In 2004, I took a course called Radical Political Theory. It was easily the best course I took as an undergraduate and formed the basis of much of the academic work I did thereafter, including giving me the inspiration for my thesis. The class was focused on looking at hegemony, patriarchy, racism, black nationalism, and queer theory. The class was small, somewhere around ten people.
Mark, the professor, started us on a conversation about music videos and the concept of the male gaze
. He showed us Britney's video for I'm a Slave 4 U
and started us in on a discussion of where the power was in this video. There were a lot of negative opinions on Britney and most of the class felt that she was a tool of the patriarchy. I had always liked Britney, as an artist, even if not as a role model. What I saw in the video was a lot of reaction shots of men gazing at her, which I didn't feel was as dehumanizing as a "traditional" male gaze situation.
After our discussion, Mark assigned a chapter from John Fiske's Reading the Popular
on Madonna. Before we left he said "If you feel, after reading this piece, that you can defend Madonna, ask yourself why you can't defend Britney Spears".
The Fiske piece was excellent and I still have my copy of it. One passage is highlighted and starred up and down:Madonna knows she is putting on a performance, and the fact that this knowingness is part of the performance enables the viewer to answer a different interpretation from that proposed by the dominant ideology, and thus occupy a resisting subject position.
In the margin, in bright pink pen, it says "Does Britney know she's putting on a show?" In follow up discussions in class, I decided that she did. Most of the class felt that she was somehow different
from Madonna, but couldn't quite put their fingers on why. I had a similar feeling, but strongly felt that I couldn't defend Madonna and not defend Britney. To do so would have given me a strong sense of cognitive dissonance.
Looking at it now, I think there are a few primary perceived differences in their early careers. In terms of fandom audiences, Britney was marketed to appeal primarily to teenage girls and has more or less stayed in that market, with some branching out to the gay market
. Madonna, however, was initially marketed to teenage girls, but has entrenched herself in the gay market as well as the adult market (though she's had a lot more time to do so). Another is goals. I got the sense that Madonna wanted to be famous and Britney wanted to be successful. Lastly, and for me this is the big one, was where they challenged convention. Madonna challenged views about sex, religion, and patriarchy, both lyrically and in her videos and public appearances. I felt like Britney challenged convention by playing directly into stereotypes, primarily in her videos. Lyrically, Britney's music doesn't do much in this arena, and her public appearances were highly controlled. Madonna had interviews where she said her most erogenous zone on her body was her belly button.
So, why revisit this now? Well, I've been listening to a lot of Lady GaGa recently and got into a kick where I watched all of her videos today. I think Lady GaGa is everything I was trying to make Britney into while I was in college. There's a tongue-in-cheek knowledge of what she's doing. She's become something of a fashion icon, even if only on Go Fug Yourself
and she's really playing with the ideas of fame, beauty, and disability in her videos and appearances.
While I still wouldn't call Britney a tool of the kyriarchy, I would say in terms of doing any kind of anti-oppression work, that Lady GaGa is situated more similarly to Madonna.