I was in line at a convenience store yesterday and the employees had their radio blasting, playing one of those overproduced, hypersexualized songs (you know, the ones with the heavy techno beats and women gasping and singing in a high-pitched, coquettish voices). It was pretty grating, so in an attempt to drown it out I started flipping through one of the celebrity magazines. I hadn’t heard the latest about Britney Spears, that she evidently had a complete nervous breakdown a couple weeks ago and was taken to the hospital. As I flipped through the pitiful pictures of her strapped down to a stretcher, looking at the camera with a dazed, tear-streaked face, I realized that the song playing on the radio was hers.
I felt guilty by association, listening to her voice coo lyrics like “Everytime they turn the lights down / Just wanna go that extra mile for you” and “You got me in a crazy position (Yeah) / If you’re on a mission (Uh-uh) / You got my permission (Oh).” As an artist, you would expect her latest album to be more of a reflection of her life; you would expect a more mournful tone to the songs, more tales of disappointment and love lost. The one song that does speak to the trauma she’s been through in the past year, Piece of Me, is still a hypersexualized track filled with gaspy “aaah”s and “ooooh”s. (I know, I’m disturbingly familiar with her music. Let’s never speak of it again.) The theme of her current album foregoes any honest reflection of what’s in her heart in favor of tracks with her gasping and panting about how much she supposedly desires to have no-strings-attached sex all the time…because that’s what the world wants to hear.
Personally, I’ve never had a nervous breakdown. I think I came close, though, back in 2000. I vividly remember sitting on a friend’s couch one night, I think it was a Tuesday, and feeling like something within me was going to explode. I felt like I just wanted to scream — and then I wanted to scream again because I didn’t even know why I wanted to scream in the first place! I was supposed to be happy — I had it all! Every area of my life was on track. I had a promising career, I’d recently purchased an adorable condo in an up-and-coming area of town, I had great friends…yet I felt completely lost. I could not figure out why I would feel such angst, so painfully adrift, when I had every important area of life nailed down.
I’d come over to seek my friend’s counsel on a variety of matters, but for some reason the topic of dating triggered what I think was a near panic attack. I was single at the time (I met my husband a few months later), and couldn’t figure out if I should enter the dating scene or not. For some reason I just could not get comfortable with the idea of living the Sex in the City lifestyle that was so popular among my friends and coworkers. According to my moral code and worldview at the time, not only was there nothing dangerous about women treating sex lightly and “dating” lots of different men, but it was in fact healthy! Yet something within me recoiled at the concept. My theory at the time was that I was still feeling the residual effects of the bondage that women endured for so long before feminism liberated us, that I had yet to throw off the chains of the oppressive patriarchal mentality that still lingered in American culture…yet the more I considered this line of thinking, the closer I felt to nervous breakdown.
Now I understand why.
At the time, I was part of the segment of society where traditional feminine qualities are disdained. As a woman you could express any desire, show any side of your personality, so long as it didn’t involve behaviors that humans have always associated with women, like maternal instincts, the longing to nurture others, feeling sentimental, having fluctuating emotions based on your body’s rhythms, wanting to be cherished by men, etc. Probably due to a lot of the recent changes in modern society — high on the list being the constant touting of contraception as a good thing, making us start to feel that what it’s “curing” must be a bad thing — all the nurturing, life-giving aspects of being a woman were scorned. This left a huge elephant in the room around which we had to maneuver, and the result was that the two main options for acceptable behavior from women were either to act like a sex object or a man (or both, a la Sex in the City).
I know that’s an extreme statement, and there were some gray areas that varied by socioeconomic group, but it’s not too far off. An entire realm of behavior and desires was off-limits for women; if it smacked of traditional notions about what women desire, it was verboten. If women in those circles wanted respect, wanted to be considered intelligent, empowered individuals, they knew the code: sex was OK, as long as you treated it lightly and didn’t yearn for tenderness or commitment; working in nurturing fields like secretarial work or nursing was OK, as long as you made it sound like it was completely coincidental that being a woman drew you to that line of work; even having children was OK, as long as you made it clear that your kids were tangential to all the other important things that you had going on in your life.
Of course not all women have every single traditionally feminine desire and personality trait, but we all have at least some of them; and they all must be denied in order to gain the modern world’s respect.
Looking back, it’s so painfully obvious that this was at the root of my problem that night on my friend’s couch. Of all my planning and goals and ambitions, I had completely ruled out anything that involved accepting the fullness of what it means to be a woman. I tried to tell myself that being a woman meant being just like a man, that all those old-fashioned notions of the inherent differences between the genders were just tools used to keep women down. And suppressing such a core element of who I am, burying any thoughts that I might secretly want a lot of those things that women have always wanted, left me in a state of overwhelming angst and inner turmoil.
Having spent so many years forcing myself to seek fulfillment as a woman in the way the modern world said I should, I felt a flicker of recognition at the scene that played out with Britney Spears’ meltdown last week. Of course I’ll never know for sure what pushed her over the edge, but there was something painfully familiar about that tableau: her voice purring over the radio, telling the world what it wanted to hear, as she was carried off to the mental hospital.