April 26 (Bloomberg) — May I say a few words in defense of Britney?
Los Angeles County social workers just concluded that it was an accident when Britney Spears's baby fell from his high chair and ended up with a head injury. Spears also seems to have gotten away with carrying infant Sean Preston in the front seat, his head visible beside the steering wheel, while his mother drove away from photographers a few months ago.
There's the sense that it is only a matter of time before doe-eyed Britney is caught again in the headlights of motherhood.
I've thought about this because I know from experience that any parent can fail at any second. What's more, car seats are hateful devices designed to distract mothers when they are thinking about important things like their work or getting away from nasty paparazzi.
But I've also thought about it because we have girls, and Britney is one of two figures that loom on the daughterscape. The other is Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote of her pioneer family transcending hardship in Kansas in the 1870s.
My girls don't exactly like Britney, but they certainly know who she is. They know that Britney has bright blond hair. They know that Britney is special friends with her mom, Lynne. That she is turning 25. That she is sexy, and that the market has rewarded her; not many stars have a greatest-hits album before they are 25.
If there is an appeal it is that Britney has always been allowed to do as she likes. As she sings in one of her hits, "Overprotected": "I need to make mistakes just to learn who I am." For girls, this is an inspiring manifesto.
But what has also become clear to my daughters is that Britney doesn't really know what she wants — "Oops! I Did It Again." So they find Britney a bore. The main conclusion around our house is that the rest of us owe Britney eternal tribute for success, whether we like it or not.
I asked my 12-year-old son if his generation had its own Britney. Perhaps Lindsay Lohan? No, he corrected me grimly. "Britney is the Britney of my generation."
Laura is a surprise competitor. Someone gave us the "Little House" series, which I found a shade tendentious. Laura lies still as her father pulls the covered wagon across the swelling river. Laura is not friends with her mother Caroline; in fact she is afraid of her. Laura sits docilely at the log table even though the napkin is tied too tightly around her neck, and she does not speak until spoken to.
But the girls took to Laura right away. They moved swiftly through the Laura books to Laura audiocassettes to the television series "Little House on the Prairie."
Whereas Britney pretends to be spunky, Laura really is. Laura can knit and knows how to take care of her ponies. Laura's sister Mary goes blind, and Laura is willing to serve as "eyes for Mary." Laura's Pa plays "Pop Goes the Weasel" on his fiddle, a better song in the end, after all, than "Baby One More Time."
In "Little Town on the Prairie," another of the books in the series, Laura attends a Fourth of July celebration and thinks about becoming an adult. "This is what it means to be free," she thinks to herself. "It means, you have to be good."
It is a preachy message, but one the girls liked nonetheless. My older daughter mapped out Laura's travels from Kansas to Grasshopper Country in Minnesota to Dakota Territory.
Britney Versus Laura
She made me curious enough to get my own books about the Wilders, and to learn that Rose, Laura's baby, grew up to become a writer. She helped her mother with her books, including that Fourth of July passage. In our home contest between Britney and Laura, Laura is the hot one.
Nor, as it turns out, is my house alone. A school friend of my daughter's visited one of Laura's houses on a trip, a fact my daughters envy. Amazon currently lists 457 products when you type in "Laura Ingalls Wilder." That's more than half the 812 listed in connection with the unstoppable Britney.
The Britney-versus-Laura battle is even replicated within one company: Mattel Inc. Mattel makes Barbie, the Britney of my own generation. But back in the late 1990s it purchased American Girl LLC, which sells a series of 18-inch period dolls, each complete with a fictional life story about confronting adversity through study and substance. American Girl's motto is a softer version of Laura's manifesto: "Follow your inner star."
This past week American Girl made its West Coast debut in a Los Angeles shopping center less than an hour from Spears's enclave in Malibu. Maybe Britney will strap Sean Preston in the car seat and head on over.
No one in my house expects she will, because she's Britney. Britney doesn't like arbitrary rules imposed on her, and few can blame her. But she probably has no inner star, either.
So she may make yet other mistakes: "Oops!...I did it again." Still, the impulse is to forgive. Even children seem to understand that if Britney turns out be a poor parent, she's not the only one to blame. Britney didn't become Britney all by herself. The rest of us made her that way.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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