“Whaddya think of Britney Spears? Hottie or trailer trash?” This was a question that came up in the conversational dregs of a well-oiled dinner party the other night. The question was addressed to me, so the gears in my cranium slipped and ground for a moment before I chose what seemed to be the better response.

“Hottie,” I declared, to howls of scorn from the assembled grad students.

The fact that highly educated adults are paying attention to teenybopper culture is a sure sign that Britneymania is cresting. On the newstands of better bookstores right now you’ll find the latest issue of Southern Cultures, with a cheesecake shot of the Louisiana native on its cover, and a lead essay examining how Britney exploits the rather outré conventions of Southern womanhood to fashion an image of a girl who is both sexpot and perpetual virgin.

I have never been a teenage girl, and I’ve not had much contact with any since I left college. Recognizing my ignorance of the beating hearts of today’s teenage girls, I decided that a little fieldwork was in order if I were to understand Britneymania. Venturing into cyberspace, I visited a Britney Spears chat room, but I found myself watching a surreal form of discourse scrolling up my screen, a text that in another century would have been Dadaist poetry. There was no narrative and no substantive discussion of Our Lady of the Bare Midriff, just random, disjointed fragments of chatter between people with handles like XNaUgHtyBoy69, Its Mr. Peeper and CandyGirl12275325. I suddenly doubted very much that these were adolescents at all, but a collection of pervs, pranksters and G-men, circling around each other with their coy impressions of 12-year-old girls. I bolted.

A more fruitful encounter occurred in realspace, on Valentine’s Day at a Durham restaurant, where I encountered four young ladies who were on a holiday night out: dinner, then a trip to the multiplex for I Am Sam. They were well-behaved and pleasant, but also at an age that they’re surely desperate to escape. Still trapped in braces and apparently dateless, they were easily embarrassed. I asked them about Britney. Four faces of four teenage girls lit up in unison, and melted my crabbed, cynical and culturally elitist heart. Could four sweet teenage girls be wrong? I resolved to look at Britney Spears through their eyes, and it was with an open heart that I attended the pop star’s new movie, Crossroads.

In the film, Britney plays Lucy, a sheltered, virginal high school valedictorian. (Although she’s an appealing and surprisingly good actress, Britney can no more pretend to be “Lucy” than Elvis could be taken for anyone else in his movies; henceforth, I’ll call her character “BritLu.”) When we meet BritLu, she is preparing to graduate at the top of her high school class. However, on this happy day she feels wan and empty. It seems that her academic accomplishments have been in the service of Daddy’s pleasure, not her own. Further darkening BritLu’s day is the prospect of losing her virginity to her geeky boyfriend, in a carefully planned assignation.

The scene of the abortive deflowering is actually the ugliest in the movie. While the filmmakers (the director is Tamra Davis, but the film is clearly a committee job) are trying to present BritLu’s responsible sexual behavior as an example that will bolster the resolve of good girls everywhere, the scene is staged for the delectation of boys and men. In a hotel room on graduation night, her pencil-necked boyfriend sits expectantly on the bed, while the supposedly virginal BritLu makes a Salome-like entrance, opening her robe to reveal blindingly pink lace underwear. Prancing toward the bed, her aggressively tanned skin making her look like a well-turned piece of sausage, Britney smiles, revealing hideously white choppers. The scene is disturbing, not only in its gross exploitation of Spears’ flesh, but in BritLu’s implausible self-assurance in the face of her first sexual experience. Fortunately, the scene is cut short when she backs out, asking of the young man, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life knowing that you did it first with your lab partner?”

Clearly, there are greater things than geeky lab partners in BritLu’s future, and she readily agrees to join two girls on a road trip to California, in a car being driven by an older male musician named Ben (Anson Mount). The trip west is undertaken at the instigation of Mimi (Taryn Manning), an aspiring singer who wants to audition in Los Angeles. Mimi is the school outcast, a working-class tough cookie who is beginning her adulthood with an unplanned pregnancy. The other companion is Kit (Zoe Saldana), queen of the school’s in-crowd bitches, who wants to visit her fiance at UCLA. As the good girl of this trio, BritLu is the most disinclined to take the trip, but then, she too has a mission out west: finding her long-lost mother in Arizona, despite the longstanding discouragement of her father (embarrassingly played by Dan Ackroyd).

