Passivity and the Pathology of Victimhood in Britney Spears' "...Baby, One More Time"

Francine DuBois

Issue 1 * Fall 1999

In her Top 10 hit ". . . Baby, One More Time," Britney Spears posits the song's persona as a passive naïf. Continual references to blindness and hitting metamorphose the song from a teen-targeted summer pop tune into ideology enslaving young women into dangerous, constrictive views of relationships--and themselves. Using feminist and Lacanian theory allows us to see the speaker's entrance into the Symbolic and the problems thereof.

The speaker rues over a terminated "love" affair. She (although arguable, this critic finds the speaker's notion of and adherence to gender roles distinctly "female") supplicates for a "sign" of his (again, heterosexuality is an assumption made for the sake of discussion) persevering proclivity. This sign is to come in the form of a "hit." References to the speaker's death ("killing me") are frequent, as are other indications of mistreatment.

The speaker begins addressing "baby," her lover. She claims ignorance of the troubled relationship, thus displaying her quiescent predisposition: "how was I supposed to know / that somethin' wasn't right here." Because of her passivity, she appears as an innocent victim. The poor, helpless speaker is not to be blamed for anything. One might picture a little girl shrugging her shoulders and asking, "what could I do?" when caught eating a whole cake. This denial of responsibility is commonly seen on The Jerry Springer Show when someone maintains, "I didn't mean to have an affair. It just happened." Placing the locus of control outside oneself causes one to naturally become a victim.

Yet the speaker seems apprehensive in her inveterate paralyzed role. She professes, "I shouldn't have let you go": are we to conclude that she dismissed her lover for no reason at all? No, she is not active in the relationship; she has made that clear. Instead, she now affirms she should have asserted some dynamic action in the anti-synergetic affiliation. Instead of considering the future or making proactive plans, she rather lives in the past--an illusionary past.

The speaker's lack of foresight is emphasized by continued references to sight. The speaker's lover moves "out of sight," perhaps into a future that the speaker cannot imagine. She also denounces her lover because he "got her blinded." Is this a reference to substantive abuse? We cannot be sure. If we interpret it literally or figuratively, we end up with similar results. She cannot see because of this man: he has transmogrified her ability to envision the future into nothing--all she can stare into an abyss.

Her blindness is doubly troublesome when we consider her inability to think. By tying her capacity for thought to the presence of her lover, she is now stranded without brainpower in his absence: "when I'm not with you I lose my mind." Whether she is thought-deprived without him or simply crazy is not the issue: she has so completely given herself away that she no longer functions independently. She even claims erroneously that she "the reason I breathe is you"; no, the reason she breathes is instinctual. She has tied all processes of her body, on conscious and unconscious levels, to her lover. No wonder she is so helpless without him. She claims her "loneliness" kills her, but it is instead the fact that she has let herself depend on her lover as an unborn fetus depends on its mother (though it is she who calls her lover "baby").

Lacanian theory supports a reading focusing on vision and childhood development. Lacan's three main requirements for movement from the Imaginary to the Symbolic are the mirror phase, use of language, and the Oedipus complex (Haywood 280). The persona is struggling with all the concepts; she is on the cusp of entering the Symbolic. She has recognized lack, necessary for "growing up" in a Lacanian sense. Her sorrow comes having no one to care for, the job a mother usually fulfills in childhood. Her desire to develop another relationship that would replace that broken affiliation suggests the possibility of an Electra complex. Of course, Lacan cared little about determining Woman's place in his theory. Let us not discount the legend of Oedipus Rex though. Instead of knowing too much ending in death and blindness, here Spears warns us (by example) of the girl who knew too little. The song reeks with overtones of blindness, sexuality, and tragedy. The dissolution of the relationship reduces her to a blabbering baby in need of Mother. She recognizes lack, has the language to express that desire, and the need to find someone of the opposite sex to care for her: she has entered the Symbolic--but she dares not progress beyond that first step.

Vagueness in ". . . Baby, One More Time" adds to the perceived passivity of the speaker. A confident speaker would likely clarify what "somethin' wasn't right" means. Did the other person leave the cap off the toothpaste? Did the other person murder a family member? A range of alternatives exists; but instead let us recognize that this ambiguity is crucial. The speaker's reluctance to specify indicates not only her inability to know or realize what is wrong, but also suggests that it does not matter what caused the relationship to go awry. The relationship, already on the verge of disaster, needed little more than a touch to go over the edge into division.

Not only is the speaker unable to grasp the problems that exist(ed) in their relationship, she is also unable to propose solutions. "Show me / how you want it to be. / Tell me, baby, / 'cause I need to know now," she begs her lover. She cannot come up with ideas of her own, such as "why don't I develop a spine and a personality" or "why don't you not see other people anymore." The speaker does not even own a vocabulary to formulate such thoughts; instead, she can only seek guidance like a preschooler asking to use the restroom. "There's nothing that I wouldn't do," she asserts. She claims "it's not the way I planned it," but it seems unlikely her "plan" would work to begin with. This critic imagines it involved a castle, a beautiful princess, a handsome prince, and happily ever after. "How was [she] supposed to know" that such fairy tales are products of her adherence to traditional notions of romance and women's roles therein?

The speaker's beliefs about women's roles fall into familiar power differentials. She blames her lover for her despondency and inability to see, think, or function, though she takes no responsibility for the failed relationship nor any possible solutions for repair. She leaves all that messy thinking to her lover. She simply waits (probably by a phone) for him to tell her what to do.

She accents this passivity with tones of domestic violence. She asks for a "sign. / Hit me, baby, one more time." Another hit means another ounce of love has reached its destination. She measures her lover's affection in bruises. These contusions are the only visual evidence she has of their love, and remember how important sight (an ability now lost by her lover's absence) is to the speaker. By asking to be hit, she is volunteering to be completely subservient, now physically as well as emotionally and mentally (previously granted), to his every whim. "There's nothing that I wouldn't do," she asserts. She is begging for him to control her very existence.

Crucially important is the official title: it does not feature "hit me," but instead utilizes an ellipsis to indicate omission. Why did Spears (and/or those controlling her record publication) feel the need to call the song "...Baby, One More Time"? Did she/they suspect the outrage this song might create? By attempting to erase the "hit me," someone tried to cover up the overtones of violence. Yet simply changing the title cannot efface the masochism and vapidity of the song's speaker.

The speaker's complete yield of self to a potentially abusive lover is deleterious for teens still forming an identity, especially those seeking guidance and advice about sexual relationships. The effects of Spears' song remain to be seen; yet this critic feels that the message sent is a harrowing one. The speaker's recognition of self-worth cannot eventuate too quickly.

Works Cited

Haywood, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. Routledge: London, 1996.

Spears, Britney. "...Baby, One More Time." ...Baby One More Time. Audio CD. BMG: 1999.

Works Consulted

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Tavistock: London, 1977.