britney spears on the cover of the woman in me book

The Influence Of ‘The Woman In Me’ Will Be Felt For Years To Come

An in-depth review of Britney Spears’ memoir, ‘The Woman in Me’. Words by Kristen S. He

By Kristen S. He, 15/11/2023

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Content warning for mentions of domestic abuse, suicide.

In the beginning, there was her world: the 2000-population rural town of Kentwood, Louisiana, where everyone knew everyone, yet the real secrets stayed hidden. There was her home: an alcoholic father and a confrontational mother. Then, herself — Britney Jean Spears, an ordinary girl who wanted to rise above. She recalls how she felt in nature, away from the dysfunction: “I would lie down on those rocks and look up at the sky, feeling the warmth from below and above, thinking: I can make my own way in life. I can make my dreams come true. Lying quietly on those rocks, I felt God.”

Britney Spears’ life plays out like a fairytale in three acts: firstly, a girl whose immense natural talent and charisma lift her out of her tumultuous home life. Then, once she’s on top of the world, she wants nothing more than to reconnect with her ordinariness, and raise a family with the kindness that she never had. But when that begins to fall apart, she veers from the script, stops playing the part of the obedient woman, and receives an almost incomprehensible punishment in return. This is The Woman in Me — the memoir of a woman whose perspective has been devalued and objectified from day one.

Immediately upon release, and even before, The Woman in Me was raked through by the celebrity gossip machine — especially the excerpts referencing Justin Timberlake. Those coming to the book for gossip will find just enough juicy tidbits — but this is no typical celebrity memoir featuring glossy photographs. It’s part self-psychoanalysis, part purging, part brutally honest correcting of the public record — the reflections of someone who’s been through an enormous amount of therapy, and needs to tell the world.

Halfway through, the details of Britney’s darkest days and conservatorship become almost excruciating — which is precisely why the book is such an essential read. To hear Britney in her own words (or almost, she worked with several ghostwriters) is to understand pop music’s ability to reshape culture — and how capitalist, patriarchal exploitation flows from the top down.

Britney’s Family Tree

In 1981, Britney Jean Spears was born into a family defined by tragedy and patriarchy. Her abusive paternal grandfather put his first wife into an institution where she was administered lithium. Some years later, she committed suicide on her son’s grave. Britney’s maternal grandmother left London to be with her husband in New Orleans, trading a bright social life for being “cooped up in the country, cooking and cleaning and milking cows”. Devoting herself to her family, she never returned to her hometown, missing London for the rest of her life.

Of her own parents, Britney writes, “By all accounts, their relationship was born of mutual attraction and a sense of adventure. But the honeymoon was over long before I came along.” Her father, Jamie, goes through alternating periods of success and alcoholism. Britney prefers her home life when he’s not around. But sometimes, she hates her mother Lynne even more — for yelling at her unconscious husband, leaving her children unable to sleep.

The young Britney couldn’t always articulate how she felt, but she could always sing. She recalls, “When I was alone with my thoughts, my mind filled with worries and fears. Music stopped the noise, made me feel confident, and took me to a pure place of expressing myself exactly as I wanted to be seen and heard. Singing took me into the presence of the divine… I’d be playing in the backyard like any kid would, but my thoughts and feelings and hopes were somewhere else.”

Reading the book’s early chapters, it can be difficult to separate Britney’s descriptions of her feelings as a child, and her analysis in the present day. But that’s less a flaw of the book itself, and more how memory works — the lens of the present will always colour what we see in our recollections.

There is a sense that despite her rocky upbringing, she’s found empathy — if not forgiveness — for Jamie and Lynne’s parenting choices. Of Jamie, she writes, “I knew even then that my father had reasons for wanting to lose himself in drinking… Now I see even more clearly that he was self-medicating after enduring years of abuse at the hands of his father, June. At the time, though, I had no idea why he was so hard on us, why nothing we did seemed to be quite good enough for him.”

Are such cycles of trauma always fated to repeat in the next generation? Given her parents’ own upbringings — raised in small towns, in a time where few had agency around their mental health — it’s unsurprising that they choose to bury it deep, punishing themselves and passing down similar burdens to their three children. 

Neither child nor adult Britney can change those facts. Neither can her family. But the first act of The Woman in Me is a message to not take the nuclear-family American dream at face value — and for parents and children alike to not let their old wounds fester. 

Britney’s Path To Overnight Success

For young fame to happen, an unusual combination of talent, drive and environmental spark need to come together. As both singer and dancer, Britney had the raw talent and athleticism (inherited from her father), and an uncommon level of self-discipline and openness to trying new things. She had an intense drive — for music itself, and to escape her circumstances. She had a permissive mother, who helped her chase her dream. But, as we discover in a series of truly mind-boggling anecdotes, she also allowed Britney to work waiting tables at the age of nine, regularly took her out for cocktails at 13, and even let her drive (and crash!) her mother’s car.

Crucially, Britney lived close enough to Florida to audition for The All New Mickey Mouse Club. The first time she auditioned at age eight in 1989, she was too young. She signed with a talent agency in New York, where she understudied in a Broadway role alongside Natalie Portman. Four years later, she again auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club, joining the likes of Keri Russell, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, JC Chasez, and of course, Justin Timberlake.

