The Woman In Me: Britney Spears Reckons With Exploitation and the Double Standard She Was Subjected to Her Entire Career

“Hello. Oh my goodness, ew. Strong Britney!” These were the words an on-the-verge-of-tears, twenty-one-year-old Britney Spears uttered while forced into doing an episode of Primetime on November 13, 2003 with Diane Sawyer. And oh, how strong (stronger than yesterday) she had to make herself in the years spent under a microscope that followed. The word “forced” vis-à-vis Primetime feels applicable because, as Spears tells it, “…one day, there was a knock on my door. When I opened it, four men just walked in right past me; I didn’t recognize three of them. I’d never seen their faces before in my life. The fourth was my father. They proceeded to sit me down on a sofa [and] immediately they started peppering me with questions… I was mute: I wasn’t willing to talk with anyone. I had nothing to say. A day later I got a call from my team that I was going to speak to Diane Sawyer…and on that same sofa.”

Spears’ manner of storytelling in The Woman In Me shines through noticeably in this anecdote, for she never spells out how the men’s impromptu entrance into her apartment really correlated with the interview—suffice it to say that her father, Jamie Spears, was involved early on in making Britney do things she wasn’t comfortable doing. And the main reason she wasn’t comfortable doing the Diane Sawyer interview was because she had just endured a very public breakup with Justin Timberlake, the “boy” who clearly comes across as her greatest love throughout The Woman In Me. Even if only because he was her first love—and, as many know, nothing ever feels quite as strong or intense as first love. Especially at the age Spears was when she started dating Timberlake.

And yet, for all the love she may have once had for him, Spears doesn’t pull any punches in her descriptions of the erstwhile ramen-haired NSYNC member. Even the most minute of details manage to make Timberlake look endlessly unflattering. Case in point, describing Timberlake’s blaccent in the 00s. One that came out upon encountering Ginuwine on a New York City street, when Timberlake apparently said, “so loud, ‘Oh yeah, fo’ shiz, fo’ shiz! Ginuwine, what’s up homie?’” Perhaps it was then that Spears started to question some of her enamored reverence for him. She also acknowledges her awareness of NSYNC’s blatant culturally appropriative qualities by remarking, “They were white boys, but they loved hip hop. To me, that’s what separated them from the Backstreet Boys, who seemed very consciously to position themselves as a white group. NSYNC hung out with Black artists. Sometimes I thought they tried too hard to fit in…”

As for Spears’ reflections, some feel that the things she’s bringing up from twenty years ago are “petty” (among such catty comments being, “I love Brit but this is just embarrassing” and “Damn, is Justin all she talks about?”). Really? As though she doesn’t have a right to finally say her piece after years of just sitting back and taking the abuse (particularly from Timberlake)—all mostly because she was so stunned by it. That and, as she points out a few times, she has Southern manners. This proved a lethal combination for finding her voice and maintaining any semblance of a strong self (hence, chastising her tears, “Oh my goodness, ew. Strong Britney!”). As she once sang on 2001’s “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” “I’m just tryin’ to find the woman in me” (though, to be fair, Shania Twain laid claim to that phrase first). To be sure, it’s rather telling that she would pull her book title (cheesy and trans-coded though it may be) from a song about being in transition between girlhood and womanhood. A state of limbo she’s been trapped in for most of her life. And that’s easy to be when you get famous as a teenager, with your most recognized piece of iconography featuring you in a schoolgirl uniform.

As Olivia Rodrigo, the latest teen “commodity” being devoured by the masses, puts it on “teenage dream,” “I’ll blow out the candles, happy birthday to me/Got your whole life ahead of you, you’re only nineteen/But I fear that they already got all the best parts of me/And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.” This unspoken expectation that a girl who gets famous as a teen will “stay hot” and “girly” forever is certainly not lost on Spears, who writes, “At what point did I promise to stay seventeen for the rest of my life?” But it does seem to be a promise many female pop stars unwittingly make in their bid to constantly look as young (read: fuckable) as possible. And that caused Britney, as it would for anyone, to possess a kind of schizophrenia—one moment girlish and giggly, the next commanding and enraged. Spears crystallizes how this phenomenon intensified after the conservatorship, explaining, “…I could vacillate between being a little girl and being a teenager and being a woman, because of the way they had robbed me of my freedom. There was no way to behave like an adult, since they wouldn’t treat me like an adult, so I would regress and act like a little girl… The woman in me was pushed down for a long time.”

