Britney Republic

It was only a month after Britney made her plaid pleated-skirt debut when the stained blue dress showed up and the US Senate impeached a president for the second time in history. That fall, the schoolgirl and the intern vied to be the dominant American feminine ideal; me, I just wanted to get into college. So I drove myself to the Banana Republic to buy an outfit for my early-decision interview, where I encountered a very helpful man in his late twenties or possibly early thirties named Jeff who unlocked a dressing closet for me and loitered to help me choose. I wanted to look grown-up and pretty, but serious and smart. When he asked how things were working out, I came out in some sort of slinky silky black skirt (at Banana Republic in the late ’90s, everything was slinky and silky and black). But Jeff had a different idea of the direction I should go in. He held out a pleated skirt. He asked, Why don’t you try this on? I looked at it, confused. I took it from him. “This is, like, a schoolgirl outfit,” I said. He smiled. “I know.”

I was grossed out. But I also felt like I had somehow failed to communicate something essential about myself to the employees of Banana Republic. Didn’t Jeff get it? I had a college interview. For an Ivy League school. And he thought I was going to wear pleats? Like I’m some kind of tramp?! Remarkable, how cultural signals can change with just a little help from pornography and, of course, private school girls everywhere.

Britney was so bored in class, wasn’t she? She’s watching the clock, tapping her pencil . . . and then finally the bell rings and it’s time to roll up her shirt, show off her abs, and do a coordinated dance routine in the hallway. With her head cocked to the side, pigtails in furry scrunchies like a live Playboy Bunny perched on her head, and her mouth forming a perfect O that I don’t have to tell you what to do with, she was soft and pliant and pleading and new. And worst of all, catchy.

Britney and I were born the same year. She’s my starlet. And her singular achievement was that she, a child, managed to sell child porn to other children. Unlike Madonna, who came out with guns blazing, Britney prostrated herself before her peers, and they licked their lips. Madonna was a woman. She was in charge. She hung out at Danceteria with tranny club queens and sang about having orgasms and her first single was all about exhorting a wallflower type to get on the floor, where she could show off her moves. Britney cried. A lot. And when she wasn’t crying, she was asking you to discipline her like she was some kind of wayward youth, which is, after all, precisely what she was. She came to us like an overgrown mouseketeer, managed by pedophilic hacks who liked the lingering close-ups on her teary eyes and seemed to think of Ace of Base as the pinnacle of dance pop. I remember sparring with my male friends about Schoolgirl Barbie Britney. She’s not beautiful, I protested, not weird-looking or off-kilter in any way. She’s not mature. She could go to our school! She looks like any of these other cheerleaders, wandering the hallways, ripe for the plucking. She’s just . . . available. But that was it, my friend Dan kindly explained to me. Didn’t I get it? He liked Britney because she was there.

And so we come back to Monica. No one is more available than an intern. They’re always just . . . around. In the background, at the copier, by the coffee machine, on the receiving line, replaceable, and replaced. They go about their duties for the busy powerful man like a parade of sashaying career-oriented starlets—right there! In his office! (It’s convenient, to be sure, to be able to genuinely desire whatever is put in front of you. It’s also the nature of consumer culture.) Britney was like a magician, the way she transferred so much libidinal energy to that little tartan piece of fabric. Monica never did manage to do the same for the beret and the sartorially vague “blue dress,” but then again, she didn’t have so many people working with her. If she had, they would have told her that getting into handbags was a fatal mistake. She only confused the “brand.”

Britney asked you to smack her and Bill came on Monica’s dress, but he didn’t have sexual relations with that woman and Britney was a virgin. There was just one constant in that topsy-turvy world: a little girl needs protection. But me, I needed a job, and a few months after buying that slinky black skirt, I got myself hired at the very same Banana Republic. I found myself on a shift with Jeff, and the next thing I knew we were sitting across from each other at On The Border on something that bore far too much resemblance to a date. It was awkward. I was worried about my homework; Jeff was worrying about getting into my pants. We just didn’t have that much in common. I had to ditch the giant bouquet of flowers in the trash can in the parking lot so my parents wouldn’t ask me where I had been, and then—this part took longer—dodge his phone calls. This was especially tricky, because Jeff also had a job at Merrill Lynch (weird, right? Why did he work at the Banana Republic?) and we had caller ID, and no one could figure out why I was getting so many calls from Merrill Lynch. The end came when Jeff asked me to meet him in a hotel room and I was like, What is wrong with you? Why can’t you find someone your own age? Even as a teenager, I knew that teenagers were boring. The very fact that a grown-up who ought to have been able to find another grown-up wanted to spend time with a kid made me know that there was something deeply, troublingly amiss. Jeff, I decided, was a loser. I wanted to be with someone else, anyone else. Someone who didn’t just happen to be there.

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