For a year and a half, it was the perfect taste of show business. When the show wrapped, Britney returned to junior high school in Louisiana. She drank, smoked, skipped school and dated older boys — recounting those tales with no judgement at all. Aside from her family dynamic, she looks back with fondness: “There was something so beautifully normal about that period of my life: going to homecoming and prom, driving around our little town, going to the movies.”

It would be the last true period of calm in her life. In 1997, Lynne Spears met lawyer and future manager Larry Rudolph, who got the fifteen-year-old Britney’s audition tape to Jive Records, where she met Max Martin. It’s a more serendipitous series of occurrences than most people will ever experience in their lives, and Britney writes about it in the most unassuming way — as if success just fell into her lap.

Britney Spears was precisely the right person in the right place at the right time to make “…Baby One More Time” the song that would define millennial pop. TLC, the Backstreet Boys and 5ive were all offered the song, but none of them could have made it work. There was simply no precedent for Britney. She wasn’t any teen-pop archetype that already existed — not an R&B diva or Spice Girls superheroine, but an ordinary girl with an extraordinary emotional delivery. 

In the summer of 1998, Britney was touring malls. By January 1999, she was world-famous  — and seemingly unfazed. It all seemed perfectly natural: “I became the first woman to debut with a number one single and album at the same time. I was so happy. And I could feel my life start to open up.”

It’s here, in the second quarter of the book, where her imperial phase — one of the all-time great runs for a popstar — breezes by. She gives anecdotes about *NSYNC, Ginuwine, Paula Cole, Mariah Carey — but leaves more than enough on the table for a second memoir. And there’s so much left on the table — the Oops!… I Did It Again album gets one sentence, while the iconic video isn’t mentioned at all. 

Britney Becomes The Centre Of Attention

During those years — from …Baby One More Time in 1999 to In the Zone in 2003 — a fundamental tension started building between Britney, the human being and public figure, and the media. Her fans — especially the young women and queer people who bought tens of millions of copies of the …Baby One More Time album — instinctively grasped that Britney was exactly who she presented herself as. Her appeal came not from her celebrity, but her relatability — and her uncanny ability to push pop music forward.

Equally strong, but with all the backing of early-millennium media behind it, was the backlash. From her debut, traditional media and much of music journalism objectified her as both virginal, for her good-girl Christian South upbringing, while slut-shaming her at the same time. Many still assume the “…Baby One More Time” video was the product of some male music executive’s fantasies, rather than an idea Britney came up with herself. However, her infamous 1999 Rolling Stone cover, shot by David LaChappelle, deliberately played into that image. Again, she looks back without judgement: “When the magazine came out, the photos were controversial because the cover shot of me in my underwear holding a Teletubby played up how young I was. My mother seemed concerned, but I knew that I wanted to work with David LaChapelle again.”

Behind those debates lay a deeper entrenched misogyny: a young woman couldn’t possibly be self-aware, be the primary driving force of her career, or have any kind of sincere artistic expression. A 2003 profile by rock critic Chuck Klosterman critiques her image, giving both sardonic insight and unflinching heterosexual male-gaze objectification: “Apparently, the reason I am here is to be reminded that the essence of Britney Spears’ rawest sexuality is something I will never see, even though I know it’s there. This is why I am a metaphor for America, and this is also why Britney Spears is a metaphor for the American Dream. Culturally, there is nothing more trenchant than the fact that Britney Spears will never give it up, even though she already has.”

To all this, Britney retorts, “I was never quite sure what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing — a Bob Dylan impression? I was a teenage girl from the South. I signed my name with a heart. I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”

Maybe she was dangerous. Maybe the conservative elements of western, American society deserved to be scandalised. It’s hard to envision now, but around the turn of the new millennium, the concept of Britney Spears really did become the fulcrum of pop culture and celebrity gossip. Many pushed back against it, but everyone felt it — popular culture was changing, and accelerating.

Britney Decides She’s Had Enough — But The World Closes In

Meanwhile, Britney was beginning to have personal troubles in and out of the spotlight. In perhaps the most-shared excerpt from the book so far, she reveals that she became pregnant with Justin Timberlake’s baby. He understandably decides that he’s too young to be a father, to which Britney agrees. But to avoid the possibility of anyone finding out — including their families — Britney goes through a harrowing, hours-long abortion at home. Her story is deeply traumatic and relatable, but without a doubt, if it had come out then, she would’ve been shamed for it too.

Devastated by her breakup with Justin, she seeks the opposite in her relationship with Kevin Federline. “From the moment I saw him, there was a connection between us — something that made me feel like I could escape everything that was hard in my life. That very first night we met, he held me — and I mean held me — in a pool for hours… It was beyond a sexual thing. It wasn’t about lust. It was intimate. He would hold me as long as I wanted to be held. Had anyone in my life ever done that before? If so, I couldn’t remember when. And was there anything better?”

