How Britney became a Gay Icon
And why, as gay men, we so often call a straight woman a gay icon
A monumental event has occurred in my life: I saw the legendary Miss Britney Spears live! The setting? Brighton Gay Pride Festival 2018.
Brighton Pride announced Britney as their headline act in January this year and, needless to say, the gays lost their shit. First release tickets flew out of the door and Britney ultimately wowed a record-breaking crowd of over 57,000 with her infamous Vegas set. All the excitement makes total sense, Britney is a gay icon after all. Most people in my age group will testify to her being a sort of childhood hero. And that got me thinking - why exactly? Not why is she famous (duh - she was born to make us happy) but why, how and when did she become so beloved by the gays in particular? This then formed a larger enquiry in my mind - why do gay men so heartily deify straight or bisexual women as their figureheads, their icons, their leaders?
Where to begin? Let’s first lay out the paradigm. Think of the last season of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars and the Diva’s Live episode: the perfect encapsulation of gay men rejoicing in popular straight female entertainers as icons, from Mariah Carey to Diana Ross to Celine Dion. Sticking with Drag Race (just because it’s such a gay behemoth these days), think of how often the show has paid homage to gay icons like Britney, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Cher and even the Kardashians, when only a handful of times have they paid tribute to actual gay male celebrities like Andy Warhol and John Waters. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I am interested in what’s happening here. Let’s begin with probably the most obvious conclusion: strong women = strong gay men. This isn’t a simple equation, a lot must be considered here and a great starting point is something that New York drag queen Pandora Boxx had to say in "Spilling the Tea", a drag queen roundtable discussion with Billboard:
‘I think the reason a lot of gay men idolise very fierce women as performers is because in our society there is something against femininity, especially if its in a man - we’re very against feminine power. And so we kind of see us being empowered by women being strong.’
The idea that gay men feel a strong sense of identification with certain women seems fairly evident: in a world where femininity is so carefully and inexorably politicised, it follows that both gay men and women who exude this quality would be inclined towards some overlap in identity. A very feminine man is condemned, exiled and punished by the straight male kyriarchy, meanwhile a very feminine woman is coveted, dominated and appropriated by the same system (more on that later). So a very basic connection could be that we simply see ourselves in a feminine woman like Britney Spears because we are both “tarred with the brush” (for want of a better expression). This leads me onto my next point.
When asked why she has such a loyal gay male following, Olivia Newton-John once said “I am not a threat.” This has many implications. You may have encountered, as I have, that one mother of your good judy who supports and adores gay men in a way that perhaps your own parents don’t quite do: she’s in Queer As Folk as Vince’s mother, Hazel, for instance. Firstly, a figure like this provides the rejected gay man with a perfect substitute mother, allowing him to fantasise about receiving acceptance from his own mother. Secondly, whether she be a mother to you or a friend, straight women like this often provide an exquisite source of comfort and joy to the lost gay male figure that is only strengthened by the fact that we share an oppressor: straight male society. Think of Cher — a straight female celebrity who has often been described as embodying female autonomy in a male-dominated industry (according to wikipedia). Cher’s beauty, talent and power have become incredibly important to the gay community because we identify with her struggle to assert herself and demand a space in a world that seeks to either possess or punish her. This idea can be extrapolated thanks to a brilliant article by Laurence Barber on why actresses matter so much to gay men. Barber draws a parallel between the liberation of gay men and the liberation of women - a journey that began at the start of a turbulent century of civil rights adjustments and which still continue today:
‘The fact that the sharp right turn towards social repression in the 1930s affected both gay man and women, then, is likely no coincidence. When it’s impossible to see yourself on screen, you seek out the next best thing. And at the time, the closest gay men could come were famous women, and the most famous women were, typically, actresses whose job it was to perform at all times. This is something, naturally, that queer people identify very strongly with.’
