Review: The Woman in Me by Britney Spears

The Woman in Me
By Britney Spears
Published by Gallery UK, 2023

Reviewed by Harper Cleves

Britney Spears’ new memoir The Woman in Me is sharp and poignant, and, unlike many celebrity memoirs, maintains a voice that is distinctly her own. From exploring misogyny in the entertainment industry, to the generational dynamics at the centre of her infamous and cruel conservatorship, Spears writes with humility, and spirit. Only the most determined cynic could finish this book without becoming an ardent champion of Britney Spears.

 “The magazines seemed to love nothing more than a photo they could run with the headline ‘Britney Spears got HUGE! Look, she’s not wearing makeup!’ As if these two things were some kind of sin – as if gaining weight was something unkind I’d done to them personally, a betrayal. At what point did I promise to stay seventeen for the rest of my life?”

Even at her most popular, Spears navigated the impossible tightrope of feminine expectations that she was forced to walk in an industry that sought to exploit her sexuality and youth for profit. In 1998, on the precipice of major fame after her hit single  ‘…Baby One More Time’ was released, she had a controversial Rolling Stone photoshoot with photographer David LaChapelle. The 17-year-old Britney – looking up at the camera in her underwear, atop silky pink sheets, a telephone in one hand, a teletubby stuffed animal in the other – was the picture of the Lolita-esque teenage fantasy the industry was encouraging her to be. From the moment she entered the scene, the question of her virginity was up for public consumption. When Britney Spears wore outfits that revealed her midriff onstage, she was chastised as being ‘a bad example to children’ – nevermind that as early as age ten, a child herself, she was questioned about her dating life. 

In the aftermath of public splits with exes Justin Timberlake and Kevin Federline, Spears notes the different treatment she received from the men in her life. If Britney went on one date, to one party, to one club with her friends as a woman in her mid-twenties, she was a slut, a bad mother, an unconscionable flirt that broke Justin Timberlake’s heart. By contrast, Justin Timberlake’s penchant for dating and hook-ups was celebrated. Kevin Federline was a model parent. 

Spears’s public breakdown in 2008 occurred after nearly two years of consecutive pregnancies, the end of a marriage, and a contentious custody battle over two children she considered the lights of her life, all while being incessantly hounded by the paparazzi. Rather than being treated with care in these terrible circumstances, she was turned into a punchline. At an award show around this time comedian Sarah Silverman joked that at age 25 Britney Spears had accomplished everything worthwhile she was able to accomplish, and called her children she was struggling to maintain custody of ‘the most adorable mistakes you will ever see.’ 

The conservatorship that emerged from this horrendous period in Spears’s life added to her sense of isolation. Her father, facilitated by the rest of her immediate family, claimed to be her protector and caregiver, and instead treated her like a circus animal. He controlled the food she ate, the clothes she wore, the songs she performed on stage – even when she desperately needed rest. She felt agreeing to these conditions was the only way she would be allowed to maintain a relationship with her sons, so she conceded. 

Even in describing the harrowing dynamics of her family relationships, Spears intersperses direct truth-telling with an empathy that nearly seems out of place given the depravity of her experience. She recounts generations of family trauma – her grandfather, her father’s father, sent two of his wives to mental institutions as a form of imprisonment and was a terrible abuser. Spears tells us that her father’s coldness was learnt, and was borne out of his own difficult childhood – and so she shows compassion even while acknowledging his role as her captor and exploiter for 13 years.

Britney Spears has come to mean so much to women and queer people across the world for a reason – her struggle feels undeniably connected to our own. Most women have never experienced even one iota of the scrutiny that Britney Spears has throughout her life, but all of us see a glimpse of our own experiences in hers. The expectation of perennial youth and beauty, of sexiness and spontaneity, but also innocence and obedience. Most of us have never experienced the confinement of a conservatorship, but we have felt exploited. We have felt our bodies, our choices, our sexuality weren’t completely our own; a truth becoming acute all the time in a world in which our rights are constantly under attack, from trans participation in sports, to gender affirming care, to abortion access.

When we’ve shouted ‘Free Britney’, when we’ve worn it on our T-shirts, plastered it on our social media, carried it on a placard at a protest – we meant it. We freed Britney. But we will also free ourselves. We never promised to stay seventeen either. 

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