Britney Spears, Victorian Chastity and Brand-name Virginity
Issue #57, October 2001
In the famous opening sequence of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel House of Mirth, New York man-about-the-city Lawrence Selden encounters Lily Bart, whose decline of fortune the story traces. As he escorts Lily down Madison Avenue, Selden reflects:
"Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external, as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay."
Lily's only social assets are her beauty and virginity, which together equal her marriageability. Any wear or damage to these assets harms her value in the marriage market, and both assets are temporary capital that must be exchanged through marriage before time diminishes the value. A charming chastity defines Lily's value, although this desirability is subject to devaluation through imputation and gossip. Selden, a character capable of observation if not much more, notes, "She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate." The tea that Selden offers Lily in his private bachelor's quarters ultimately contributes to her downfall, since it translates into questions about Lily's wholesomeness and virginity. Lily's tragedy lies in her precipitously declining value on the marriage market in late Victorian America, given that she can neither shed the stigma of dubious chastity nor escape its valuation.
Last year the contemporary market value of chastity was on parade in relation to Britney Spears, whose agents made public that they had received a businessman's private offer of $7.5 million for a first night with the star and her virginity. "It's a disgusting offer," she told a newspaper. "He should go and have a cold shower and leave me alone. It's outrageous how a man like that can offer something that is totally unacceptable." The first question would appear to be why her agents made public this otherwise unknown offer. Publicizing this sort of objectionable private offer apparently served, in the agents' eyes, as a vehicle for both moral communication and image reinforcement. Inasmuch as their star's public chastity represents a critical element of the Britney Spears image, then the immorality of premarital sex became part of a brand message. What separates Lily Bart and Britney Spears, characters who rely on social artifice and public knowledge of their sexual innocence for market value, is largely that Lily did not have a good agent.
As an economic phenomenon, Britney Spears epitomizes the lack of importance that music plays in the creation of a successful rock star. She has few musical abilities of which to speak. To the extent that her work expresses an aesthetic, it is embodied in the lack of distinctiveness in her songs. Each note, each move, has been shaped by a carefully engineered repetition that is designed to invoke other artists' work and operate within a safe conventional musical mainstream.
Despite such blatant fabrication at the hands of record companies, Spears represents the cumulative product of faith in oneself as a star, irrespective of reasonable self-cognizance of personal limitations. Her obvious belief in her own complete self-invention as a success story marks Britney as a contemporary Victorian, but her corporate image packagers rely on framing a portrait of struggle from within a graced destiny. From an early age, in this recounting, Britney Spears manifested the combination of perseverance and foreordained success that shaped her success. Using the closing words of Horatio Alger's Struggling Upwards, the message for communication became that she "is indebted for most of [her] good fortune to [her] own good qualities." Her history of obsessive childhood pursuit of stardom, beginning at age six and continuing through a stint with the Disney Mouseketeers, translated into corporate recognition of inevitable public triumph. The task of corporate advertising thus became to present Britney Spears as a deserving star for whom an ad campaign was only deserved spotlighting.
The promotional version of Britney Spears focuses on the autobiography of a performer who, driven by willpower, rose from a six year-old in Kentwood, Louisiana and dairy fair contests to become a pop star on international stages. It offers Britney as a role model for success, particularly for mall-hanging teenage suburban girls. The improbability of the story becomes its selling power: you too can join Britney's transit into stardom — and away from the fate of marriage and childbearing. This escape story implicitly realizes a limited bipolar vision of feminine possibility, along an axis from star above to drudge below. As with Lily Bart, Britney Spears wears the invisible manacles of a false feminine fate and emerges as another "victim of the civilization which had produced her." Her cherished public virginity becomes the manifestation of these social shackles rather than a private assertion of personal self-determination.
An ossified social orthodoxy governs here. Britney's autobiography, canonized in her Star Baby Scapbook video, promises fans that they can be happy without stardom and with those three children and a split-level home. That dream, after all, is what this down-home star really wants herself. Stardom is only a temporary gig before motherhood. Taking her own parents and three-sibling family for an example, Spears declares to fan-dom that three children would be perfect for her too. In the meantime before matrimony and reproduction, her performance career provides Britney with near-limitless disposable income to spare for mall raids on the Gap and Calvin Klein. A brand-name star is known by the brand names she consumes.
If there is such a stench of sterility arising from Britney Spears — who interviews as a decently likeable person — her lack of social affect has so far condemned her to a narrow range of expressive possibility. Songs about high school romance predominate because this is the apex of emotional experience, the center of expressive possibility. That same narrowness marks out the perimeters of class privilege available to suburban American whitefolk, a domain where Spears' willing social innocence delimits her fans from listening to a vastly greater emotional range. Listening to Britney Spears momentarily striving for a blues vocal tremulo in "From the Bottom of My Broken Heart" is to listen to a pathetic iteration of Billie Holliday's emotive capacity in "You Don't Know What Love Is."
