Last week, the world was shocked as Britney Spears testified in court, describing how she’s been demeaned, controlled, and unable to act with agency for the last 13 years since the conservatorship, run by her father, took over her money, her mental health treatment, her reproductive choices and even her ability to come and go as she pleases. As she told the judge, “The control he had over someone as powerful as me — he loved the control to hurt his own daughter 100,000%. He loved it.”
Spears went on to describe the abuse, “I worked seven days a week, no days off, which in California, the only similar thing to this is called sex trafficking. Making anyone work against their will, taking all their possessions away — credit card, cash, phone, passport — and placing them in a home where they work with the people who live with them. They all lived in the house with me, the nurses, the 24-7 security. There was one chef that came there and cooked for me daily during the weekdays. They watched me change every day — naked – morning, noon and night. My body – I had no privacy door for my room.”
This story is hard to wrap one’s head around in modern day America considering the victim is a rich and famous celebrity. It’s out of Handmaid’s Tale (which is set in a totalitarian society ruled by a fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state). It’s out of the Taliban, Branch Davidians, Lev Tahor, and of course individual families where the men control the women’s comings and goings throughout the religious and secular world.
This is an easy genre for us to be outraged by. The wrong-doing is so easy to spot. The lack of agency on the part of the woman is so painful to witness. Stories of powerless women have been told by ex-Hasidic Jews to the media more and more over the last couple of decades and are the stories of many of the members of our Makom branch. These accounts cause the world to believe that Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism is rooted in misogyny as opposed to understanding that these tragic stories are simply the dysfunctional members of these societies acting out, using Judaism as one of their weapons.
While we must call out the control of women from the side of fundamentalism- forced modesty, lack of freedom to move, or agency over one’s body, there is a more pernicious form of female control, because it is so hidden, that we barely even acknowledge it. In fact, many of us are complicit in it without knowing. It’s The Last Tango in Paris-a 1970’s movie where a rape scene was added into the script last minute and the female actress didn’t want to comply, but felt she had no choice. How many people watching this movie found it be to be exciting without realizing that a human being was being tortured in it?
It’s what A-list actress, Selma Hayek, had to go through. She was so sick and anxious in completing the explicit scene Harvey Weinstein demanded she perform, she had to take tranquilizers to get herself to do it. Again, how many viewers went to see that movie because it promised raunchy content, not knowing the torture of the woman beneath the acting?
Anyone who ever enjoyed any aspect of Playboy – from the magazines to the reality TV shows has been complicit. Despite how the Playboy mansion was romanticized and normalized, a tell-all book after Hugh Heffner’s death alleges troubling sexual and emotional abuse the bunnies had to endure. And anyone who has been enthralled by the Victoria’s Secret’s Angels – a brand of elite models the company recently announced are no longer – has been part of the problem. The Angels had to starve themselves to reach inhuman levels of physical perfection, which Victoria’s Secret is finally admitting creates unhealthy messages for girls and women.
And of course Spears perfectly fits into this genre, of females existing for the purpose of being men’s fantasies. (Obviously, we must mention porn here as well.) As a child performer, who was hyper-sexualized from a young age, Spears has actually been under her father’s control since the very beginning, moving as he wanted her to move, dressing as she was supposed to dress, pretending to be the innocent school girl that could make any guy’s dreams come true, because that sold albums and tickets. They even had her sing a song, “I’m a slave for you.” Quite on the nose!
Spears told the judge, “…my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past f-ing 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect.” When Spears had her first public break down in 2007, she famously shaved her head. She explained it’s because she wanted everyone to stop touching her. If she was a slave to her beauty and being sexualized to serve men’s needs, she wanted to find a way to make herself ugly, so everyone would just leave her alone.
Jamie Spears (her father) – the controller of Britney’s comings and goings is the flip side of Jamie Spears, the pimp, who sold her body to the highest bidders. He has played both parts. We can easily see the evil in taking away a woman’s freedoms, but can we spot the evil in valuing women solely for their looks and sexuality?
You may be wondering right now – why didn’t they leave? The women in the cults can’t leave. Spears the house arrest daughter can’t leave, but the actresses, the models, the porn stars can just pick up and leave. Well, why do so many women stay in domestically abusive relationships? Can’t they just leave? Sadly, when a woman doesn’t believe she is worth more, or worth anything outside of her looks and sexuality, she often stays, because she believes there is nothing else she can be valued for.
The sad thing about Orthodox Judaism being seen as this repressive, misogynistic way of life is that Judaism values the entirety of the woman. Judaism’s archetypal woman is neither a woman of passivity nor a woman to be sexified. She is a Woman of Courage (Eishes Chayil).
Far beyond pearls is her value. Her husband’s heart trusts in her, and he shall lack no fortune. She repays his good, but never his harm, all the days of her life…She opens her mouth with Wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue…Her children rise and celebrate her; and her husband, he praises her: “Many daughters have attained courage, but you have surpassed them all.”
Sex is the holiest thing in Judaism and we believe in healthy marital sex lives, but we also believe that the person who we connect with in this most private way must cherish our soul even more than he is attracted to our body.
It is only when we, as a society, demand an end to the objectification of girls and women with as much fervor as our desire to liberate them from fundamentalist prisons, that Britney and every other female can be free.