Britney Spears uses the VMA stage to shock. Over the course of her career, she's taken MTV's Video Music Awards as an opportunity to strip down to a nude-colored ensemble, kiss Madonna on the mouth, and—in her most iconic performance—carry a giant albino python. The giant yellow snake, wrapped around the shoulders of this tiny starlet, became an instant sensation.
As Jonathan Van Meter wrote for Vanity Fair two months after the performance, "She looked like a cross between Jane of the Jungle and a belly dancer. There was no real news to go with [the coverage of this event], because that was not their point." The media circus that followed this performance, Van Meter argues, was simply a response to the level of stardom Britney Spears had achieved in the fall of 2001.
But her level of stardom that year doesn't explain the enduring obsession with this performance and its permanence in American popular cultural history. For example, Britney performed at the Billboard Music Awards in 2001 on a floating platform in the middle of the pond that holds the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. No one remembers this performance, even though it is probably a better choreographed dance.
What made the VMA performance memorable wasn't its excellent dance number, or Britney's tight and tiny costume, or even the cultural moment in which it happened. What made this performance a sensation was choreographer Wade Robson's decision to use a trick as old as America itself: exotic animals. Along with the albino python, Britney arrived on the stage in a cage with a live tiger sitting behind her (on a leash, but still). Whether an intentional homage or not, this performance—a young, seductive woman in a seemingly dangerous position with wild animals—has a long, storied, and incredible success rate for getting people talking in American history.
Despite putting out an album titled Circus a few years later, Britney Spears never came closer to the American circus than in this performance. American circuses were teeming with snakes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were easy to transport, easy to buy, and almost certain to fill audiences with fear.
Very few personal accounts from these early circuses are readily available online, but in the 1903 popular novel Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, author Kate Douglas Wiggin wrote about a traveling circus from the perspective of her young protagonist:
"At the very end came a little red and gold chariot drawn by two ponies, and in it, sitting on a velvet cushion, was the snake charmer, all dressed in satin and spangles. She was so beautiful beyond compare […] that you had to swallow lumps in your throat if you looked at her, and little cold feelings crept up and down your back."
With a few minor adjustments, this description could have easily been written about Britney Spears in 2001. In fact, promotional material for America's biggest circus in the mid-20th century was often centered around young women in similar poses to the ones Britney assumes in this performance. The cover of the 1946 Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth magazine shows a woman standing with a live leopard draped across her shoulders.
Here's how Dr. Peta Tait described the phenomenon in her book Wild and Dangerous Performances: Animals, Emotions, Circus: "The 1946 spectacle of interspecies body contact disturbs in a number of ways, not least because female flesh, which is erotically objectified in culture, in this instance, merges with the objectified positioning of a live leopard."
Women in the mid-20th century often performed in revealing costumes with live, exotic animals for shock value. By the early 1920s, almost every circus large enough to feature live animals had at least one female trainer. It was so shocking, at that time, to see a woman with a dangerous animal in a position both domestic (through the taming of the animal) and powerful (many held whips and dealt with large lions or tigers) that tickets were almost guaranteed to sell.
As Tait wrote in her book, "The woman who took physical risks with leopards and other big cats was often presumed to take social risks. Such an act merged the danger and excitement created by the performing wild animals into that of transgressive femininity." With snakes in particular, part of their scandalous appeal might have been due to their association with sex. Snakes are, after all, pretty phallic.
You can see how scandalous this merging of sexuality and exoticism could be in this photo, taken between 1900-1909, of a female trainer placing her entire head into a lion's mouth.
This kind of sexualization was just as overt in Britney's performance as it was in the bygone days of the circus. And just like early American performers, she was criticized for it as well. A 1927 Washington Post article about women circus performers with snakes described their dancing as "vaudeville," "risqué," and "incredibly dangerous." She was 19 when she performed at the VMAs, but the two favorite topics of criticism and conversation around Britney Spears in 2001 were about whether or not she was a virgin, and whether or not she had had breast reductions. Women's sexuality is rarely on display without inviting criticism, even when an act does have centuries of precedence.
We don't know whether or not Britney's choreographer gave her a giant snake because he knew that women performing with these creatures had been such a constant success since the very beginning of the American entertainment industry that it was almost impossible for the performance to fail. But what we can tell is that American audiences haven't really changed much in the last 100 years. We still love a performer who is—almost—in danger. We still love a woman with a snake.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.