Beyond the limitation of adopting middle-class blindness as an artistic platform, the problem is that neither Britney Spears nor her fans are innocent. Sexual innocence is an open sham here, and everyone knows it. They may be virgins in a strict sense, but this is a mere technicality that relies on a limited physical definition of virginity. Britney's song lyrics and dance performances are quintessentially anti-virginity. Britney's famous bellybutton, her open-air substitute vulva, is the center of her public sexuality. The costumers dress her up around her navel; the video cameras focus lovingly on it; and Britney herself adds the occasional silver and jade bellybutton ring as tease-ornament. Viewers know what is meant, but the meaning remains deniable. A bellybutton is just a bellybutton and so all remains within a suggestive propriety, one where flesh gets exposed but conservative market demographics have not been abandoned. That demonstrative bellybutton is a false innocence that speaks its name. Together with her smile and thrust-out breasts, Britney Spears' midriff is a calculated sex substitute: sexual purity meets pure sex. This is a chastity that is not chastity, a performative pretense.
Before Britney appeared at a Rock in Rio festival concert this past January she spent three days locked up in the honeymoon suite of a Rio de Janeiro hotel with her boyfriend (and former fellow Mouseketeer), Justin Timberlake of N'Sync. Timberlake, who also espouses a public virginity, emerged together with Spears from the Intercontinental Hotel and both told the press that they spent a chaste get-away together. KFC order-ins and bundling, presumably.
This is innocence that protests too much. But as Sam Spade assures Brigid O'Shaughnessy when she dissembles, "Oh, it's all right. Only it won't be all right if you are actually that innocent." And teasing truth, Britney sings in a recent video, "I'm not that innocent." In contrast to Justin and Britney in Rio, memory of John Lennon and Yoko Ono spending a week in bed in Amsterdam would make Diogenes weep out of nostalgia for candor. By February Britney was on the moral recovery trail, appearing on an MTV program suggestively titled When Sex Goes Pop: Not That Innocent, where her message was that chastity empowers women, and she definitely does not use her sexuality to sell records.
Britney's sexual image is no small matter, since she is a performer whose career supports at least hundreds of staff salaries. Some women have pimps: as a brand-name virgin, Britney has managers. Poor management of her sexuality will hurt profitability. Her body is a Temple of Profit rather than a Temple of Chastity. An intact hymen is a sound business decision. Individual sexual free will just is not in the business plan — and the plan is adoration of a star. So public chastity and brand-name virginity become an exercise in what might be called, with a smile, an applied theory of non-use value. But then, as Marx wonderingly observes in Das Kapital of commodity fetishism, a commodity can indeed be "a mysterious thing."
Home Is Where the Hymen Is
Societies under stress frequently act to shore and firm up the boundaries defining femininity. This alleged fundamental order serves to categorize propriety and property claims in a changing symbolic hierarchy. The virgin, the 'un-used', the one available for first claim — these are the associations attached to public performance of chastity. A parent who wants assurance of a child's social value and general esteem can take comfort from an exhibition of sexuality that leads nowhere. Appreciative public eyes see the body but cannot touch, at least in public. Realization of that exhibited sexuality must remain private and hidden in order to assure its public value.
Virginity is the classic territory of male property claims and attempted possession of women. It is the physiological point of heteromasculinist title claims and insidious demands for a verifiable female 'purity'. Virginity and property share an ideological double harness: self-control is the price of class stability. Among the Druze women I used to teach and who resentfully conformed to conservative village values from absence of choice, this double harness was absolute and much more blatant than its American form. Young Druze men worked diligently for years building a house in order to have the reward of sex with a virgin bride, and Druze women made sure every detail was complete — down to new towels in the closets — before they and their families agreed to the reward. At least this system had the limited virtue of a certain social honesty, one where the terms of exchange were clear to all parties.
In the United States and other Western societies, the demonstrative chastity of Britney Spears speaks more to a fear of lost parental control and less to a direct belief in children-as-property. This is the message of a more western asset-management school of parenting, one where 'reputation' is all and virginity is the essence of a conservative brand-name self. There is also a palpable ideology of hetero-normal demonstration, of a woman saving herself for marriage but being sexy for the boys in the meantime.
Given the construction of Britney Spears and her performance image as a corporate property, the overlapping claims of personal virginity and corporate property combine into a disturbing amalgam. Public celibacy and business advantage co-habit. Here virginity is no longer an issue of individual autonomy and personal choice; it has become an issue of product branding. If Britney Spears has been marketed with an untouchable sexuality, will she still be an authentic Britney Spears if her sexuality is no longer virginal? Where does the brand value disappear if Britney chooses a sex partner, particularly one who does not bear the three glorious sperm who will become those three perfect children?
