We need to talk about... Britney

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Earlier this week, Britney Spears released her brand new video for Slumber Party, one of my favourite tracks from her latest album, Glory. I watched it immediately; like I said, I love the song, and I've adored Britney since the moment she "oh-by-bay by-bay"ed her way into my pop-loving heart with ...Baby One More Time, way back in 1998, when I still thought my dad knew everything and the concept of virginity was important. But I digress.

I was struck by a couple of things – Britney's hair extensions, for one, which just never look great (why not?). Her over-enthusiastic nose contouring, which looks odd and makes her look slightly alien. Then I started thinking about her character in the video, if you can derive any plot line from it – she's making her way through a party; she's writhing on a couch with Tinashe, who features on the track; she seduces a man (kind of) by licking spilled milk (analyse that) up from a Beauty and the Beast-style dining room table.

This isn't just about Britney Spears

I posted about it on Facebook, asking how one would ever explain this to a child. I wasn't, strictly speaking, talking about Britney any more – my confusion is more general. Why are women in music videos still depicted as strippers? Why is this grown woman – arguably one of the biggest female pop stars on the planet – being sexualised in such an extreme fashion, and who is it meant to be titillating? The example used was Britney Spears, but the point is universal – sub in any female pop star and both the representation and the question would be the same.

Of course, the fact that it is Britney Spears makes this a rather unique case; this is the woman, after all, who has been under the conservatorship of her father since her very public breakdown in 2008.

The music industry – sexist? Say it ain't so!

I'm not sure where my Facebook commenters came from (are there people who keep a close eye on Britney-related content?), but the reaction to my post was swift – stop hating on Britney, they said. Apparently I was slut-shaming; I was body-shaming; my inference that she and Tinashe's faux-lesbian act was in some way a product of sexism in the music industry was a demonstration of my homophobia; Britney is a grown woman who makes her own choices and is free to act out her sexuality however she wishes.

Except, of course, that free choice implies a circumstance in which all other things are equal – or, in other words, you can't possibly believe that a woman has made a free choice within an industry that will reward her for making one choice over another.

It's not the only industry, either...

Let's not pretend like the music industry is the only one in which women are under pressure to appear – or to be – sexy. It's a pressure that exists across all industries and in all facets of life. From the time we hit puberty, it is made so very clear to us – through the images we see in the media, on billboards, in advertisements and on TV – that sexiness is a lofty goal, and one that's most definitely worth aiming for.

The sad thing is, we don't really need to explain this to children. By the time they're old enough to understand, they'll already get it; they'll have absorbed all of the messages contained in magazines and newspapers and movies and cartoons and music videos and news bulletins.

They'll know that J-Lo is praised for "still being sexy" at 47; they'll know that a sexy woman is more desirable than a smart woman; they'll know that an angry woman will "never get laid"  (not sexy = bad); they'll know that women are judged on their hair and their outfits and their boobs and their stomachs, while men are judged on their merits.

Of course, there are exceptions – but exceptions prove the rule. Sex still sells, and until we (a) stop buying it and (b) start questioning it, we're just setting our daughters, and their daughters, up to live by a set of parameters that are narrowing by the day.