As the two girlfriends, Manning and Saldana give the film’s best performances. The African-American Saldana is a high-cheekboned beauty who manages to transcend her cartoonish lines in the film’s early scenes to reveal a vulnerability underneath the hauteur. As Mimi, however, Manning has the most energy, looking a bit like Exene Cervenka of the 1980s punk band X. Playing the beauty and the outcast, Saldana and Manning represent two opposing poles of teenage girldom, or, as a recent writer on the subject defined it, the alpha and the beta. In this taxonomy, it’s left to BritLu to be the gamma girl, a type that is probably recognizable, and desirable, to the suburban teenagers who form so much of Britney’s constituency. Unlike the alphas and betas, the gamma girl does well in school, pleases her parents, and is too consumed with personal achievement to worry about being In or Out. But Spears and the film’s writers know that even gamma girls wanna have fun.

This setup helped me understand the Britney Identity. As an attractive, brainy and well-behaved girl, BritLu has the courage to defy her controlling father, and the confidence to control her own body–she is going to have sex when she is good and ready. BritLu doesn’t play dumb to be popular, doesn’t suffer from eating disorders or body image problems, doesn’t succumb to peer pressure, or get drunk at parties and get sexually abused by opportunistic boys. All of this, and she’s the singing and dancing queen of MTV, too! With her expert navigation of the shoals of adolescence, Britney, as a performer and in her incarnation as Lucy, represents an ideal role model for young girls. In her easy transcendence of society’s impossible demands, she’s nothing less than a Martha Stewart for the teenage set.

But such perfection has a price: Where, oh, where can a proper suitor for BritLu be found? Of course, that poor lab partner never had a chance. That leaves Ben, the musician with the permanent 36-hour stubble, who has been charged with driving three girls across the continent. This young man is set up as an antagonist to the girls (who believe him to be a murderer), but of course Ben is exactly the slightly wild, dimly dangerous and stickily sensitive type who gets marketed to teenage girls everywhere. But the screenwriters are too lazy to make this guy remotely sinister or even interesting. He’s a Mickey Rourke for the Seventeen crowd, stomping and mewling like a neutered pussycat until the movie’s third act calls for him to be BritLu’s Knight in Discreet Tattoos. First, Ben pens a limp melody line for a bit of poetry Lucy (but not Britney) has written, “Not a Girl, but Not Yet a Woman,” which happens to be Britney’s current radio single. Later, in the movie’s climax, as it were, he takes BritLu’s flower in a hotel room, with the waves of the mighty Pacific crashing to the shore and a view of the tangerine sunset over the horizon.

Pretty much everything in Crossroads happens in a predictable, formulaic fashion. It’s a female buddy movie, with those all-too-familiar scenes of movie characters riding through the desert in an open convertible, singing at the top of their lungs. Along the way, the girls overcome their differences and confront their demons, and BritLu breaks away from Daddy, finds a man of her own, and returns to her father as a newly independent woman.

But amid all of this comes a telling confrontation between BritLu and the mother who abandoned her. Spears reportedly concocted portions of the story, and I found myself wondering if we are getting a peek into the pop star’s inner life when she, as Lucy, appears before a cold, rejecting woman, begging for her love. This notion is not so far-fetched, considering that Mama Spears has guided her daughter’s career with a firm hand ever since Britney was a small girl. It’s a short leap to imagining the young Britney desperately trying to please her mother in audition after audition. However, the filmmakers are too committed to their hack ambitions to investigate this theme. Instead, they exploit it for a cheap tear, and move quickly to the next disposable moment.

Spears has let it be known that she wants to become the next Madonna, a star who is a phenomenon rather than a mere singer. The fact that Crossroads is so mediocre shouldn’t hinder that enterprise, since Madonna’s inability to find a good film project has had the effect of humanizing her. Still, based on what little of Spears’ personality is allowed to seep through in interviews and other relatively unscripted moments, she seems to lack Madonna’s intelligence, shrewdness and sense of the zeitgeist. It’s more likely that Britneymania will bite the dust in a year or two, after her eternal virgin pose becomes untenable, and a different performer takes her place in the hearts of America’s teenagers.

But then, I thought Madonna was finished back in 1986. EndBlock