Britney Spears syndrome

January 16, 2008 | 14 comments

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.


  1. Devin Rose

    I feel pity for Ms. Spears as well.

    Most people have gone through difficult times in their lives while trying to figure out who they are, what is right and wrong, and so on, yet we had the benefit of not being celebrities with the spotlight on us at every moment of these trials.

    Ms. Spears doesn’t have that benefit, and I’m sure that the gleeful attention of the celebrity media that loves anything outrageous hasn’t helped her find peace or meaning in her life, nor have her celebrity friends who were saturated by the false feminism that you spoke of.

    May God help her and her children.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m sorry to hear about Britney’s breakdown. As it happens, last night I caught the video of “Piece of Me” on TV, and I was actually impressed. It’s a pretty good tune, and she’s as talented as ever. And she managed to take a lot of the trauma that happened last year and make a triumph out of it. I just wish it was all behind her. Poor woman.

    What really struck me, though, was how in the video, the paparazzi are portrayed as the bad guys for snapping embarrassing pictures of her. It’s so typical of the celebrity mentality–entitlement, entitlement, entitlement. And if something happens, it’s someone else’s fault. It couldn’t possibly because you went out of the house with no pants and no underpants, either. Or because you’re a drug addict or an irresponsible parent. Nah. It’s those awful papparazi.

    So I guess I’m saying…she really is a talented lady, and I’m rooting for her all the way. It seems like she is being destroyed by her success, and it’s so hard to watch.


  3. Karen E.

    Once again, a post to which I’m saying, “Yes! I know! I remember feeling that way, too.”

    And poor Britney. My kids pray for her every night.

  4. Anonymous

    I think Britney’s experience is a cautionary tale for any parent in America who seeks fame for their child. Britney was the cash cow for her family and they obviously did everything they could to get her where she is today. How can a parent exert any sense of authority or guidance when they are on their child’s payroll? Who is going to tell that child “no”? It’s a tragedy.


  5. maggie

    My two “panic attack” episodes, breakdowns, Moments of Krazy, whatever you want to call them- both had to do with this exact thing. The first time it was about what dating meant, the second time it was about being a wife/mother vs. the ‘strong’ and ‘independent’ woman I had planned to be. Because you obviously can’t be both! It took me a really long time to figure out what happened, though. I feel awful for Britney, I really do.

  6. JimmyV

    Wow! I would find it an immensely creepy experience to be reading that story with Ms. Spears singing in the background.

  7. SH

    To me this post is not really about Britney Spears. She is just one example. The post speaks to me about our society. Very, very interesting insights. At that moment in the shopping line, you kind of got a peek behind the veil of how Satan’s lies work. It’s jarring when you finally see behind the lie.

  8. Anonymous

    I think the real tragedy of feminism is that it has focused and still focuses so much on opening up traditionally-male behaviors to women while denigrating traditionally-female behaviors. Why not open up those behaviors to men? I mean, obviously there are physical differences between the sexes that make some things impossible, but men can care for children and sick people, cook, clean houses and hotel rooms, and teach school. By encouraging women to leave their traditional professions in droves, our society has created shortages of teachers and nurses and caregivers, as well as many homes in which all the cooking and housework is done by paid employees of one kind or another. The result is an acute shortage of caring. No wonder we all feel so lonely and depleted! Nobody is taking care of us, and we’re not allowed to take care of anybody! The answer is not to have all women return to traditionally-female professions but to encourage boys (who get very little encouragement these days!) to learn caring skills and consider careers in those professions, just like girls for the past 30 years have been encouraged to learn math and science and self-assertiveness.

    I pray for Britney every day.

  9. Adoro te Devote

    This post is so dead on!

    Like you, I realized the two options for the “free” woman: Be a sex object, or be a man.

    I chose both, at different times, but mostly the latter. And, like you, I was never comfortable with the “Sex in the City” lifestyle, either. Because I DID want to be cherished…especially if the man who cherished me was stronger than I was! LOL!

    (Um…I’m still sort of that way, but not NEARLY to such an extreme! And no sex-object mentality about it!)

    I like the juxtaposition you caught between her situation and her lyrics, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that after a few years of therapy, this is what she reveals in her memoirs.

  10. Abigail

    Following up on the feminism debate– There is an inherent irony is that the “male behaviors” women supposedly want to imitate such as lots of sexual partners and choosing to indentify with “career” versus “family” or heaven forbid “God’s will for your life” are actually not good for men either. The guy that spends hours and hours at his law practice instead of getting home at a reasonable hour to engage with his wife & children, is usually a divorced lonely guy. Who wants to follow that model?

    Thank you Jen for another insightful post about the lack of dignity for women in this culture. I think Ms. Spears is especially a tragic case because she is such a young, talented artist, who is also a mother to very young sons.

  11. Jon

    Do be careful not to limit all women to your vocation. While one might sensibly talk about life in a monastic community or as a consecrated virgin in something like the same terms as you use, it isn’t always the most natural way to talk about those very special vocations.


  12. Kevin Ex

    Very insightful post Jen. I remember the time when Britney Spears was admitted to a mental hospital. The world has been really harsh on her. The Britney spears syndrome is real and I have seen some women suffer from it. I agree with Abigail the so called “male behavior” is not healthy for men either. I wish more people realized that.

  13. help get back husband

    I would say that she had to go through too much in life in too little time. An early marriage, kids in quick succession, her bizzare actions.
    Apt titles Britney Spears Syndrome.
    Thanks, Jake.
    want ex back | how do i win him back

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    This is epic, and really cool. I want how to lose 40 pounds in 2 months to thank you for sharing this amazing piece of work with me. I want to say this is extremely amazing, and I’m going to share it with everyone I know.


  1. Jay Leno: Jay Walk’s Guide to Cheating | Christian In the Middle - [...] instead, I’ll leave you with this beautiful post by Jennifer over at Conversion Diary, called Britney Spears Syndrome.  It…

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