Like A Virgin: How Purity Culture Harmed Britney Spears & A Generation Of Pop Stars

It was the first time in 13 years that anyone had heard Britney Spears speak openly about her long-standing conservatorship. Over the course of a 24-minute hearing statement, the pop star spoke clearly and passionately about the abuses she's faced under this contract: She described being forced to work seven days a week without breaks, taking Lithium against her will or consent, and having to keep in an IUD despite wanting to expand her family.
And while many have spent years speculating over Spears' freedom — a cause that was renewed in March when she asked for her father, Jamie Spears, to be completely removed as her conservator — it wasn't until last week when she was able to detail in no uncertain terms how far her father's control over her image and body really extended.
During her harrowing statement, Spears described how her father demanded a certain image from her. "My precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect," she said. "That's given these people I've worked for way too much control." Spears also compared her rise in fame to that of former Disney star Miley Cyrus, who she says was never reprimanded the same way — and was even celebrated for deviating from the pop star mould. "Nothing is ever done to this generation for doing wrong things," she said.
In the wake of the #FreeBritney movement, Hollywood is also going through a reckoning. It wasn't just Spears who came up at a time when Hollywood power brokers like her father controlled young teen girl pop stars' physical images. The positioning of young celebrities as proud virgins, and the messaging that one's virginity equated to one's innate "goodness" and worth, hit a fever pitch in the late '90s and early '00s. And the perpetuation of this manufactured standard only added to America's obsession with women's virginity, pitting pop stars against one another based on the decisions they made with their bodies. 
When we first met Britney Spears in the mainstream, she was the pinnacle of virginity — replete with a schoolgirl outfit and child-like, docile voice. She quite literally told the world that keeping her virginity was important to her. Then, there was Christina Aguilera — a "genie in a bottle," untouchable and waiting for someone worthy to release her. (Aguilera, however, would later counteract her good-girl image with the release of "Dirty," prompting outrage. An MTV analysis of the music video said Aguilera needed "to be spanked like the naughty girl she is" and TIME Magazine said she looked like she came from an "intergalactic hooker convention.") Hoards of other teen pop stars were coming up in the ranks as well: Jessica Simpson was a proud minister's daughter who grew up singing gospel music; Mandy Moore, the youngest and positioned as the most wholesome, was singing about candy and wearing girlish pigtails. 
"Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore came out of a Hollywood factory of stardom," says Jenna Drenten, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University in Chicago specialising in digital consumer culture. "So there was this purity myth that said you need to be attractive but still a virgin, and that manifested in this 'true love waits' historical perspective and these purity rings and abstinence pledges."
Spears' veil of virginity began to end during her relationship with teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake, especially when rumours began to spread that the two had split because of infidelity on Spears' part. The public perception of the pop star further soured when Spears had children with a man of which the public did not approve. Headlines shifted, and a pervasive narrative about America's Southern sweetheart took off. As the press became more and more critical of her every move, Britney wasn't allowed to mess up – or even deviate — lest reports of her suddenly having a public "meltdown" and "harrowing breakdown" would dominate the news cycle. 
This became a clear trend and message over the course of a decade, fueled by pop culture stars: young women and girls needed to stay virginal to succeed. If you lose your virginity — or the appearance of it — your reputation will fall apart. The question remains, though, why was this generation so fraught with the need to appear wholesome?
"Purity and virginity has always been something that's been intermingled with women in the spotlight, but especially in the '90s because there was such a push to reinforce it as something of a backlash to the '80s when we had Madonna singing 'Like a Virgin,'" Dr. Drenten explains. "The idea was 'let's get control of these women again and get them to literally sign pledges for abstinence.' And that affected the pop stars that came to be."
Dr. Drenten tells Refinery29 that the curated pop star persona in the '90s was dominated and propelled by the male gaze positioning women's bodies in a way that was — and still is — aesthetically pleasing for heterosexual men, and in a way that upholds hetero-normative perceptions of beauty. While the male gaze tantalized a very specific consumer base and dangled women's sexuality in front of cisgender heterosexual men by way of sexualized schoolgirl uniforms and songs riddled with sexual inuendos, there were near-constant messages of purity, virginity, and wholesomeness. 
"There was this collision of messaging, particularly toward young women, about how they should behave and who they should position themselves for — largely heterosexual men," she says.