As Taylor Swift says in Miss Americana, “There’s this thing people say about celebrities, that they’re frozen at the age they got famous, and that’s kind of what happened to me.” Spears still harbors some of the issues related to this, not least of which is frequently using images from the past for new material (including the album artwork for “Mind Your Business” and the cover for The Woman In Me). That sense of “frozenness” was also happening to Britney in the early 00s—until, in 2007, she decimated the image of the Lolita teen dream that she was constantly being compared to. Indeed, Spears doesn’t disappoint when it comes to rehashing that “iconic” moment in her history and the “motives” behind it, recounting, “I went into a hair salon, and I took the clippers, and I shaved off all my hair. Everyone thought it was hilarious. Look how crazy she is! Even my parents acted embarrassed by me. But nobody seemed to understand that I was simply out of my mind with grief. My children had been taken away from me. With my head shaved, everyone was scared of me, even my mom. No one would talk to me anymore because I was too ugly. My long hair was a big part of what people liked—I know that. I knew a lot of guys thought long hair was hot. Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world: Fuck you. You want me to be pretty for you? Fuck you. You want me to be good for you? Fuck you. You want me to be your dream girl? Fuck you.”

This, of course, is what many with any empathy for the situation had long speculated. It wasn’t as though it was hard to see. But the easier narrative to spin was that Spears had lost her mind—because that was the narrative that sold magazines and made for “scintillating” TV. That said, it didn’t seem to be a coincidence that, around the same time, Amy Winehouse was being endlessly hounded, UK-side, by ravenous photogs seeking to capture the shots that would depict her as the drug-addicted trainwreck. This reached an apex when The Sun released footage of “Wino” smoking crack in 2008. Shortly after, Winehouse was checked into a rehab facility. In many ways, the parallels between Britney and Amy during this 2006-2008 period can’t be ignored. After all, for the most part, these were simply two twenty-something women partying and having a good time—as any “male rocker” might have. Yet their “outrageous” partying landed both in rehab. As for Britney, she only did it, as she did everything that was part of a trap designed to strip away her agency, so she could keep seeing her kids (“I’d been told it would help me get custody back if I went to rehab. And so, even though I felt I had more of a rage and grief problem than a substance abuse problem, I went”).

However, Spears is sure to remind readers that all of her “wild partying” was hardly the out-of-control fright (/slut) fest the press made it out to be. Particularly of those nights caught on camera with Paris Hilton (and once, with Paris and Lindsay), of whom Britney admits, “I went through my party stage [with her]. But let’s be clear: it was never as wild as the press made it out to be. There was a time when I never went out at all. Finally, when—with the kids properly supervised at home by capable caregivers—I did leave home for a few hours, stayed out late and drank like any other twenty-something, I heard nothing but that I was the worst mother who’d ever lived and a terrible person, too. The tabloids were full of accusations. She’s a slut! She’s on drugs! I never had a drinking problem. I liked to drink, but it was never out of control.” She then goes on to say that her only drug of choice was Adderall.

