Britney Spears, Pop's Final Girl
“Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one [wo]man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the [wo]man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad [s]he is absorbed into the public’s total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, [s]he is sure to be destroyed by the public’s contempt for survivors.”
—First lines, Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street.
“The film which you are about to see is an account of [a] tragedy. It is all the more tragic in that [she was] young… [she] could not have expected nor would [she] have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre…For [her], an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.”
—First lines (abridged), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
No piece of famous-girl gossip has ever surprised me less than learning that the night before her Vegas wedding to Jason Alexander, Britney Spears watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Obviously she did, since any horror film that’s self-aware, post-Scream, allows its characters to watch or talk about slasher cinema — knowing your enemy, even if that enemy’s a metaphor, helps a great deal when you’re trying to get out alive. “After watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Rolling Stone reported, “she and Alexander took a lime-green limo to the Little White Wedding Chapel, where she strapped a white garter over her ripped jeans and held a small bouquet of roses in cardboard for their forty-dollar wedding.”
This was right around the time we could see Spears was headed for trouble, but as is always the case with a horror picture, she could not hear us screaming our instructions through the screen. The Britney Spears that we saw in peril was, after all, only a projection. In order to be saved, she had to save herself which, as you’ll recall, wasn’t easy, and took guts; in this case, it took gaining a gut, going wild-eyed, and telling the rest of the world that her motto was: “eat it, lick it, snort it, fuck it.” In 2007, Spears was documented in the press as her story’s monster and villain. She’s since proven herself to be something closer to its Final Girl, defined by the film critic Carol J. Clover as “the one who did not die: the survivor… abject terror personified.” “She is the one,” writes Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws, “who perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, rise, and scream again.”
And God knows, we saw the girl stagger. In 2002, Crossroads proved the theory that young girls will watch any pretty and older and famous girl-woman do anything at all, even if she’s no good at it; even viewed with an adult’s remove, she’s an endearingly hopeless actress. As in a slasher, Spears is first seen wearing the white cotton knickers and aw-shucks innocence of a girl who has no idea we’re masturbating to her (a poster on Internet Movie Database describes her as being “the greatest and most influential artist since Marilyn Monroe,” with no apparent idea of just how right he is, or how much he is damning her). She is dancing goofily in a cowboy hat, and what should be iconic feels spoofed. As a real departure, she’s playing a beautiful, tanned, blonde, teenaged Southern belle who is conspicuously virginal; her abdominals alone deserve a Best Supporting credit.
Her own showy virginity, if we believe Justin Timberlake’s crowing, was just that: a show. To question it, though, seems like churlishness. If Spears wasn’t a virgin at the height of her powers, don’t we owe it to her to believe her, given her insistence? Can’t we allow a woman to make herself into a symbol, assuming it’s really the thing that she wants for herself? The curious thing about Crossroads is that for all of its gung-ho teen-hood, it’s also a film that’s tinged with female horror — her friend Mimi’s raped, becomes pregnant, then falls downs the stairs and miscarries. The girls, at one point, talk abortion. In a world of bad-luck sex like this, even abstract virginity’s something. Women are liable, when unwanted things inhabit their private interior spaces, to go somewhat crazy; more than liable, they’re permitted.
“The Final Girl of the slasher film is presented from the outset as the main character,” Clover explains. “The practiced viewer distinguishes her from the outset as the main character. She is the Girl Scout, the bookworm… unlike her girlfriends, she is not sexually active.” Spears is only playing according to (arche)type. There is no doubt she’s the lead, as she is a star in public record. I expected the rest of the cast to be played by a who’s-who of who?s, but Spears’ best frenemy is played by Zoe Saldana, who’s somehow even more beautiful when she’s the bitchiest one in the room.
And, speaking of bitches — in the Rolling Stone piece, when a girl approaches Britney in a shopping mall for her autograph: “She whirls around and stares the girl deep in the eyes, her lips almost vibrating with anger. ‘I don’t know who you think I am, bitch,” she snarls, “but I’m not that person’,” making Spears either the saddest and scariest case of possession this side of The Exorcist, or a girl utterly haunted by something less Biblical. Not a girl, not yet a woman, but filled with furious multitudes. One wonders who has the more personalities — traumatised young women, or people with literal demons. (Even post recovery, we see a less accommodating Spears: “At a friend’s Brentwood crawfish boil, she ignored partygoers while muttering obscenities by herself. She hung out by the food table, saying, ‘Fuck it, I’m eating whatever I want. I don’t care.’” Our Britney, ourselves!).
Paris Hilton’s nickname for her was, apparently, “‘The Animal,’ because she doesn’t think before she acts.” Yes, fine, but does Justin Bieber, a man-child who literally bought himself a monkey, then left it behind at an airport? Like so many female breakdowns, Spears’ is graded on a different curve from a male’s mere mistakes. The Final Girl, according to Clover’s definition in Men, Women and Chainsaws, is Final because she is androgynous, or she’s outright boyish: “Lest we miss the point, it is spelled out in her name: Stevie, Marti, Terry, Laurie, Stretch, Will, Joey, Max.” Bucking the trend, Britney Jean promptly dropped the androgynous “Jean” from her stage name. There are no boys, to my knowledge, called Britney; there are many, though, whose heads are shaved. Spears, taking the task in hand, unsexed herself so that she couldn’t be terrorised. She ended up looking like an unhinged Joan of Arc, or a twelve-year-old skinhead.