The romantic relationships between young women pop stars and their male counterparts became a focal point. Simpson's relationship with boy band member Nick Lachey was positioned the same way as Spears and Timberlake's — your hometown high school sweethearts on the inevitable course to marriage. Simpson claimed she and Lachey were saving themselves for marriage, telling People in 2000 that "my virginity is something I stand strong in," something Lachey described as "not always easy but I do respect it." The loss of her virginity was then deemed okay because it was tied to romantic love — what Drenten refers to as a representation and celebration of "demisexuality," meaning people only feel sexually attracted to someone when they have an emotional bond with the person. Sexuality is then "wholesome" and "pure," as it is just a way to romanticize romantic relationships. 
Spears, on the other hand, admitted to sleeping with Timberlake despite them not being married, telling interviewer Robert Haskell in 2003 that she had "only slept with one person." So in 2002, when Timberlake and Spears broke up and Lachey and Simpson got married, the public embraced Simpson and turned on Spears. And after their very public breakup, Justin Timberlake's solo career skyrocketed. He seemingly revelled in it, with singles like "Cry me a River," while Britney's reputation slowly eroded. 
"The public did not think that [Spears] lost her virginity in the right way versus others, so she couldn't remain this consummate virgin," Dr. Drenten says. "So that idea of competition is also colliding with the fans turning on Britney Spears and sort of being let down, saying, 'No, the bargain we had with you was that you will entertain us in a way that we want to be entertained culturally. And that means I want to invest in this romantic relationship that you have and we want you to behave a certain way.'" 
According to Evelyn McDonnell, a professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University and editor of the book Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl., the collision of pop star virgins — especially in the wake of sexualized rock stars — was intentional. "Everything about this phenomenon was very carefully and thoughtfully produced, including selling female virginity, but also teasing with fetishistic sexual appeal," McDonnell tells Refinery29. "The virginity shtick made [Britney Spears] parentally approved for young girls to listen to. This is post-Parents Music Resource Center, after all. Pop music, especially that aimed at teenage female audiences, was under scrutiny."
The parental advisory label was first introduced in 1996 — a counter to Prince and what was dubbed "porn rock" — and placed on the Madonnas and Janet Jacksons and Lil Kims of the world. When Madonna sang explicitly about personal sexual gratification, conservative outrage followed. Her song, "Like a Virgin," turned the idea of virginity on its head, arguing that you can feel "brand new" even though you've had sex with multiple people — the antithesis of evangelical Christian messaging. With her 1993 Janet album, Jackson bucked what was a more "demure approach to sexuality," as Michael Arceneaux wrote for VH1, and unapologetically displayed both her "social consciousness and her burgeoning sexuality." And at a time when it was predominantly men rapping about pussy, Lil Kim was more than happy to rap about her own.
As McDonnell explains, Britney, Jessica, Mandy, and even Christina were manufactured responses to their musical predecessors. But what was interesting about their rise was that their fandom was often decades younger than them — millennials who are now in their 20s and 30s, but at the time were kids. Their parents, too, were marketed these artists, and could feel better about their children being sent more wholesome messaging. It was then okay if Spears danced in a sexualized school girl outfit and sang songs riddled with sexual innuendo — her virginity was important to her. 
"Selling Britney as a virgin also made her a non-participant in the sexual pleasure that was clearly a part of her appeal," McDonnell says. "From the very beginning of her career, she lacked agency; in a sense, her lack of agency was exactly what was being peddled. She was a postfeminist — an anti-feminist — conservative product. She was a reversal of so many of the gains women had made." And it was when Britney reclaimed her agency that her image began to crack.
Pop culture's obsession with women's virginity has not vanished since the early aughts, though it's certainly changed. The rise of influencer culture and social media has diminished the power of the Hollywood celebrity machine and the power brokers that run it. But it still exists and continues to only celebrate a woman's sexuality when it's explicitly connected to romantic love. 
"You still see this very prominent theme of romantic love," Drenten explains. "Taylor Swift is a good example. We still see this investment in your sexuality, and your sexuality is not valued if you talk about it outside the context of romantic love. Not hookups. Not wanting to have sex for the sake of wanting to have sex." After all, the conservative reaction to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" was no coincidence, but just a continuation of what Spears and others experienced when they stepped out of line.
As Hollywood's reckoning continues, it's us — the consumers — who now have the power that was once held by the people who controlled Spears, Aguilera, Simpson, and Moore's image. Whether or not we're going to be able to buck what Drenten describes as "decades of consuming content that [suggested] that we should value women who do ascribe to these purity myths," of course, will determine if this obsession with famous women's sex lives finally becomes a thing of the past. But "WAP" does exist, and Britney is right in that Miley Cyrus, after facing conservative-fueled scrutiny of her own, finally is celebrated for her sexuality. So the new era is not out of reach — it's actually the one we are living in now, the one we are manifesting for ourselves.

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