Remember When Madonna Kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs?

Welcome to Remember That, a new regular in which we want to make sure you remembered a thing that happened pretty recently, in the grand scheme of things.


We remembered. Of course we remembered the kiss — who could forget, who could think of anything else for so many ensuing hours or days. Who didn’t see anybody else’s over-pixelated desktop background of Madonna and Britney Spears, maws achingly agape and tongues up to g-d-knows-what in there, kissing onstage at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards? Britney Spears, for her part, insists, “No one slipped anyone the tongue. It was just a kiss… a nice kiss.” But we saw it. It was a monster kiss.

And last night, as it so often happens in a group of gay women in their mid-thirties, Britney Spears came up. I loved her so much, I still do, I can’t imagine ever not loving her. So eventually we were talking about this performance. Or, what we remembered of it — that kiss! how their jaws spread open as ours fell to the floor — but we didn’t remember all of it, like the performance that came just before and after. Re-watch it with me, I promise it’s worth it:

That kiss was one of only a few things that had happened on my television up to that point in time that excited me in a way I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t fully understand. To see Britney Spears, who I very badly wanted to spend the rest of my life holding hands with, kiss a woman? On television?

We forgot and re-remembering means remembering who these three women were before they became who they are now. This was before Madonna did any of the things that we roll our eyes about now. This was back when Madonna was only impeachable by the right-wing who clutched their pearls over her hard-edged unapologetic sexuality, her amalgamation of S&M and Catholic iconography, her pseudo-lesbian relationship with Sandra Bernhard, her decision to cast Jesus with a black actor for her “Like a Prayer” music video, her coffee table book called SEX, Madonna: Truth or Dare, her blatant, celebratory relationship with the LGBT community.

Back then she was still just Madonna, our mainstream yet somewhat radical Queen of Pop, and it was asked more than once if Britney Spears, who lacked Madonna’s singing chops and groundbreaking vision but captivated the nation and our hearts nonetheless, would inherit the crown. Or Christina Aguilera, because Christina — Christina could sing.

Instead, Madonna gave us this incredible power move: the two girls, in their early twenties, re-enacting her iconic 1984 “Like a Virgin” performance and then submitting their entire bodies to hers for seduction and thigh-grazing and lip-locking.

For Britney Spears’ publicity team, the event fit perfectly into their multi-year plan to reinvent Britney’s image. She had to evolve, you know, to keep everybody’s interest. In rehearsals, the kiss — which was Madonna’s idea, not MTV’s — was light, described as “a peck,” really. “But when cameras went live, Spears, the consummate performer, knew ten million eyes were watching,” writes Mark Hughes in Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, which analyzes Britney’s desire to “push buttons” and command headlines by giving Madonna “that long lesbian-like kiss that shot around the world… long enough for still photographers to capture, deep enough to spark controversy (was there tongue?), and taboo enough to get men and women talking about it all over the world… she became more grown-up, more taboo… and more buzzworthy.”

The kiss

Britney really proud of herself right afterwards

We’d forgotten about the cuts. The cut to Justin Timberlake just when Madonna turns to Christina — that cruel, homophobic edit that was an attack on us all? Especially when every other cut-away is a perfect choice, a killer lineup of the moment: Paris Hilton, Avril Lavigne and Kelly Osbourne, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent. The original cast of Queer Eye? More than once?

Missy Elliot coming out at the end, by the way? Her white cap on sideways, her Adidas-striped tailcoat and trousers, the white vest, the bowtie, the way she immediately commanded our attention? The girls in their wedding night lingerie remained, as did their Daddy in long black gloves, but here was Missy Elliot; exuberant, shoulders up, arms out. We screamed, re-watching this last night, this part we’d forgotten. My friend screamed; “You put enough straight girls kissing each other on a stage and a real lesbian will eventually pop out!” I mean literally, they kissed and then Missy Elliot appeared. Like, “let me take this.”

Just this last month in New York City, Britney Jean Spears remembered, addressing audience at Radio City Music Hall, “The last time I was on this stage, I kissed a girl. … Her name was Madonna!”

And we liked it.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2683 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. I kept MTV on for the next 2 days straight just to keep watching this moment over and over. I was trying to process it. Because I, a deeply closeted college lesbian who had a massive crush on Britney, and who had not seen women kiss on TV until then, was no longer able to pretend to myself that I was gay as hell. I did not get over this for years. YEARS.

    I am still not over it!

  2. Oh my god I forgot about this. I remember being so annoyed by that cut to Justin Timberlake interrupting it. This was well before I felt comfortable calling myself bi, but I can’t remember if this was before or after I was pretty sure I was “not straight”. But I do remember watching this video repeatedly – I might have even downloaded it, and it might have even been when we still had dial-up internet.

  3. Like you, I had forgotten almost everything about this performance except the kiss(es). Thank you for the reminder because this whole thing is ICONIC. I still remember exactly where I was and who I was with when this aired. I don’t remember life without Madonna, been a fan since I was 5 years old, so to see her kissing the next generation’s pop princesses blew my fucking mind.

    Thanks for the nostalgia & can’t wait to see what else is featured in the column!

  4. PS, after the performance itself my favorite part of this is all the cuts to the Queer Eye cast freaking the fuck out. The straights are like lol whatever but the gays know what’s up (as usual).

