Alongside the revelation of shocking details about Britney Spears' conservatorship putting her in the headlines, there has also been much discussion about how the media has treated the singer over the years. Amidst this discussion, an odd piece of fiction about Spears published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals has recently resurfaced on social media. The short fiction piece has been called out by many people as perpetuating toxic attitudes towards both Britney Spears and women in STEM.
Published in January 2008, a few months after the release of her iconic album Blackout, the article is titled When Britney Spears comes to my lab. The story is set in an alternate universe where Spears chooses to attend classes at Louisiana State University (LSU), eventually going on to become a researcher in the field of diabetes.
It’s not out of the ordinary for journals to publish gag articles, and the short story was part of Nature’s science fiction section called Futures. However, some people were astounded that this specific piece made it into Nature. Many who read this story called it out as sexist, with one comment on the article describing it as “the sort of misogynistic drivel that drives women out of science.”
The article opens with: “When Britney Spears comes to LSU she'll be wearing a silver strapless stretch top that doesn't show too much of her belly (unless she actually moves her arms), and black Capri pants with a little dip in the waistband.” It is followed by the sentence “Cutting up dead animals in the student lab will give her an odd, heady rush that she'll find slightly disorientating and mildly pleasant.”
The narrative remains fixated on the protagonist’s clothing throughout, also saying that “she will co-host the Grammys wearing a semi-transparent version of a graduation gown and PhD hood,” and “A particularly harrowing incident involving an autotitrator and a Lycra stretch top will induce her to dress more conservatively.”
The article contains other controversial lines such as “the first time she's asked about her research on Entertainment Tonight she'll mispronounce the word 'adipocyte',” and “her yearly FBI report will show that the majority of her stalkers have PhDs.”
Just over a month after the original article's publication, a response titled Future stars of the lab need realistic role models was also published in Nature. The author of the response states their disappointment that the journal published the story, stating that “Your article pokes fun at the pop singer, but it also indirectly undermines the dedication of real young women starting out on a research career.”
IFLScience approached Nature for comment. Helen Pearson, Chief Magazine Editor for Nature said that "This 2008 article, published in Futures, the science fiction section of Nature, was recently flagged to us. We understand the concerns raised and would like to apologise for any offense caused. We have contacted the author of the piece regarding next steps."
IFLScience also approached the author of the story, Vincent LiCata, a professor of biological sciences at LSU, for comment. He responded that "I'm actually rather sad that the article has gotten recent negative reactions, as I wrote it as a humorous but positive piece about Britney Spears."
"The piece was originally written for 2 reasons: 1) I believed (and still believe) that Britney would be a strong research student due to her work ethic and her creativity, and since she was raised in Louisiana she would have gone to LSU had she decided to go to university, and 2) I had talked to several high school science students about 'how to get more teens interested in science' and several said 'have someone like Britney Spears promote it'. Britney's performing image at that time, unfortunately strongly focused on the 'male gaze' reaction and objectification of her, and so those elements are where all of the attempted satire of the piece comes from, but this humor is clearly inappropriate. I've been trying to reply to any people who have contacted me and let them know that I sincerely apologize for it," LiCata told IFLScience.
"The positive and non-satirical elements of the piece include her numerous scientific successes in the piece (PhD from Harvard, postdoc at the Pasteur Institute, heart of a dedicated scientist, discovery of a new treatment for diabetes, among several others – more success than many academics in general), and the piece attempted to accurately describe her following an ideal, high-achiever academic career path. But, my attempts at humor about her then media image are obviously offensive. I am actually saddened that some people are assuming it was a negative or attack piece, as that not only surprised me and was not my intention, but I was and still am a fan of Britney's work and own all of her albums.
"In summary, overall the piece was in large part intended to highlight that the talents needed to be a successful research scientist are not much different from those to be an influential artist, and that my opinion was that Britney could have excelled in both fields simultaneously, as the piece describes. Basically, I was trying to wrap what I saw as Britney's potential/imagined successes in academia and research (if she had actually chosen such a path), inside of the regrettable public/media perception of her at the time."