The sun was still shining on the first real day of spring — not calendar spring, but warm, outdoor cocktails, drowning-in-pollen spring — when 30 people assembled in Bluestockings on New York City's Lower East Side last night. We'd all come to hear from Suri Ratnatunga and Rachel Goldberg, coworkers at event-curating company SideTour and, more to the point, self-proclaimed Britney Spears scholars.
Suri and Rachel launched their Britney Spears 101 course, subtitled "Goddess, feminist icon, pop priestess," in December. They've held eight events to date, centered around a PowerPoint presentation that draws on music videos, radio show clips, and documentary footage to tell the pop icon's story.
"We didn't anticipate that it would instantly strike a chord and take off, to the point where we add a date and it sells out in a matter of hours," Rachel told Fusion. "It's been really humbling to see a community build around this, and honestly, what better way to spend a night than to meet passionate people from all over the city, sip on beer, and chat about feminism while 'Toxic' blares in the background?"
The Spears workshops usually take the form of what Rachel calls a "Britney speakeasy in [her] living room." In Goldberg's Greenpoint apartment, the maximum class size is 10, the price of admission is $25, and the punny snacks served include "Gimme More" chocolate chip cookies and "Baby One More Thyme" crackers. Yesterday's seminar was "revamped" to focus more on feminist theory, in deference to the venue.
Bluestockings is a volunteer-operated feminist radical bookshop (think Women & Women First, but a lot more pleasant, and with coffee) that hosts community events, like a trans knitting group that met last Friday and a weekly Kundalini yoga class. The Spears seminar was free, though a donation jar was passed around.
"Obviously we're not going to get into the entire history of feminism," Rachel said at the start.
"We're down," an audience member piped up, to laughter.
The enthusiastic crowd was about two-thirds female and mostly (but not entirely) composed of young twentysomethings. The turnout included a number of returning students from previous workshops. It's easy to see why they'd come back. Ratnatunga and Goldberg are smart, charming, and very funny — the TAs you wish you could have had in college. And their devotion to Britney is very, very real.
Rachel's first Britney Spears memory is of hearing "…Baby One More Time" on the radio. "The second I heard it, I knew it was going to be the greatest song I've ever heard. So far that's proved true," she said.
Suri grew up in Vienna, where she bonded with an Italian student who didn't speak English well over their mutual love for BritBrit. "I've always thought that Britney's a universal language," she joked.
For many, Britney Spears and feminism are about as logical a pairing as peanut butter and feminism. "It's really easy to write her off as an oversexualized, manufactured pop star, but it's much more interesting to view her through an alternative lens," Suri said.
Britney has never publicly identified as a feminist (or as not a feminist), but that's besides the point. Spears represents a fascinating case study of female celebrity, media scrutiny, and so much more.
"Remember when she got her head shaved? The fact [that you'd question] her importance but still know that fact is why she's significant," Suri told Fusion.
Last night's seminar touched on sex positivity, lipstick feminism, and the Madonna-whore complex, as well as persistent lyrical themes in Britney's oeuvre, like alienation ("My loneliness is killing me"), gendered hysteria ("You say I'm crazy? I got yo' crazy"), and motherhood ("With a kid on my arm I'm still an exceptional earner"). Goldberg and Ratnatunga consider Britney's life in three stages: pop sweetheart, public downfall, and comeback under her father Jamie Spears's conservatorship.
I don't want to give too much away, because this class is a genuinely delightful hour and a half that you deserve to experience yourself, but here are a few fun takeaways that I haven't been able to restrain myself from texting everyone I know:
- Every 15 seconds a bottle of Britney Spears perfume is sold. Her fragrance empire is worth $1.5 billion.
- The music video for "…Baby One More Time" was shot at Venice High School in Los Angeles, which also served as the set for Rydell High in Grease.
- It costs $2,500 to meet Britney for 10 seconds.
- Spears recorded an unreleased, pre-public breakdown album, Original Doll, which Rachel calls "the Holy Grail for diehard Britney fans."
- For eight of the first 10 years of the 2000s, Britney Spears was the most searched term on the Internet.
That last point is vital to understanding Britney's career, say Goldberg and Ratnatunga. Her rise coincided with the rise of the Internet, but before the Internet made space (on self-publishing platforms like Twitter and Tumblr) for celebrities to take control of their online image by responding to and engaging with their fans.
We watched Britney's "I'm a Slave 4 U" performance from the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards and Rachel invited us all to sing along. (Did you know those were all real animals? Did you realize Spears was just 19 years old then?) Later, we revisited Britney's notoriously half-hearted, stumbling "Gimme More" choreography from the 2007 VMAs. The disparity is heartbreaking.
Importantly, Suri and Rachel don't shy away from addressing the unsavory aspects of Britney's past: her battle for custody of her children, rumors that she cheated on Justin Timberlake ("I still believe they'll end up together," Rachel said), and her 55-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander.
According to the terms of her (legally unprecedented) conservatorship, Britney still can't buy or sell property or get married without her father's permission. Today, Britney's is a "highly routine" lifestyle, as she raises her two young sons and works her wildly successful Las Vegas residency.
"I think she's trying to bore her way into privacy," Suri explained.
Goldberg and Ratnatunga certainly respect Britney's preference for isolation, though they admit they'd be thrilled to capture her attention on social media.
"Our main goal is just to have her follow us, or retweet us, or favorite us," Suri said. "So far, nothing."
Aside from inevitable online friendship with the goddess herself, what's next for the Britney 101 workshop? "A storefront with a big event space reached out to us about leading a class there, so we're in talks about the best way to make that work," Goldberg told Fusion.
"Naturally, I'm leaning towards a Britney-themed dance party," she said.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.