The Britney Spears comeback narrative is all about saddling women with impossible expectations

Spears performs at the 2016 VMAs.
Spears performs at the 2016 VMAs.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Everyone loves a comeback story—especially when it comes to Britney Spears. The pop star’s performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards on Aug. 28 was billed as a rebuttal to her lackluster performance back in 2007. Her “disastrous” VMA performance of “Gimme More” nine years ago was regarded at the time as the death knell of her career. That was the year of “Leave Britney Alone;” the year that she shaved her head, wielded an umbrella against a member of the paparazzi and temporarily lost custody of her kids. Critics at the time panned her VMA set. The New York Post wrote, “Spears was stuffed into a spangled bra and hot pants and jiggled like Jell-O as she sleepwalked through the song.” MTV News called her performance a “reeking, outrageous failure.”

Almost a decade later, it’s not fashionable to be mean about Spears anymore. Reviewers grudgingly praised Spears’ performance of “Make Me,” the first single from her newly released album Glory. But the specter of 2007 Britney remained central to the conversation. BuzzFeed posted a frame-by-frame comparison of the two VMA performances, suggesting that she had finally taken back “the same stage that nearly destroyed her nine years ago.” MTV promos in advance of the awards showed clips of Spears’ on-stage “meltdown. ”

Our obsession with Spears’ storied public failures is only one part of the misogyny that underlies women’s comeback narratives. Spears is allowed to succeed again; many people are even rooting for her. But much of the appeal of her “comeback” is predicated upon revisiting her earlier public humiliation while reinforcing the unrealistic expectations to which we hold women. It’s not enough for Spears to turn in a solid performance. We want to see if she’s managed to magically transform herself back into the embodiment of smiling, shiny, sexy pop-star perfection.

More often than not, this is how fame works for women. First, we hold them to a standard that no human could ever maintain, and most can’t even fake. Then we pick them apart to the point of collapse. After a few years, we attempt to prove our beneficence by “forgiving” them.

The cruelty with which Spears was treated throughout the late 2000s is shameful in retrospect. Indeed, by the time Spears hit the VMA stage in 2007, she was already viewed by both the public and the media as “crazy.” She was getting divorced from her husband, Kevin Federline. She was fighting for custody of two small children, one of whom was less than a year old. She had been in rehab and in court. The hyper-invasive, hyper-profitable coverage of her personal life meant that she was perpetually stalked by photographers, and her relationship with the paparazzi was growing increasingly hostile.

Spears had every reason to be unhappy and stressed in 2007. Yet our public acceptance of her apparently hinged on whether—in the midst of an objectively awful time in her life—she could convincingly act as if nothing was wrong. We wanted her to shimmy on stage. We wanted her to welcome the strange men with cameras who followed her home to see if she looked ugly when she cried about losing her baby son.

Women run up against smaller-scale versions of these impossible expectations every day. They experience it every time they’re told to “smile” by a stranger on the street, or get accused of having “resting bitch face,” or get called “crazy” for revealing their emotions during a confrontation. Women are routinely judged on their ability to appear pleasant and accommodating, even as they’re being mistreated. This effort is called “emotional labor”—the work of managing others’ emotional needs while hiding your own.

Spears more or less went on an emotional labor strike for all of 2007. She’d built her fame on a perpetually smiling, sexy, accommodating brand. In her early career she was so beholden to our culture’s contradictory expectations of women that she seemed to be attempting to satisfy all of them. (Preach abstinence? Sure! Strip down to a transparent jumpsuit on live television? Also sure!) Her song titles expressed sentiments like “I Was Born to Make You Happy” and “I’m A Slave 4 U.” And the public loved her for it.

But when the act cracked, the public was equal parts entertained and disgusted. Even when Spears was at the peak of her career, it was inevitable that she’d one day stop being the All-American sexy teen virgin. The anticipation of her eventual failure was a built-in part of her appeal.

This is exactly what makes the “comeback” narrative we’ve saddled Spears with so troubling. The tone with which we cover Spears has undeniably changed. The kids who listened to “…Baby One More Time” in middle school have grown up and gotten media jobs; the bubblegum pop music that Spears became famous for is now in vogue with critics. Even at the peak of her late-1990s fame, it would have been hard to imagine a Rolling Stone review that earnestly compared Spears to David Bowie; in 2016, it’s par for the course. Genuine respect for Spears undoubtedly informs this response; whether or not you like her early albums, there’s no denying she changed the course of pop music.

But our eagerness for a Spears “comeback” also seems to stem from an urge to see her, literally, return to her original teenage persona: To be the physically flawless, psychologically impermeable performer upon whom we could project whatever we wanted. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been anticipating her comeback for years without ever admitting her back into the fold. Until she manages to go back in time and become a vixen with a python draped around her shoulders, we’ll never declare her fully recovered.

A sense of public guilt may also drive our obsession with a Spears comeback. We need some kind of reassurance that we did not  permanently harm this woman. And we need that reassurance to come from Britney Spears herself.

The problem, of course, is that we did hurt Spears. After a long, bad year, Spears was admitted to a mental health facility. This hospital stay then became grounds for her father (from whom she’d previously been estranged) to assert a conservatorship so severe that its terms are normally reserved for people with debilitating cognitive disabilities. She makes millions of dollars per year, but still doesn’t control her own finances. She’s a sex symbol who can’t legally marry without permission. No matter how much BuzzFeed or anyone else asserts that Spears is “doing what she loves,” she does not have the legal wherewithal to sign her own contracts—meaning that we have no idea if she does love it. She didn’t in 2007. Does she really want a comeback, or do we?