Britney Spears and ‘Rocky Sullivan’
(September 2007)

On the surface, it looked like just the next sad stage in Britney Spears’ accelerating decline. The former pop superstar was supposed to be the featured wow at the prime time MTV Video Music Awards, singing her comeback single and dancing like the old—that is, young—teen eye-candy that made Bob Dole’s dog bark in that Pepsi commercial. After a seemingly endless string of bizarre embarrassments since her divorce, including shaving her head, attacking a car, and regularly exposing her lack of underpants, Britney’s performance was promoted as her long-awaited return to stardom and sanity, as well as the most important performance of her career. What shocked onlookers saw instead was an enervated, detached, awkward performer who seemed unable to dance, smile or even lip-sync. The pathetic act would have guaranteed an exit from an early round of American Idol. It was as if Judy Garland had walked out for her big comeback in Carnegie Hall, belched, botched the lyrics of “Over the Rainbow” and passed out.

Whoever allowed Britney to do this to herself is either cruel or incompetent, I thought. And then it hit me! This was a heroic act, an act of self-sacrifice that should be praised, not ridiculed! Britney was emulating Rocky Sullivan, the memorable thug played by Jimmy Cagney in the 1938 classic film, “Angels With Dirty Faces.”

Although he’s a crook and a thief, Rocky is also a hero to a gang of kids in his old neighborhood, and they aspire to grow up to be just like him. When Rocky is convicted of murder and condemned to die (for plugging fellow bad-guy Humphrey Bogart), he vows to spit defiantly in his executioner’s eye, a brave rebel to the end. “Don’t do it, Rocky!” says his boyhood pal, Father Jerry Connelly (played by Pat O’Brien). “Don’t give those kids a reason to be bad like you.” Rocky laughs off the priest’s plea, but when it comes time to face the electric chair, Rocky turns blubbering coward, crying and screaming for mercy. The papers report that the tough guy turned chicken at the end, and his once adoring fans, “The Dead-End Kids,” react with disgust. He’s not their role-model any more. Only Father Connelly knows the truth: Rocky did the bravest thing imaginable. He sacrificed his reputation and dignity to show the boys that his life’s path was not one to follow. Rocky was a hero after all.

Maybe Britney is a hero too. If she had shown up for the award show as fit as Shakira, as sleek as Beyonce and with the abs of Janet Jackson, then danced with as much energy and precision as she had as a teen-ager and left her audience screaming for more, what would have been the message to the millions of aspiring Britneys, Lindsays and Paris Hiltons tuning in? It would have been: “See? I can party all night, abuse drugs and alcohol, have fun, fun, fun, and bounce back better than ever! Take THAT, parents, Republicans and prudes! Girl power! Being responsible is for losers!”

But perhaps some Jerry Connelly in her inner circle said, “Britney, if you go out there and show that you haven’t lost a thing, all of your young fans will be seduced into believing that being wild, crude and self-centered has no consequences. And they don’t have millions of dollars to live on like you do. The best thing you can do for this generation of girls is to go out there and stink up the joint. Look ravaged, confused, and middle-aged. Don’t lose that last 15 pounds. Stumble; let your eyes dart around like you’re terrified. The girls will reject you and your ridiculous, destructive life’s choices, and you will have finally done something to undo all the harm you have done to our culture and our youth by your abysmal conduct. I know you can do it! It’s the right thing to do.”

And that’s what Britney did.

All right, that’s probably not what happened. But we don’t really know, just like it’s not completely clear whether Rocky really turned “yellow” at the end or was just faking it for his admirers. Britney Spears, an exploited woman-child who never was taught how to do anything but perform, may be losing custody of her children soon, and seems to be an aimless has-been at the age of 25. She’s being trashed all over the media and the World Wide Web, which is not a healthy thing for a woman who has been showing signs of emotional illness. The least the Ethics Scoreboard can do is to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Britney Spears and Rocky Sullivan: ethics heroes.

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