01/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Britney Show: A Pop Princess and American Womanhood

Britney Spears' pop-tart image was created as a fantasy for the average man, but since her brush with the ugly side of fame, she's been subjected to the average female nightmare. The public, and press, have leveled at Spears a litany of critiques that are familiar to everyday women: she's lost her sex appeal, she's a bad mother, she's "crazy," she's fat, she's over the hill before the age of 30, she's angry and out of control. When Spears smashed her teen-queen facade by shaving her head, acting out, and being less than impeccably groomed, the public reacted with loathing and voyeurism; now, Spears' "comeback" consists of losing her legal independence and at 27 (her birthday was just a few weeks ago), being micro-managed back into the same role she had as a comely teenager--the role that may have caused all the problems to begin with.

On Sunday night two weeks ago, MTV aired a Britney-approved documentary in which she opened up about her life for the first time in years. But the two hours of TV were more tragic than triumphant. In between moments of happy rehearsals and studio antics, the film focused in as Britney tearfully described her current life as "sad," plagued by angsty boredom despite the rehearsals that are supposed to give her joy. The documentary included a moment in which Spears said that every day to her now feels like "Groundhog Day," as well as some shocking footage of her car being mobbed by paparazzi and her handlers shielding her with a sheet as she shopped. Spears said she longed to take walks without being hounded, to "feel the crispy air... be a part of the people." One of her entourage expounded: "The only time she's free is when she's in a closed four by four space."

In light of all that, it's been disturbing this week to watch Spears go through the motions of performances meant to highlight her toned physique and ability to do some rudimentary dance moves. One wonder whether Spears is ready for this "comeback," or whether the army of male managers, including her dad, have foisted it on her because they don't know what else to do--and she's their cash cow. A woman who has been in the public eye since before she could make decisions for herself can't break away from her abusive lifelong relationship with her audience, as their sex-object, squeal inducer and punching bag.

Writing about Britney in the midst of this blatantly-engineered publicity blitz is problematic: by paying attention to her, we are feeding the machine that keeps her in a cycle of public humiliation and redemption. We are reinforcing the presentation of a person--a woman--as merchandise.

But Britney's story is hard to ignore because it brings up so many disturbing reminders of society's treatment of women, particularly our bodies. In the Spears explained that she shaved her head as "a form of rebellion" and a way of "feeling free... shedding stuff that had happened." The reason that the world reacted so violently to the shaved scalp was she was rejecting her beauty and turning herself into something other than an object of desire. Similarly, her mid-routine kiss with Madonna remains a hot topic years later because Madonna, who presents herself as an empowered, highly sexualized, aggressive women, was symbolically seducing and converting Britney from virginal teen queen into something far more threatening.

With all these classically sexist overtones to the Britney drama, it's no wonder that women are reacting so personally. On Jezebel, several (excellent) threads about Britney have drawn out commenters' own experience with eating disorders and mental illness. Britney is an object of fear, obsession, pity disgust and love for women because her journey--at least when it comes to scrutiny of her appearance and relationships--is ours writ large. She has suffered through breakups, family problems, pregnancies, body image issues, (rumored) postpartum depression and defiant self-destruction in front of millions. Many women suffer through at least some of these things. Sure, they do it with a smaller audience, but they often feel the same humiliation when they get caught in sweatpants or with unshaven legs, behave unthinkingly, make bad romantic choices, grow out of their adolescent bodies, get dismissed as crazy, are frowned upon as irresponsible parents or, after giving birth, are desexualized and resented.

The obsession with her thinness is perhaps the most blatant of these problems. As Rebecca Traister wrote last year after Spears' infamous VMA performance:

Wonder why your daughters have eating disorders and hate their bodies? Maybe because they're reading reports that label the thin young woman dancing around in a bra and panties physically unappealing and obese.

Indeed, after that performance, the AP wrote, with its tongue not far enough in its cheek, that Britney's physique was the "most unforgivable" aspect of her performance. And now that she can bare her midriff without shame, she is considered healed. Her father, cried during the documentary because his daughter was "beautiful" again. Talk about unhealthy messaging.

During that flabby midriff era, Britney may have been controlling her life and image the only way she knew how: by flouting public requirements. The reality is we don't know what Spears really thinks or feels beyond the clues she offered on TV. What we do know is that her handlers, parents, managers, paparazzi and the public may have irreparably damaged her life for profit and gratification, leaving her trapped between being a wind-up-toy and a train wreck. Perhaps that's why so many are rooting for this woman's comeback by buying her album, even as it feeds a vicious cycle for her and all of us.

Originally posted at RH Reality Check