The Britney Spears debacle has managed to pierce the veil of my all-consuming (though involuntary) focus on the applicability of the parol evidence rule, primarily through sheer, unavoidable, repetition. In all honesty, however, Ms. Spears' case has long nagged at me for another reason--the way in which it encapsulates the tendency of our media, and our culture more generally, to rationalize the bad conduct of white women in ways that will render them "blameless."
I do not know Ms. Spears, and I have been as irritated by the strangers who would presume to judge her harshly as by those inclined to spout endless excuses on her behalf. She may well suffer from post-partum depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or any combination of the above or some other form(s) of mental illness; not being a therapist, of the professional or armchair variety, I can't speculate about her mental health.
Nor am I suggesting that genuine mental illness, in and of itself, is somehow not "real" and cannot provide a genuine explanation for aberrant behaviors. What I am referring to is the use of mental illness (or abuse, or any other concept) as a means of reducing Ms. Spears' culpability for her behavior and garnering her sympathy instead of blame.
Many in the public insist that Britney "must be crazy," because she has behaved erratically and irresponsibly, at least as the media as has portrayed her. But having grown up with a mother who was a therapist, and who treated many addicts, I know that perfectly "sane" junkies and alcoholics behave in similarly erratic and irresponsible ways when it comes to their children and their lives in general. It is atypical for the public to express much sympathy for the average addict-mother who treats her children like possessions, to be alternately "loved" and utilized as a cudgel in order to manipulate family and friends to do their bidding when they would otherwise be inclined to wash their hands of the ne'er do well.
Yet whether it be Britney Spears, Susan Smith, Karla Faye Tucker, Paula Yates or Mary Winkler (all the latter of whom, of course, committed horrific crimes), the American public seems more inclined to look for ways to excuse white women of responsibility for their crimes, than to hold them responsible in keeping with our general "get tough on crime" resolve. This disconnect is particularly jarring when it comes to the differing treatment of black and white mothers.
For instance, though white women are marginally more likely to use drugs while pregnant, black women are substantially more likely to have their newborns tested for drug exposure. Similarly, black women are also significantly more likely to have the care of their children investigated, to be adjudicated "negligent," and to have their custody of their children either suspended or terminated as a result.
Above all, and in a not at all unrelated point, the portrayal of black women's "bad behavior," is distinctly different from that accorded white women. First of all, black women are generally ignored as individuals by our media and our culture. Instead, our presence is reduced to purportedly representative stereotypical imagery, that permits our individual existences (and narratives) to be eliminated from public view. Thus, when a black women engages in wrong-doing (or, all too often, even when she does not) or is victimized, there is no effort made to "figure out" why she may have done what she did or to consider how her victimization may have come to be. Her blackness is considered explanation enough for bad behavior (just as her blackness becomes irrelevant when she does something good--then, we "just happen to be black), and her blackness renders her victimization invisible, or even culpable.
Secondly, the process is in many ways reversed for white women--their images are the primary focus of our media and culture, and anything "bad" that happens in their lives (whether it is done to them or by them) requires intensive examination, analysis, and explanation. Thus, white female wrong-doers are almost always portrayed as suffering from some sort of mental or emotional illness, and white female victims are typically sanitized to the point of sainthood. Essentially, white women are always "victims," always blameless, regardless of their conduct and its consequences for others. Admittedly, some white feminists have struggled with this imagery, recognizing that the downside of being placed on a pedestal is a severe restriction of mobility. But most white women have either blithely embraced or silently accepted the benefits of presumed purity, the presumed purity which is the bedrock of white supremacy. This presumption of purity is the implicit fount from which sympathy for white "bad girls" in popular culture, from the "Runaway Bride" to Lindsay Lohan to Paris Hilton, beneficently flows.
And this imagery has powerful consequences for black women of which we must be aware, particularly since we have historically been posited as the white woman's "impure" foil--the mule who carries the burdens of all the stereotypes about feminine badness that infect our patriarchal culture, while white women are purported to embody all that our culture has determined to be feminine "good": she is the good mother vs. our bad mother, the good wife vs. our bad wife, the lady vs. our whore, June Cleaver vs. Sapphire.
My point isn't that we should view white women as the "enemy, but that we should understand how our culture perpetuates images of white vs. black womanhood that are false and destructive--and that we must acknowledge the extent to which white women not only benefit from this false dichotomy, but do so willingly. Just as we have had to face the destructive role that DBRBM play in black communities, we must also face the fact that others among our supposed "natural" allies are not always on our side, and may be unwilling to forgo their own relative privilege in order to take on the challenge of forging a healthier society for all of us. As black women, we must always remember to place our own interests first, and to carefully analyze the motivations of those who would claim a share of our efforts, while rejecting any part of our struggles.