Spears fails, however, to mention any of the drugs that her then-“manager,” Sam Lutfi, might have been crushing up and putting into her drinks, as has been frequently surmised. As a matter of fact, Spears fails to mention Lutfi at all during her dissection of this period, merely alluding to him with the lines, “I gravitated toward anyone who would step in and act as a buffer between me and them, especially people who would take me out partying and get me temporarily distracted from all the surveillance I was under. Not all of these people were great in the long run, but at the time I was desperate for anyone who seemed to want to help me in any way and who seemed like they had the ability to keep my parents at bay.” Lutfi definitely had that ability. Yet rather than going into any detail about their bizarre dynamic, Spears instead brings up (never actually mentioning his name) Adnan Ghalib, the paparazzo she started dating in 2007…and who she says she had no idea was married. Chalk it up to Spears certainly “knowing how to pick ‘em.” Kevin Federline perhaps being the most prime example of that (even for as much rightful shade as she throws at Justin). And yes, it comes across quite blatantly that K-Fed fucked her over as much as her own family did, for who knows how things might have gone for Britney if Federline hadn’t denied her access to her children (for a start, she might not have shaved her head or attacked a car with a green umbrella, both done out of rage and frustration). She calls him out for being a “feelin’ myself” fame whore, stating, “Kevin was just so enthralled with fame and power. Again and again in my life I’ve seen fame and money ruin people, and I saw it happen with Kevin in slow motion.”

But, in the end, Britney puts Kevin in the same category as Justin by assessing, “That’s one thing Justin and Kevin ruined about me. I used to trust people. But after the breakup with Justin and then my divorce, I never really did trust people again.” In truth, Britney’s sweet, trusting nature seemed to wallop her with unexpected, negative consequences at every turn on the road to her current state of being. One that is no longer “okay” with simply “rolling with the punches.” Of which she’s taken more than her unfair share. All starting with that Primetime interview (though, perhaps more realistically, starting with growing up in an abusive household) she so pointedly highlights as the moment a switch flipped in her, and she went dark.

The Diane Sawyer interview was pivotal in that Spears realized, too late, not only the extent of her exploitation, but the double standard she was experiencing—in the music industry in general and with regard to her breakup in particular. While Timberlake eked by without any flak for his own overt philandering at the time (that photo of him with Nicole Appleton in 2000 is just one piece of, er, hard proof), Britney was, as she stated, painted “as a harlot who’d broken the heart of America’s golden boy.” But she, at one time, had been its golden girl. Not so after being deemed to have cheated on “innocent” Justin. That truly was the instant when the media started to turn on her. To relish depicting her as a slutty trainwreck. After that episode of Primetime, Spears realized, “…I felt like I had been exploited, set up in front of the whole world. That interview was a breaking point for me internally—a switch had been flipped. I felt something dark come over my body. I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf into a Bad Person.” Or rather, a “Bad Person” by the standards tacitly laid out for women, especially women in the public eye. Spears continued, “I honestly feel like that moment in my life should have been a time for growing—and not sharing everything with the world. It would been the better way to heal. But I had no choice. It seemed like nobody really cared how I felt.”

And how she felt, going forward, was mostly characterized by being mortified. It was almost as though, every time she thought things couldn’t possibly get more humiliating, they did. One such zenith of that humiliation (apart from being strapped to a gurney and 5150’d) was her performance at the 2007 VMAs. Something that, again, she didn’t really want to do. Yet was told, nonetheless, that she needed to promote her new single. Spears, thus, revisits yet another horrendous evening from 2007 in her recollection of how that performance all came together (or, more accurately, didn’t):

I didn’t want to [perform], but my team was pressuring me to get out there and show the world I was fine. The only problem with this plan: I was not fine. Backstage at the VMAs that night, nothing was going right. There was a problem with my costume and with my hair extensions. I hadn’t slept the night before. I was dizzy. It was less than a year since I’d had my second baby in two years but everyone was acting like my not having six-pack abs was offensive. I couldn’t believe I was going to have to go out onstage feeling the way I felt. I ran into Justin backstage. It had been a while since I’d seen him. Everything was going great in his world. He was at the top of his game in every way, and he had a lot of swagger. I was having a panic attack. I hadn’t rehearsed enough. I hated the way I looked. I knew it was going to be bad. I went out there and did the best I could at that moment in time, which—yes, granted—was far from my best at other times. I could see myself on video throughout the auditorium while I performed; it was like looking at myself in a fun-house mirror.”

