Much has been made of the hot celeb goss in Britney Spears first memoir, The Woman in Me, but the most interesting revelations are about how deeply patriarchy lingers.
Britney Spears was not only America’s sweetheart, but also mine. What little girl could deny her braids, secured with some sort of fluff, in the ‘Baby One More Time’ video? Not me. And then there was the red pleather number in ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’. In the nineties and noughties, there were plenty of other pop stars in itty bitty tops, baggy pants and shimmery eyeshadow, but no one else could do it quite like Britney (even though they tried). For a long time, my Britney was paused at the start of her career, in her teenage years. For me, that sugary sweetness and flirtatious grin was peak Britney.
But after her teen rise to fame, Britney Spears’ life was defined by a series of embarrassing disasters. Justin Timberlake vilified her after their break up, she had a Vegas wedding which was annulled in 55 hours, then she married, had kids with and then divorced Kevin Fed-something who everyone thought was a drop-kick, battled him for child custody, shaved her head in front of the paparazzi in 2007, hit a car with an umbrella, and got involved with a paparazzi photographer. The sweetheart had gone “crazy”.
Relegating women to craziness has a history as long as patriarchy, and despite all the feminist waves, still happens. We laugh now at the treatments for hysteria (a diagnosis with roots in 1900 BC Egypt, which was abandoned in the 1950s). Instead of considering that maybe women were angry, irritated and frustrated because they were disempowered and oppressed, male doctors went about inventing treatments like pelvic massages, vibrators, and intense smells. Hilarious and also tragic. But the definition of hysteria is almost interchangeable with that of borderline personality disorder (BPD), a common contemporary diagnosis, especially for young women. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines hysteria as “behaviour exhibiting overwhelming or unmanageable fear or emotional excess.” The US National Institute of Mental Health definition of BPD reads like an echo: “a mental illness that severely impacts a person’s ability to manage their emotions.”
I do not want to minimise the difficult and very real experience of having a mental illness. But I do think any treatment should be aimed at supporting people to have agency, not taking it away. I also question the casual and widespread labelling of women as “crazy” which serves patriarchy. Women tend to be called “crazy” when they refuse to conform to the social order which does not serve them. It is most obvious in romantic heterosexual relationships. If women get angry at, or stand up to, previous partners for being shit, they’re a “crazy ex”. If they demand too much they’re judged on the hot/crazy matrix and should they be considered to fall on the wrong side of the line, they’re undateable. I certainly have been dismissed as “crazy” and maybe on a good day with soft lighting “hot”.
For the most part, these days women dismissed as “crazy” suffer social punishments like ostracism rather than being locked in asylums. Unfortunately, Spears’ punishment was the latter. “They kept me locked up against my will for months,” she writes. In the mental health facility her father put her in, “If I got upset and asserted myself, I was out of control and crazy,” writes Spears. The doctors took her off her regular medication, Prozac, and put her on lithium. Usually lithium is prescribed to stabilise a person’s mood, especially if they suffer from bipolar disorder. Because of the lithium, “I didn’t know where I was or even who I was sometimes,” writes Spears, insisting she didn’t need it. “It wasn’t lost on me that lithium was the drug my grandmother Jean, who later committed suicide, had been put on in Manderville [asylum].”
It’s the kind of thing we would like to think was left in the early 20th century. And yet it happened to one the world’s most visible, and loved, women – who has the privilege of being white, beautiful and rich. Now her account is published in an elegantly designed hardback book, or if you prefer listening, in Michelle Williams’ dulcet tones.
The Woman in Me starts in Kentwood, Louisiana, the rural town in the deep south of the US bible belt, where the Spears are from. “Tragedy runs in my family,” she writes early on. Over a sparse page, an abusive grandfather and a grandmother’s suicide are recounted. The suicide, usually an act seen as being a result of mental illness, is explained instead by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.
Throughout, there are references to the way Spears, a young woman in the public eye, was treated, for example, “Everyone kept making strange comments about my breasts”. That was only the beginning. Soon men were leveraging her fame for their own careers, “I think that both Justin and Kevin were very clever. They knew what they were doing, and I played right into it.” And then comes her father and the conservatorship, “I looked at him with a growing sense of horror. ‘I’m Britney Spears now,’ he said.”
Time passes quickly in the book. Though it’s a substantial feeling hard-back, the font is large, and surrounded by generous margins. And there’s another emptiness in the book. Specifics about Spears’ life become generalised, as she tries to reach for universal truths in a life that most of us will never know – like “running into Madonna all around the world”. There isn’t much glitz and glam in the book, as Spears instead focuses on her family, her two boys, the relentless paparazzi, and finally, her freedom.
The prose is simple to the point of sometimes being vacuous, it rattles around in an empty dark space. It describes what happened, “Suddenly there was a SWAT team of what seemed like twenty cops in my house,” as if through a thick screen. There’s helicopters, but not a mention of how close they were, or how loud. The retelling is at times dispassionate and removed, rather than the intimacy we might expect from a memoir. Perhaps it’s a distance necessary for traumatic events, or perhaps Spears has had enough of being a consumer product.
Still, it’s a reclamation of moments which have for so long belonged not to Spears, but to a celebrity obsessed culture which sent the paparazzi after her to circle “like sharks when there’s blood in the water”.
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On Instagram, Spears is reclaiming her image by posting videos she’s made herself, of herself dancing (yes, sometimes with knives), cheeky nudes on the beach, and videos of a fluffy white dog. Others are re-posts of some pretty cringe content, like miniature food and drink and inspirational quotes. The captions are infamous for their manic quality, littered with exclamation points and emojis. Comments have been turned off.
Let’s not make a meal of the fact that the book is ghost written. Britney Spears is a pop star and not everyone can be good at everything. There are a few parts of the book with glimmers of what I think is Spears’ voice: “cute as hell”, “my little heart”, “my prissy dancing in my cute little outfits.” They are the best parts, but they are far and few between. Most of the writing feels sanitised, as if she fears that revealing her true self will have her dismissed as “crazy” (again). Given her past, it’s hard to judge this decision too harshly, but I’d love to see more Britney on the pages.
I began the book looking for signs of madness, the image of Spears’ partially shaved head in my mind. There was “postpartum depression”, “serious social anxiety”, “I’d become weird” and “I was having a panic attack”. But these don’t seem like madness when she could see paparazzi photographers waiting in the hospital car park after she gave birth, her family treated her like shit, her rights were stripped away for 13 years, and worst of all she seemed to be losing custody of her children. “I feel like I was having a very human reaction,” she writes, and it’s hard to not agree.
The Woman in Me is a sobering read, and not exactly a towering literary achievement. It’s absolutely no fun and nothing at all like the video clips I adore. The sugary sweetness and flirtatious grin have gone; now I see Spears now as a traumatised woman in her 40s belatedly discovering freedom. The book is an account of a victim of patriarchal systems and is valuable for its insight into how society treats women seen as “crazy”. And yet the question of whether or not Spears is “crazy” faded from my mind the more I read. On June 23 2021, in her address to the Los Angeles probate court, Spears said, via phone, “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does”. Crazy or not, I agree.