This insight sits nicely with my previous point about strong women being a totem for strong gay men, but it also segways into my third idea: we want to be them. Did I mention me and my friends all dressed as Britney for pride? Why? Well, I can’t speak for my friends but for me it was a full circle moment in which my childhood self, obsessed with Britney Spears, the Spice Girls and Christina Aguilera, got to not only see Britney perform “live”, but also be her for the day. Sex and gender have come to be considered overlapping and spectral, and that understanding is key to the homosexual identity. In some way, gay men do want to be these strong women. Not only do we sometimes dress like them, dance like them and behave like them, but we also admire their power, talent and strength, and maybe even envy their attractiveness to straight men, and so we seek to channel that. Not all female celebrities are gay icons in this way; it takes more than good hair and great style, true gay icons are smart, funny and original. Pamela Anderson isn’t a gay icon because she doesn’t appeal to gay men in the way that people like Kylie Minogue, Janet Jackson and Bette Davis do. Why is this? It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is the magic combination of a gay icon but I believe its encompasses everything about the icon, from their journey to their personality and their body of work.
Perhaps the most famous example of a gay icon is Judy Garland. There are many important reasons for this — including the aforementioned — but one key reason I believe may also help us to understand Britney as a gay icon as well. Judy’s struggle against adversity in her life underscores her celebrity with a relatable pathos that many gay men identify with. From early exposure to drugs and alcohol to a string of terrible marriages, Judy’s personal life was plagued with abuse of all kinds. Her phenomenal early success gave way to a very public fall from grace later in life that involved rejection by her family and destitution. In 2007, it looked like Britney was slipping into a similar pattern of behaviour owing to the breakdown of her marriage, an impending custody battle and her escalating drug and alcohol use. Both stars already had a considerable gay fanbase, but it was their struggles with personal problems and addictions which really affiliated them to the gay lifestyle, which has long been associated with similar issues like substance abuse, familial discord and mental illness. The best case scenario here is that gay men are able to empathise with and admire stars who tackle deep personal problems during their careers; the worst case, and we know this to be true, is that we somehow get off on those women when they flirt with disaster. It makes us live, hunny! So, by false “empowerment”, Britney and Judy to reign supreme in their hot-messiness.
My last point is that there simply aren’t many (actually LGBT) gay icons. Before writing this article, I struggled to compose a list of positively-impactful, openly-LGBT and high-profile gay individuals. The pressure to stay closeted has always been a grisly phantom that haunts the careers of many a gay man or woman. In the case of figures like George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Jodie Foster or Liberace, I couldn’t really call them out and proud; James Baldwin, Harvey Milk and Audre Lorde aren’t widely-recognised enough; and I wasn’t sure that figures like Gianni Versace, Neil Patrick Harris and Graham Norton had had all that positive an impact on the community. Once again, when it’s impossible to see yourself on screen, you seek out the next best thing!
Honourable mentions in this article include the idea that gay men are obsessed with someone like Beyoncé as a gay icon because we are obsessed with our own physical self-image. Beyoncé’s appeal, at least in part, focuses on the physical perfection of her body, which as gay men we are conditioned to think about with regards to ourselves. We may see our own physical inadequacies or successes reflected in Beyoncé, or indeed any other body queen, and find cause to uphold her as an icon. The reason we do this less with straight men like The Rock or lesbian women like Ruby Rose is because they do not share the same sexual object choice as us. And gay men like
Shawn Mendes Tom Daley are just for us to thirst over. As well as this, there is also a prevailing sense of obligation that as a gay man you have to adore certain women. Of course, this is just an inherited and socially constructed groupthink but it does account for a lot.
So how did Britney become a gay icon? It is important to note that unlike Gaga and Madonna, Britney has done fairly little to support her gay fans directly, yet we continue to adore for her a multitude of reasons. She is super feminine and sexy, her music inspires and entertains us and, let’s face it, she’s been through a lot, guys #relatable. Maybe our adoration is a little ironic (don’t even get me started on ironic gay icons!) but I think those tears shed at Brighton Pride were real. So there you have it, a reasoned account of why we, as gay men, choose to so often uphold straight women as our icons. Comment below if you found any of this particularly convincing or if you think I need to schnap out of it!