• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Book Review: The Woman in Me by Britney Spears

ByRebecca Palmer

Oct 28, 2023
black and white photo of Britney Spears with animated butterfly wings

The Woman in Me begins as a Southern Gothic tale, as Britney Spears recounts he childhood growing up in a home riddled with the generational trauma of mental asylums, lithium, and suicide. The men are alcoholics, the women angry. A rising Disney child star, Britney quickly outgrew rural Kentwood, Louisiana. However, escaping from its small-town gaze thrust her into an invasive media spotlight, beginning a public scrutiny which would shadow the rest of her life.

At the age of ten, Ed McMahon asked her if she had a boyfriend, before offering himself as a candidate. Britney recalls bursting into tears the moment she left the stage. Throughout her early teen years, journalists asked her if she had lost her virginity, if she smoked, and if her breasts were real. Though she had been sexually active and smoking since she was fourteen, Britney was forced to maintain her chaste public image, carefully curated by her publicists, managers, and parents. 

The inevitable dissonance between Britney’s shiny image and her real life bears harrowing stories. When she became pregnant by boyfriend Justin Timberlake, he had no interest in fatherhood. Britney, however, writes that she would not have had an abortion if the choice was “left up to me alone.” Too scared to go to hospital in case the news of her pregnancy escaped, she took abortion pills at home, and lay shaking in pain on her bathroom floor while Justin strummed a guitar next to her: “he thought maybe music would help.” Britney’s infantilised public image imploded with her relationship. The tabloids defended Justin as the broken-hearted golden boy of America, casting Britney as a ruthless harlot. In reality, “I was comatose in Louisiana, and he was happily running around Hollywood.”

By 2007, a string of personal disasters had left Britney distraught. Her husband Kevin Federline abandoned her unexpectedly, winning custody of her two infant boys. Her beloved Aunt Sandra passed away. She was suffering from postpartum depression. Paparazzi continued to scale the walls of buildings she was in, trying to snap a picture from outside the windows. In an act of protest, Britney strode into a hair salon and shaved her head. She writes that it “was a way of saying to the world: fuck you.”

Her family weaponised her buzz cut as evidence of instability, and she was swiftly placed under a conservatorship. Such a drastic legal measure is usually reserved for people who are mentally incapacitated. But Britney was highly functional, having just released Blackout (arguably the most cohesive album of her career). Yet both her personal autonomy and finances were placed under the control of her father, who proclaimed in a particularly chilling moment: “I’m Britney Spears now.”

Under her conservatorship, Britney had her phone removed. She was forced to swallow pre-packaged medication, and keep her IUD against her will. Potential boyfriends were informed of her sexual history before they could go on a first date. Visits with her two sons were used as a bargaining chip: any protest could restrain her from them for months. So she complied: “My freedom in exchange for naps with my children… was a trade I was willing to make.”

Her father justified these severe measures by arguing that Britney was utterly incapable of looking after herself. However, while they were in effect, she was sent on multiple world tours. She became a judge on X Factor, played a role in How I Met Your Mother, and booked a Las Vegas residency. For her labour, Britney was given a $2000 allowance per week. Her father became a multimillionaire. 

Britney’s starkly matter-of-fact tone is burst only by moments of simmering anger, particularly relating to being barred from her children. However, optimism prevails when a compassionate nurse shows her footage of fans involved in the #FreeBritney movement. The galvanisation she felt from her fans is beautifully symbiotic. Easily outnumbering her dissenters, the ‘Britney Army’ were as fanatical about her freedom as they are about her pop music. Her genuine gratitude is touching. 

After the conservatorship was terminated by Judge Brenda Penny in 2021, Britney embraced her hard-won freedom, mostly via her Instagram account. It would be fair to describe her content as eccentric at times: she spins around to dance hits, sometimes naked, sometimes with kitchen knives. In Woman, she explains: “I think if they’d [the public] been… prodded and posed for other people’s approval, they’d understand that I get a lot of joy from posing the way I feel sexy and taking my own picture.”

Over her career, tabloids commodified Britney into a pawn of the music industry, naturalising the efforts to erode her autonomy. The post-conservatorship concern over her social media exposes the lingering’s of this bizarre, authoritative instinct. The #FreeBritney movement campaigned for Britney’s uninhibited free expression as a basic human right, now channelled into her autobiography. She’s finally living on her own terms, and right now, that means dancing.

Morph Britney Spears (By:Bbspears” by Radar – Bbspears is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0