With her marriage to Federline and the birth of their sons, Sean and Jayden, in 2005 and 2006, Britney sees an opportunity for peace, to rest and recuperate from her years of constant touring and promotion. But almost without knowing it, she becomes increasingly isolated from friends, family, and her husband — who’s too enthralled with fame to pay attention to his home life.

In hindsight, she understands exactly what happened: “Having kids was psychologically very complicated… I’ve heard that this sometimes happens to parents — especially if you have trauma from your childhood. When your kids get to be the age you were when you were dealing with something rough, you relive it emotionally.”

“I now know that I was displaying just about every symptom of perinatal depression: sadness, anxiety, fatigue. Once the babies were born, I added on my confusion and obsession about the babies’ safety, which was ratcheting up the more media attention was on us.”

Britney’s recollections of that time read like a grim, slow-motion domino effect. She files for divorce, which sets off a custody battle — and that’s when the downward spiral truly begins. Desperate and unable to see her children, constantly tailed by paparazzi, she finally does something that shatters the image everyone else had built up of her. 

“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. I’d been the good girl for years. I’d smiled politely while TV show hosts leered at my breasts, while American parents said I was destroying their children by wearing a crop top, while executives patted my hand condescendingly and second-guessed my career choices even though I’d sold millions of records, while my family acted like I was evil. And I was tired of it.”

But the spectacle only gets worse. It becomes a kind of cruel public humiliation ritual. Beyond any genuine concern for her safety or mental health, it seems the true reason her parents intervened was to save face, and get her under control. In the book’s most terrifying moment, they literally spring a SWAT team on her to institutionalise her, and set up an indefinite conservatorship, with full legal authority over both her actions and her finances.

Inside Britney’s Conservatorship

Britney’s account of those 13 years under the conservatorship, from 2008 to 2021, read like a bizarre form of purgatory. Early on, she resolves, “I felt my spirit retreat, and I went on autopilot. If I play along, surely they’ll see how good I am and they will let me go.

But by the time she’s well enough to work and record music again — earning $130 million on 2009’s Circus Tour — there’s no legal, let alone moral pretext to keep her in an arrangement designed for people who aren’t lucid enough to make decisions for themselves. It simply doesn’t make sense.

Through the early years of her conservatorship, journalists and fans sympathetic to her plight, but unaware of the full extent of her circumstances, wondered: what happened? A 2011 Vulture article described her public appearances as a form of “zombie fame”: “[she] still seems sedated… She doesn’t seem to be in charge of this comeback… or even look that happy to be participating. It’s like she’s a slot machine rigged to spew out radio singles: The people around her are just pulling on the handle.”

It’s excruciating to hear Britney’s experiences firsthand — and to realise she was more self-aware than we knew at the time. “The conservatorship stripped me of my womanhood, made me into a child. I became more of an entity than a person onstage. I had always felt music in my bones and my blood; they stole that from me.”

She slowly realises that it’s not just about money and control — that there are deeper demons behind it all. Though it’s still impossible to comprehend Jamie Spears’ true motivations for putting his daughter into, effectively, a form of indefinite indentured servitude, there are staggering parallels between their situation and his own father’s institutionalising of two of his wives.

Under the conservatorship, any potential suitor was scrutinised, tailed by private investigators. Her calls and text messages were monitored. Her bedroom bugged. At one point, she wasn’t even allowed to have her IUD removed. It was an enactment of the most sinister form of patriarchal, reproductive control.

Every time Britney found a way to push back, things somehow got worse. In 2018, at a heavily publicised event to announce Domination, her second Vegas residency, Britney appeared before the cameras, interacted with fans, then left without saying a word.

She simply refused to play the role anymore, and things hit absolute rock bottom. She was checked into a rehab centre that was more intrusive than prison, and put on lithium to the point where she was not fully lucid. Even so, she recalls, “It wasn’t lost on me that lithium was the drug my grandmother Jean, who later committed suicide, had been put on in Mandeville.”

But when she disappeared off social media, it created a cascade of events — leaks from her team, amateur investigations, documentaries — that formed the #FreeBritney movement. In the end, the solution was shockingly straightforward: though she was lied to about it for years, she could have hired her own lawyer all along. In September 2021, Jamie Spears was removed as her conservator and by November, 13 years of conservatorship were finally over.

Writing the Future

There’s no neat moral lesson, no deeper meaning to Britney’s years of suffering. Though she is healing, her present has many knots yet to untangle. She writes of experiencing trauma-induced migraines, and her difficulties trusting people, especially her family. Perhaps one day, things will come full circle. Of her grandfather, she writes, “I’ve had dreams in which June tells me he knows he hurt my father, who then hurt me. I felt his love and that he’d changed on the other side. I hope that one day I will be able to feel better about the rest of my family, too.”

If this memoir’s only goal is for Britney Spears to break her own cycle of trauma and find closure, it’s succeeded. If any other reader finds relevance to their own lives, that’s simply a bonus.

But 25 years after her debut, Britney’s music is still having an impact. If that’s anything to go by, the influence of this book on our understandings of fame, misogyny and family trauma will play out for years to come. Though there’s so much still left unsaid, considering all the victims of fame who never got to tell their own side of the story, the fact that The Woman in Me even exists is itself a minor miracle.

Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.

Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.

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