The new release of Britney Spears’s autobiography, titled The Woman in Me, has a unique objective amidst the typical goals of a celebrity memoir: to demonstrate the 41-year-old’s competence once and for all. After being under a conservatorship managed by her father for 13 years, Spears has now been in control of her own life for 18 months. Her recent public appearances have shown an exaggerated sense of caution, almost as if she is trying to prove her sobriety. These calculated displays aim to showcase her independence, enjoyment, and occasional lightheartedness in order to convince others that she is truly free and in charge.
The singer’s life and career may seem like a classic catch-22 from an outside perspective. This is due to the intense trauma she experienced, making it difficult to find a preferable position in regards to it. In her book, Spears shares how she faced ongoing harassment, taunting, and belittlement starting from her early success as a 16-year-old pop star, to her relationship with Justin Timberlake, and the birth of her two children with Kevin Federline. The abuse occurred both within her own home and in the public eye. Despite numerous retellings of Spears’s life in recent years, the latest account still elicits disbelief. One example is the double standard evident in early interviews between Spears and Timberlake – he is taken seriously as a musician (which is amusing, considering he is Justin Timberlake) while she is asked inappropriate questions about her appearance. The constant provocation from paparazzi also adds to the overwhelming circumstances Spears faced. Who wouldn’t struggle under such circumstances?
In simpler terms, according to Joseph Heller, Spears’ actions in response to the chaos surrounding her – such as shaving her head and lashing out at photographers – were actually evidence of her sanity. It’s understandable that she would push back against being constantly scrutinized and controlled since her teenage years by rebelling in various ways. These were natural reactions from someone under immense pressure and subjected to manipulation and mistreatment. However, instead of understanding this, a Swat team was called to forcibly take away her children and suppress her.
As I reflected on this, and other similar accounts in the book, I couldn’t help but wonder: why did the Swat team arrive? Why did everyone seem to go along with the narrative surrounding Spears? The truly unsettling aspect of this history is that, apart from a small group of devoted fans, the story put forth by Spears’s family was widely accepted by the public. A bizarre scenario is presented, with a Las Vegas residency that was forced upon Spears by her father, resulting in millions for himself and his associates while Spears received only a small allowance. It made no logical sense that someone capable of delivering such stellar performances would require a conservatorship due to impairment. Yet, the prevailing image was that Britney was mentally unstable.
Looking back, it is difficult to deny that the root of all this can be traced to a widespread animosity towards women, particularly young women who possess sexuality and power. While Spears’s father, Jamie, who was unsuccessful in business, likely had financial motives for maintaining the conservatorship, one cannot help but wonder about the emotional needs it fulfilled as well. The conservatorship ultimately came to an end in 2022 following a court ruling, and thanks to the dedicated efforts of her fans through the “Free Britney” campaign. Initially seen as a joke, the movement grew increasingly serious as it gained more attention. Like many stories involving the exploitation of young women, this entire saga seems to have been right in front of us all along. How could any of this have been allowed to happen?
In the meantime, Spears is now considered “free”. In her book, she discusses the difficulties she faced in readjusting after being publicly humiliated by Timberlake in the early 2000s. She admits to relying too heavily on a sexual image during her 2004 tour, which she believes was influenced by Timberlake. Spears describes this time as “absolutely horrible” and acknowledges that there are still remnants of the versions of herself that others created. However, she presents herself differently now. The clearest sign of Spears’ freedom is that her image changes unpredictably and without censorship, guided only by her own decisions. This instability is wonderfully liberating.
Emma Brockes writes for The Guardian as a columnist.
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