Spears was then sure to add, “I’m not going to defend that performance or say it was good, but I will say that as performers we all have bad nights. They don’t usually have consequences so extreme. You also don’t usually have one of the worst days of your life in the same exact place and time that your ex has one of his best.” So yes, there again, the specter of Timberlake looms large over Spears’ life, ergo her book. For those who would criticize her for “digging up old wounds,” it bears reminding that she never had the chance to fully deal with or express the emotions stemming from those wounds in the first place. Expected to just shove it down and stifle everything for the sake of what the Italians would call “la bella figura.” Something women are simply “supposed to” do in the face of any emotional or physical hardship. Men, on the other hand, not so much. They can act out or express rage as freely as they want to without even half the same amount of condemnation, if any at all.

It’s no wonder, then, that Madonna takes up a fair amount space in the pages of the memoir, with Spears recalling how much she admired the fact that the Queen of Pop (to Spears’ princess title) could command what she wanted. Britney could have too…but not without the risk of being branded with the dreaded “B” word (“B” for Bitch, not Britney—#ItsBritneyBitch). At one point, Spears remembers of working with M on their “Me Against the Music” video in 2003, “…I was in awe of the ways Madonna would not compromise her vision. She kept the focus on her. Going along with Madonna’s ideas and being on her time for days was what it meant to collaborate with her. It was an important lesson for me, one that would take a long time for me to absorb: she demanded power, and so she got power.” And yet, if Madonna were a man, she wouldn’t have to work so hard to have that power either. This is something Spears also mentions by quoting a portion from Madonna’s 2016 Billboard Woman of the Year speech, marveling, “…she said she’d been subjected to ‘blatant misogyny, sexism, constant bullying and relentless abuse… If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. What is that game? You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion.’ She’s right that the music industry—really the whole world—is set up more for men.” “Set up” meaning it benefits and cushions them in ways that it does not, and will not, for women. Spears was a lamb to the slaughter (as Princess Diana once described herself) in this regard.

With The Woman In Me, Spears confirms many things fans and pop culture scholars have long suspected (though perhaps no one could have seen that abortion revelation coming). But, more than that, she reminds readers that what she endured in those peak days of 00s-era misogyny (perpetrated by fellow women, as much as men) was something that a male artist would never have to contend with. It would be nice to say that things have changed, but, by and large, they really haven’t.

There are many moments of bittersweetness in The Woman In Me, starting with the dedication page, which reads, “For my boys, who are the loves of my life.” Apart from the fact that “the boys” in question have estranged themselves from their mother thanks to being subjected to an early poisoning against her from K-Fed (which goes with the territory of her sons saying she shouldn’t show herself naked on social media), there is also the change in Britney’s life after the book went to print that found her going from a married woman to newly single. Therefore, the mentions of “Hesam” (a.k.a. Sam Asghari) are almost difficult to read, knowing now that another man abandoned/disappointed her, and that she fell for it yet again. But her taste in men is, inarguably, rooted in the father she grew up with. Having Jamie Spears as her first formative example of a male couldn’t have been constructive to her future relationships. And, as much as her examinations of life under the conservatorship are illuminating, what’s even more so is the misogynistic conditions of our society that could so easily lure her into that conservatorship in the first place.

With so much ground to cover (and in so few pages—a mere two hundred and seventy-five), Spears packs in a lot. Enough to very much make the reader wonder how the hell she did get through it all without slitting her wrists (an allusion clearly made in the “Everytime” video). And, considering some of the many details left unaddressed (like the aforementioned “What the fuck was happening with Sam Lutfi?” question), one can only hope that Britney wasn’t teasing when she posted on her Instagram, “Riding ’n writing ✍🏻 !!! All I’m doing at the moment … volume 2 coming after 1 🙈🤷🏼‍♀️🤷🏼‍♀️🤷🏼‍♀️ !!! #TheWomanInMe.” Because this is one memoir that could still definitely use a sequel…particularly in her post-divorced from Sam life. Who knows? Maybe she can become like Zsa Zsa Gabor, and just keep writing multiple memoirs. From the sound of things in The Woman In Me, it seems like that would be preferable to her over ever having any involvement with the music industry again. Not that the literary world is all that much less misogynistic.

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