to authority. Let the movie critics at Rotten Tomatoes decide whether the movie was truly good. But those who study literature, sculpture, music, and art will usually judge the classics of high culture as superior to those of pop culture. Movie critics, as everyone knows, love art films more than summer blockbusters. The tastes of critics and the tastes of the public don’t always match. How do we justify ourselves in these cases? And how do the experts themselves decide?

There may be some ways to define beauty or “goodness” more clearly, if not completely rigorously. Good pieces of art are usually complex. They are often difficult to make. They frequently express a message. And of course, most subjectively, good art gives us pleasure, or at least an emotional reaction of some sort. Of course, all of these rules, except possibly the last one, have exceptions. John Cage’s song ‘4’33”,’ which is just silence, isn’t complex. Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedia” artwork isn’t difficult to make: it’s a banana duct-taped to a wall. Alas, it’s not as easy to ascend Plato’s ladder as we had hoped.

The main argument in favor of popular culture and art is that it’s far more pleasurable for more people. Most of us remember the classics of high culture as the books/plays/art/songs we were assigned in boring classes in high school. The argument is easy to make: If Mozart is so good, why don’t more people choose to listen to him?

Now is a good time to consider the other thing that makes art “high” rather than “low.” High art isn’t just good. And not all good art is high art. High art is partially defined by its exclusiveness. How few artistic works of women or people of color are counted as high culture? How many works not produced in Europe? “Rap music isn’t music” was not an uncommon position twenty years ago and even though rap continues to grow in popularity, a rap album hasn’t won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year in over 15 years. Until rap, via white male rapper Eminem, got popular with white men instead of black people, it was simply not accepted. In the same way, until The Beatles got popular with white, adult men instead of just teenage girls, pop music too was considered not to be a legitimate art form.

Cardi B, from the perspective of a high culture aesthete and according to the prejudices of our society, represents the lowest of the low. She is a woman and a person of color. She’s bisexual and a former sex worker. Regardless of whether her music is good or not by any measure we’ve discussed, it would never be counted as high culture and so is dismissed by some as worthless.

Obviously there is a great deal of value in the art which composes high culture. No one would seriously argue that Ode to Joy hurts their ears or that Shakespeare was a hack. And really, opinions like those of Shapiro where popular music and art is dismissed as worthless are vestigial; few hold them and those that do are old. Nonetheless, it is common for our biases regarding the origins of art to sway what would otherwise be legitimate discussions about beauty. Black teens making graffiti are a menace. But when Banksy does it, it’s okay and even counted as high culture. WAP may be a terrible work of art. That’s debatable. But the suggestion that it or any other instance of popular art isn’t art at all isn’t. Any such suggestion is an attempt at exclusion, an attempt to prop up the slowly dying concept of high culture.

The Resurgence of Tarot

Photograph of the Moon tarot card propped against a crystal with several other tarot cards arranged in the background

New Age religious practices are on the rise, from neo-paganism to astrology. In 2012, barely more than half of Americans characterized astrology as “unscientific.” Crystal healing and spiritual practices have also made a comeback as a means of individual meditation cobbled from ancient traditions.

Tarot is another practice enjoying a new cultural moment.  It is the inspiration for products sold by GOOP to Dior to Etsy. Tarot card apps abound, including the Golden Thread app which teaches the user the symbolism associated with each card. This fascination is not entirely new – it mirrors the New Age fascination of the 60s and 70s, famously exemplified by Salvator Dali in his Tarot series.

The history of Tarot cards history is somewhat murky. It is speculated that Tarot cards originated as a game akin to contemporary card games. Artist Bill Wolf suggests that the diverse imagery on the cards allowed for creative games where ”the random draw of the cards created a new, unique narrative each and every time the game was played, and the decisions players made influenced the unfolding of that narrative.”

One of the most famous editions of Tarot is the “Motherpeace” version, developed in the 1970s by feminist researchers Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble. The deck depicts feminine figures in ancient mythology and is influenced by the works of Alice Walker. Described by Alice Walker as a “mirror that constantly shows the truest face,” Motherpeace has remained in print since its debut. The appeal of Tarot to second-wave feminism is tied with its emphasis on women’s spirituality. It emphasizes intuition, meditation, and caring spiritual practices as an alternative to institutionalized religious practices that have frequently excluded women, LGTBQ individuals, and other “outsiders” from enjoying equal standing. Tarot similarly enjoys a strong following from the LGTBQ community and people of color.  

Why was Tarot such a recurrent symbol for reclaiming the power of marginalized individuals?  While tarot cards are represented in pop culture as the purview of professional psychics, cards are just as likely to be used by meditation groups, individuals, or friends musing over the twists of daily life over a cup of tea or a tumbler of wine. It is a quintessentially accessible practice that satisfies some need for symbolic representation that institutionalized religion formerly filled for many.

Some of these symbols are less vernacular today than at the time of their composition (hence the proliferation of new editions of the Tarot). The changing decks bear in common that they encourage the reader to see one’s life in more complex ways than one, linear narrative, prompting different possible lenses to one’s current situation. The user learns to develop layered interpretations of seemingly straightforward imagery. While the Death card is notorious in pop culture, its meaning is one of change and transformation rather than intimating literal demise.  

Far from being strictly a divination practice or predicting one’s future, tarot cards are understood as an “invitation to the present moment.”  

Can there be an ethics of Tarot? Taken as a hobby by individuals or among friends, it can be a game or a series of meditation props for evaluating different aspects of life in working through present concerns. The latter could be understood to be a similar practice to meditation, or reading self-help books, but with a randomized approach.  