“I’m so tired of people touching me!” she supposedly sobbed in the salon chair, which is a phrase I’ve remembered in toto for nine years, because it’s so heartbreaking. Shortly after the incident where she shaved her head, “she stayed up for forty-eight hours straight, driving around, sucking down Red Bulls, afraid that she was being followed by demons, or that a cell-phone charger was taping her thoughts, and obsessively listening to the radio for news about Anna Nicole Smith’s death earlier that month. That was her fate, she declared: she was next.” (“The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers.”)
What if Spears, instead of being paranoid, were perceptive? What if the script she was following called for her to be bludgeoned to death before the final credits rolled, and she knew she had to escape? This year, the Lifetime channel will air an unauthorised biopic, having recently filmed the scene where she shaves her head. “Britney Spears will not be contributing in any way, shape or form to the Lifetime biopic,” her rep told US Weekly, “nor does it have her blessing.” Little surprise, as it’s rare to involve the original star in a remake. Cruelly, it’s being produced by Asylum Entertainment, with a script by someone who once wrote a docudrama about the Manson Family women. In this, at least, Spears follows Anna Nicole: like Mary Harron’s The Anna Nicole Smith Story, which ran on Lifetime in 2013, and resembled something made with Barbie dolls by David Lynch, her Lifetime biopic will read like a horror flick. There will be violence, and madness, and chase scenes, and a girl on a gurney. We’ll see a virgin, or somebody playing at being a virgin, get terrorised. She will eventually triumph.
Another incidental cruelty/irony is the fact that the rehab facility Spears eventually checked into was called Crossroads. If her life is a movie, it isn’t a subtle one. If her life were a limousine, it would be lime green. She says, now, that she watches the footage and doesn’t recognise herself.
Two or three days into a recent journey through the Southern states, I discovered that everything made me cry: a baby gator on a riverboat, with its snout tied up in a black rubber band; an upbeat country and western song that rhymed “don’t-care-oh” with “dinero”; a billboard advertising the resurrection of Christ. A dead raccoon. I wore everything on the outside of myself, so my nerve endings practically tanned. My skin, as white as the gator baby’s belly, did not. Compared to everyone else around, I looked sicker and sicker, which maybe I was — the same thing happened the only other time I went to America, so it’s possible that America, as a continent, simply doesn’t agree with me.
I became so sick of highways that each one began to look worse than the last, even though I knew by day three that all highways in Texas are exactly the same. The roads are wide enough to always achieve their intended effect which, I think, is making the driver feel small. All of the churches, of which there are many, are God-centric malls. Their neon signs make you expect to find Jesus is half off. They look as though God had built Graceland, which we didn’t have time to visit, but which I imagined would only have made me feel more undone, more crazed. I understood that the opulence of everything would have wounded me beyond imagining, though I had no idea why. I do think that kitsch can be violent when done with enough verve.
Jet lag persisted for ten full days. I cried at the dried blood on the sheets of our second and fourth motel rooms because it made me think about being a woman, which I did not care to consider at that time. If you’re a lapsed religious person, the South makes you feel especially Godless. It’s hard to believe in anything when the road signs and the radio tell you your faith is inadequate, so you don’t. It’s depleting, in the way that the heat is. Our friend, who was driving the car, asked at one point: “Looking forward — well, not looking forward, but looking back at when you were looking forward… what did you think? Because I didn’t think anything.” We found the logic inside this. Like I say, it was hot. We felt crazy.
All of this is a long walk for a facile observation, which is to say that I’m utterly capable of seeing either Texas or Louisiana as a place for breeding a) a cannibalistic, chainsaw-wielding killer or b), a pop star who ends up briefly losing her mind. “I’m just country,” Spears told an interviewer, which is almost as good as saying: Fuck y’all!
At the side of the road, just outside Waco, we saw a house of horror with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre theme. It was derelict. In The Canyons, Paul Schrader juxtaposes Lindsay Lohan with the motif of a tumbledown movie theatre; I can’t buy Britney circa then as a ruined recording studio, but I might as a bona fide, closed-down horror attraction. A haunted house. For a time, after getting out of Louisiana, Spears lived on Mulholland Drive; during the phase of her life in which we might have looked at a photograph of her and said not “this is the girl”, but “who is this girl?” You know a horror film is serious when it allows its lead actress some physical damage. Sometimes, it seems that they’ve subbed in a new girl entirely, though they’ve really just altered the first girl’s hair. All of these girls are the same thing, anyway. Where this one shaved her head, another gained a hundred pounds; another set fire to her neighbour’s dog. It does not seem coincidental that, in the mid-noughties, somebody first coined the phrase “torture porn.”
The Rolling Stone exposé also says that Britney is/was “an inbred swamp thing,” which feels cruel and inaccurate — mostly because if she’s anything, she is the victim of hugely malevolent forces. Nobody sees the girls who are successfully exorcised as villains, but the ones who stay sick until the final frames are the movie’s monsters. Earning her Final Girl status, Britney Jean recovered. Her famous abdomen no longer bears any scar saying “help me,” so she shows it to us often. Hair, unlike a head turned all the way around, can be fixed. Sometimes escape is sitting, bloodied, in the back of a speeding pick-up, but sometimes, it’s limbering up for your Vegas residency (everything begins and ends in Las Vegas); spending time with your children; telling your audience, gleefully, “Men can suck my toe!”
Sometimes it’s calling your stage show Piece of Me — as in: you want a? We, of course, took one already, as this is what cannibals do. Looking back at when she was looking forward, you wonder — what was The Animal thinking?
Photograph by Suze Olbrich