  5. I was the known Britney aficionado in my group of friends.
    And by that I mean that it was the goal at every party to get me drunk quickly hand me a scarf and put on “Slave for you” or drag out a chair and put on “Stronger” and watch me do the thing.
    I was on a college exchange in a tiny little town where I had no internet, no phone, no laptop and did not know that this magic moment had happened.
    So when I visited my best gay friend (the known Madonna aficionado in our group) in Barcelona, he dragged me to a computer in a middle of a dinner party at a friend’s house and showed me this clip.
    I still remember that room, the evening and the way I couldn’t believe him and went, finally, absolutely slack jawed.
    Why I’m telling this story?
    Because it felt personal.
    It was monumental.
    More than I ever dared hope for or dream of.
    I mean..when I needed to haunt the inter webs and blockbusters for a forbidden moment of two women looking at each other, suddenly the world’s biggest stars made out on a stage, the stage.
    My biggest stars.
    And it was more than ok, it was a celebration.

  6. RIESE OH MY GOD I recorded the 2003 VMAs on VCR and every day after school I would fast forward the tape to this moment and watch it over and over again. 2003 was my last year of high school, the year I left the church, and the year that I came out to my friends and classmates. Was this performance the catalyst? We’ll never know!

  7. I never forgot it because I have this song on an old iPod. And because I was a big Britney fan back in the day and I’d watch her music videos and performances over and over to learn the dance moves, so this never left my brain!

  8. This was illuminating!! My only memories of this performance are filtered through the conservative Christian lens I had on at the time as a faithful, churchgoing teen. ? I remember snooping through the family email inbox (bc of course there was only one email address for the whole damn family) & reading chain emails my mom used to get that were basically all like “CALL TO ACTION! BOYCOTT THIS TV CHANNEL! THEY ARE LESBIANING ON TV!!” And then I remember overhearing kids talking about it at school, but damn I don’t think I actually watched the whole performance until right now.

    SO much to unpack here, and y’all are doing a great job in the comments. I love reading your stories. Anyways, I’m looking forward to this new series. Keep it up Riese! ❤️

  9. that kiss was pretty significant to me. i didn’t see it live, i heard about it the next day and immediately sought out the video that i then watched more times than i can count. i was 12 years old, deep in the throes of my Britney obsession, and just beginning to recognize that i liked girls in a gay way. it was like watching a dream come true. sometimes i go back and watch the video just to remember that it was a real thing that happened and not something my brain made up.

  10. In 2003, I was a metalhead and I neither watched the performance nor was I favourably inclined to any of the artists involved. I did see and hear about it, of course…

    As a closeted bisexual who was terrified that she might be a lesbian (because that’s what getting funny feelings watching Kissing Jessica Stein means, obviously), I was super resentful towards presumably straight women who got to do the things I wanted to (kiss women) with no real social repercussions. I was particularly resentful when it seemed to be for attention and to titilate men. Publically, I objected to the lie of it all, but today I wonder if I wasn’t also a bit resentful that they got to be comfortably straight while kissing women BECAUSE it was for attention and men.

  11. This moment is always bittersweet for me. Representation matters, even back then, I get that. And I get that this moment was life-changing for many lgbtq+ kids sitting at home watching it. So, that’s awesome, and I’m glad so many girls and nonbinary folks got so many wonderful tingles from it.

    But, I also remember Christina’s later outrage that her kiss was cut from the broadcast to show Justin’s reaction, that it wasn’t shown to the millions of viewers–she didn’t get her edgy publicity. And that ruined it for me. It just drove home how fake it was–that these women were still straight, didn’t kiss because they particularly wanted to, but because it would be good for their careers to do so.

    I also remember how, at least in my Southern California high school, it was “trendy” to be bisexual at the time–being queer was the “in” thing. And I remember how much shit I got from other kids, straight and gay, because I was “only bi for the attention” and I wasn’t “gay enough” to call myself part of the community. Having straight women making out on TV for publicity just kind of drove all that home–being bi was a trend, something to exploit for attention and profit. Now, not only did I want attention, not only was I not gay enough, but now I only did it because ~*~Britney~*~ (who by this point I no longer listened to anyway) did it.

    So, yea… I remember. I just wish I didn’t.

  12. I only recall being angry about it, didn’t get to watch it because Christina and Britney were on my mom’s slut-dar and she turned the half-time show off or changed the channel.

    I was angry because love or sex between women I saw it as something sacred and they defiled it by using it for men’s titillation like that. Thus began my dislike of Madonna which only deepened when I learned she stole voguing from dying drag queens.
    I kinda hated on Britney a little bit until the track suit wedding, then I began to fear for her and worry about her.

    Until this day I’ve even seen the performance, I never had the desire to even see it but me of now was curious. Yeah I can see why the kiss was such a big deal now, the lead up and the delivery looks like Rhett and Scarlett on the silver screen.

    Love Beyonce’s earrings tho and Missy Elliot is always a delight.

  13. I was 9 and watched it with my parents, who were totally fine with it. This moment still rocks my world just as much as it did then, though it took a further 4 or 5 years before I started to understand just why I loved it so much. Thank you for the reminder!

  14. The kiss is seared into my memory because when I went to college, it was on all the posters everywhere. I am a Madonna fan and really enjoyed seeing the full performance again. Her music is still so good.

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