Professional tarot card readers exist, however. If Tarot cards are essentially random meditative symbols, what sort of services does a paid reader provide?  

People seeking tarot card readers are often at a knotty intersection in their lives, torn about a decision, or stuck in a recurring cycle of behavior. Sometimes they are ravaged by grief or anxiety. In short, people tend to seek out Tarot readers for the same reasons they seek out therapists. But why choose a Tarot reader over a trained therapist? Tarot reader Thom suggests that one reason is economic: most people are not covered by insurance that would enable them to see a therapist for the long-term care that is required to be effective. Thus, Tarot responds to a serious gap in mental health services for many people. While clients pay Tarot readers out of pocket, meetings are often infrequent and reserved for times when the person feels particularly stuck on a question and needs a listening ear.  

Tarot readers typically offer an open and accepting environment and frequently embrace holistic approaches to responding to questions that incorporate the client’s worldview. The use of neutral symbols invites client participation and interpretation, allowing for a more equal power and epistemic dynamic than in a typical clinical situation. A recurring theme among codes of ethics by tarot readers encourages clients to use their own inner guidance. Like therapists, Tarot readers rely on interpersonal skills of listening to clients and helping them to interpret their own narratives through dialogue.  

In some ways, Tarot readers mirror the emotional labour that women often provide informally and without pay, but with remuneration. It is both paid and un-credentialed, and thus occupies a halfway space between the unpaid work characteristic of women, and the accreditation of that labour which demarcates paid caring professions.

The goal of responsible Tarot readers is not to replace professional help for serious concerns. Biddy Tarot emphasizes the importance of referral, sending clients seeking specific answers for health, legal, relationship or financial issues to the appropriate professionals. The ideal Tarot reader seems to offer a safe, confidential and informal space where individuals can talk about their lives in a holistic way. Like the randomness of the cards itself, Tarot readings offer a non-hierarchical approach to finding emotional equilibrium and progress through the unavoidable challenges and joys of daily life.

The Moral Trap of McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce

"McDonald's #1 Store Museum, Des Plaines, Ill." by Jerry Huddleston liscened under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

After a month of sexual assault allegations in Hollywood, alarming discoveries on Russian meddling with U.S. campaigns, and the largest mass shooting in recent history, one news story seems to have captured the impassioned outrage of young people: McDonald’s failure to provide Szechuan Sauce to its customers after promising to do so. On October 7, the fast food chain re-released a “super limited” quantity of Szechuan Sauce, a sauce McDonald’s restaurants carried in 1998 as a promotion for the Disney film, Mulan, to select stores across the nation.

Continue reading “The Moral Trap of McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce”

Let’s Talk About…50 Shades of Grey (Part I)

50 Shades has swept audiences off their feet, selling 100 million copies worldwide, and making $237.7 million in its global opening in theaters. In many ways, this success could have been predicted by its eerie similarity to other phenomenally profitable franchises (ahem…Twilight), but in other ways, what 50 Shades presents is entirely new. The series follows the love story of an unassuming bookworm girl and an older millionaire businessman—nothing new there. But the catch? He’s into BDSM: he likes violent sex.

At a cultural moment where sex is a hot-button issue, the timing of the movie release couldn’t be more perfect (read: lucrative). But as Emma Green pointed out in her article for the Atlantic, on film, “the Fifty Shades version of hot, kinky sex will become explicit and precise, no longer dependent upon the imaginations of readers.” With the book, interested folks could discretely download the books on their e-readers and choose if they wanted to share their guilty fascinations. With the movie, it’s public.

So now that everyone knows you’re curious, let’s talk about some of the major debates surrounding the movie and the issues it brings to light.

One of the biggest arguments is the sheer volume of sex. With a full twenty-five minutes of pure sex scenes, one has to wonder what the motives are. Is it simply an empty shortcut to boost ticket sales? Or is the motive to open up the viewer to a more liberal approach to nudity and sex? One thing is clear: sex sells. But is there something inherently wrong with steamy sales tactics? Or, more specifically, is there something inherently wrong with using fetishized sex to sell?

This leads us to another point—one that was discussed in the Atlantic article: the movie’s representation of a particular community. The fact is that there really are people who are into BDSM. Some of these people have come forth, claiming that the movie misappropriates, among other things, the level of emotion and consent that’s actually involved. The movie didn’t show the couple talking, going on dates, falling in love… the focus is on the sex. And the moments not in the bedroom are uncomfortable: he sells her possessions, and pops up unannounced, and somehow maintains an constant aura of creepiness…uh, no thanks. As Green put it, “the most troubling thing about the sex… isn’t the BDSM itself: It’s the characters’ terrible communication.”

Now, it could be that the film is riding the wave of sexual liberalism, giving the public insight into a taboo community and ultimately promoting openness. And some feminists will give it this. In her HuffPost article, feminist writer Soraya Chemalay says that, “this not secret, not silent, non-judgmental openness is a feminist success”.

Many have also brought up the issue of class. Yes, this type of rare sexual preference is glamorous in a marble-floored penthouse between two good-looking people. Basically, would it have been as appealing without the helicopter?

This conversation goes on and on, back and forth and then back again. If you’re interested in reading more about the discussions surrounding the movie, as well as my personal take, head over to the PrindlePost.org. Personally, I haven’t read the book, but I saw the movie. I said it was just because everyone else was, but the truth is that I was genuinely curious…which I was 50 shades of embarrassed to admit.