When Britney Spears’ Crossroads was released 20 years ago, it was deeply undervalued and misunderstood for its stark and careful depiction of some darker sides of the female experience – crucial for a young audience looking up to a musical icon as they came of age themselves. Hollie Geraghty looks back on what we can take from the soul-searching road trip on its pivotal anniversary.
In December last year, just weeks after the US opened to UK tourists again, I flew across the Atlantic to embark on a road trip of America’s West coast. “We need to put our feet in the Pacific Ocean,” I told my stateside friend who drove us about 1000 miles. I borrowed this symbolic milestone from Crossroads, the 2002 Britney Spears film about three high school friends who embark on a life-changing road trip from Georgia to Los Angeles. After countless screenings at sleepovers and several rewatches in my 20s, the poetic simplicity of such a dream always stayed with me. But later, the same character who makes this wish tearfully delivers a significantly less hopeful line: “It’s no big deal. It happens to girls all the time.”
As a pre-teen, sexual assault was a subject matter I have never been exposed to in a film before. I had seen women be harassed and forced into kissing men, but I had never heard a character speak about rape. “I’m from a trailer park, I got drunk and got in his car,” Mimi says when asked why she didn’t go to the police. Her story offers a sobering plotline in a film predominantly sold on Spears’ debut feature role.
But when audiences flocked to see the pop sensation in what was supposed to be an innocuous road trip movie, it came as a surprise that the story also addressed virginity, teenage pregnancy, abandonment and body image. As a hellish era of intrusive press and celebrity objectification was beginning to rear its ugly head – during which Spears became a primary target – Crossroads was a pivotal tale of female empowerment while sensitively addressing difficult aspects of the female experience in a film guaranteed to draw younger audiences.
Each woman is battling their own demons. Kit is desperate for the affection of her uninterested college fiancé. Mimi, who is pregnant and considering adoption, is set on entering a record deal competition to “get out of this crappy town”. Lucy (Spears) wants to reconnect with her mother in Arizona who walked out on her when she was three. Coincidentally, she also has an overbearing father who tries to dictate her life, pushing her away from music and towards medicine, meaning Crossroads regained relevancy last year as Spears fought to end her conservatorship enforced by her real father.
However, the mother figures in Crossroads offer the primary source of parental turmoil. When Lucy arrives on her mother’s doorstep, hopeful and optimistic about rekindling their relationship, she instead meets an emotionally vacant woman who tells her she was a mistake. She repeatedly addresses her in a formal tone, attempting to dissociate herself from her daughter while calling her young son “sweetie” on the phone in the same scene. Not only does it subvert the expectation of a reconciliation, but it approaches the concept of maternal abandonment. Kit also reveals that she has a complicated relationship with her own mother, remembering being bullied by her as a child for being fat. She also alludes to her mum’s narcissistic traits when she notes that “being prettier than my mama is even more unacceptable.”
Kit instead looks for validation in her elusive fiancé, whose story intersects with Mimi’s trauma. When Mimi and Kit arrive at his doorstep in LA, Kit learns he’s not only cheating on her, but that he’s the one who raped Mimi and is the father of her baby. Mimi falls down the apartment’s stairs when she tries to escape the confrontation, causing her to miscarry. It’s unclear if the rapist even realises what he’s done, unphased in facing his victim again. But Mimi is forced to relive the ordeal, and loses her baby in the process. This also addresses something films like Promising Young Woman have reemphasised in recent years, that rape can look very different to the anonymous assailants and dark alley stereotypes often perpetuated over the last 20 years. Not to mention that even now, only 20 per cent of college-aged victims actually report sexual violence to law enforcements, with studies also finding survivors often know the attacker.
The inclusion of darker subject matter had much to offer younger viewers, and director Tamra Davis also recalled test screenings performing exceptionally well with female audiences. But this notion was distorted by critics more concerned by how much skin a star with such status should be showing. Early in the film, Lucy and her lab partner Henry are moments away from losing their virginity in a pact they agreed to fulfil before college. Henry, terrified of the prospect of going to college as a virgin, pleads they still do it even when Lucy questions if it’s right. She decides against it and instead loses her virginity to Ben. “Are you sure?” he asks, moments before it happens. This simple line, asking consent, is significant. It also refrains from oversexualising an important coming-of-age moment, in stark contrast to the first attempt in which Lucy wears matching pink underwear and plays ‘Let’s Get It On’ by Marvin Gaye, trying to live up to what they think sex should look like.
But these moments, along with the opening in which Lucy gleefully dances in her bedroom to Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart’ in knickers, a vest and a cowboy hat, were dissected for all the wrong reasons upon release. “Go see Crossroads if you want to hear Britney sing or see her wear next-to-nothing,” Chris Kaltenbach wrote for The Baltimore Sun. IGN’s Jeremy Conrad said that “casual ‘admirers’ of the singer would probably, uh, enjoy her hopping up and down on her bed in her undies or the scene of her in her pink bra and panties”. But others thought Spears was guilty of the opposite. “Has a film rated PG-13 for sexual content ever delivered less on its promise?” Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote. “Sexless Britney is blasé Britney,” Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez said. The star power was blinding to the point where there was an inability to detach Spears from her status as a sex symbol, and as a result the poignancy of these scenes was widely dismissed. Crossroads writer and Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes recognised this public perception of Spears in a 2016 interview with Vice. “She was a person, and I don't think anyone at the time was looking at her – because it's such a misogynistic society – as a person," she said.
But while Spears’ potential to influence a certain demographic was lost on critics, Crossroads resonated with fans. When she performs her own song ‘I’m Not a Girl Not Yet a Woman’ in the film’s final scene, the artist sings about feeling “caught in the middle”. It’s a poignant lyric describing both a popstar on the cusp of womanhood and viewers coming of age at the same time. Crossroads not only deftly handled challenging topics, but it presented them in a way that both educated and empowered its young audiences. When I listen to that song, I still feel that pre-teen turmoil. It brings me back to watching Crossroads for the first time, feeling safe with its subject matter and enlightened for knowing about them. It reminds me of all the girls who grappled with the darker sides of the female experience – and still made it to the Pacific Ocean.
Hollie Geraghty (@hollie_geraghty) is a freelance culture journalist and copywriter with words in Rolling Stone UK, NME, The Guardian and Dance Magazine. When she’s not rewatching 80s dance flicks, she can be found catching up on the classics