The cultural conservatism of late twentieth-century America provided a political breeding ground for music based on virginity asset management. One Britney biographer cites the wannabe wave of professionally chaste female vocalists, including Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson, and writes "This fresh crop of newcomers — consisting mostly of teen talent — offers a refreshing change from the period during the 1990s when grunge, gangsta rap and angst-filled alternative anthems filled the charts." In the '90s, teens apparently were becoming jaded adults, whereas in the hopeful vision of this teen magazine writer and others like her, teens will remain forever-innocent. In the post-Clinton era, the regimen of desire has changed to re-incorporate a sexual neo-Reaganism. Just Say No has mutated into True Love Waits. Sex education has become abstinence education.
Britney Spears has her political-world analog in Jenna Bush, whose good-girl sham as a presidential daughter falls apart anew with each court appearance for underage drinking. The public stage appearances of Jenna and Britney both profess a clean-living morality that is too good, too clean. Their pretenses are thin and linked to purposes beyond their immediate lives. Neither Jenna nor Britney have any real purchase on public credulity; they are party girls and everyone knows it. This is the good-time conservatism of the Days of Dubya, where social proprieties are honored rather than practiced. Girls can party just as wild as Daddy, snort just the same line of coke he did, and look just as pious as he does in church come Sunday morning. To both party and to embrace the Redeemer's cleansing after sinning is an exhibition of consumption and class status.
It is this sanction of elite and class-privileged desire that opens the door for sexual theologians who peddle false forgiveness with terms like "born-again virgins" and "secondary virginity." This is a well-known Christian world that creates an aggressive continuum between sin and guilt, one that tortures the conscience of good people who pursue sexual gratification. Politics based on self-denial and negation of sexual desire seem to lead inexorably towards denial of equal social entitlement by those who have sex and admit it. Any line between social cleanliness and filth, in the end, must be drawn through hypocrisy.
When George Bush promised to restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office, there was an electorate who understood his message and cast their votes to clean up the sexual filth left in the White House. His subliminal anti-sex campaign theme suggested that by voting for Bush, the American nation too could become a born-again virgin, even if that required deliberate acts of memory erasure and hypocrisy. Now in power, the Bush administration is putting taxpayer money where Monica's mouth used to be, with a $50 million budget allotment for abstinence education.
If the George W. Bush and Britney Spears image-makers have their way, chastity will be the new public lie. This ideology corresponds neatly with the rhetoric of the True Love Waits organization, a Southern Baptist-sponsored group that is one of America's leading 'abstinence educators'. In this old-new world, achievement arrives with the ostensible denial of immediate desire. "The days of virgins being labeled 'old-fashioned' are long gone," according to their website. "There is a new sexual revolution happening; one that promotes responsibility, respect and commitment. Leading the focus on abstinence are many of today's top pop stars. Going against the tide of pop culture, these singers are spreading the message that chastity isn't just acceptable, it's considered cool!" Social confinements, virginity pledges, and TLW pledge rings are being re-packaged in the language of revolution and cultural opposition. It can more accurately be called a counter-revolution that would suppress personal autonomy and free sexual choice in deference to "responsibility", "commitment", and pre-marital chastity.
None of this is new. There is a line of painting and sculpture that begins in the Renaissance bearing the name 'Triumph of Chastity', a topic that commonly features a virginal nymph surmounting her immediate environment. It was a theme that attracted artists like Signorelli, Martini, della Francesca, Perugino and many others. In American art the 'Triumph of Chastity' theme appeared primarily in the work of neo-Romantic sculptors of the mid-to-late Victorian era, like Joel Hart. Where Renaissance iconography usually focused on marriage fidelity, neo-Romantic iconography emphasized a polite bourgeois elevation of the female body and adoration of its transcendent untouchability. Given the near-complete civil disenfranchisement of women, this celebration of female chastity might be more dryly discussed as a property management strategy. When Wharton's virginal protagonist Lily Bart poses for a stage tableau for women, with her similarly "long dryad-like curves" and "noble buoyancy of her attitude", she discovers they ultimately account for nothing: her virginity and beauty prove a false and hollow social protection. The Defeat of Chastity arrives when virginity becomes a means of ownership rather than a free choice of companionship.
Britney Spears talks the talk of chastity triumphant, and then does anything but dance chastity's restrained daisy-chain dance. Instead, she provides an unworkable translation of this Victorian sexual ideology. Every come-take-me move Britney makes says that she learned early what too-proud Lily Bart discovered too late: sex is everything. As her albums and videos spin to their finish, Britney Spears subverts her own official message: she testifies that even while sexual Victorianism persists as an idea, her world has moved on.
Joe Lockard is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He thanks Joel Schalit and Lauren Berlant for thoughtful comments, and his son David for giving Abba such smiles.