Mad Woman :: A Review and Reaction to Britney Spears’ The Woman in Me
I was never a huge Britney Spears fan. I loved her first two albums, but I was always way more worried about what the Backstreet Boys were up to in her early years of fame. And while I will absolutely crank up “Circus” when my iTunes shuffle lands on it, I couldn’t tell you much about any of her albums past “Oops… I Did It Again.” I remember the scandal and fear after she shaved her head, and in recent years, I loosely followed the drama around her conservatorship, but I never even followed her on social media.
Despite all of this, and the fact that I don’t usually read a lot of memoirs, I felt a strange need to read her book The Woman in Me. My brother got it for me for Christmas, and on the afternoon of the 25th, after the chaos of the morning had been tamed and my girls were contentedly playing with new toys, I curled up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of tea, and Britney’s Spear’s memoir.
The next 48 hours sent me down a rabbit hole in which I finished the book, watched 3 different documentaries on her, googled several questions about her and the people around her, and finally started following her on Facebook and Instagram. And in the 50th hour, I started writing this article.
Initially, I was disappointed in the book. The language of the beginning chapters felt like the personal essays I get from my high school students, and honestly, that’s probably being unfairly harsh to my students. The syntax was simple and basic; the sentences lacked complexity and detail. Sometimes it seemed like she was following steps in a “how to write a memoir” book or answering questions for a poorly chosen ghost-writer rather than actually detailing and reflecting on her life. Having grown up during the height of TRL and the VMAs, I wanted to delve into the world of fame in the late 90s and early 2000s, but she regularly glossed over huge events that I have vivid memories of. At times, it even felt as though she had relied on Wikipedia to sum up dates and events rather than being able to recall them herself. The details of her rise to fame seem forgotten or insignificant to her. In fact, one of the most detailed episodes in the early chapters is her own star-struck encounter with Mariah Carey. For a while, I was a little worried that Internet busy-bodies were right when they suggested that she had lost touch with reality.
The beginning of the book focused not so much on her rise to fame, but on her childhood, and even those details left me confused. She presented a vague picture of a childhood that was simultaneously happy and traumatic. She laughs off the idea of her mother taking her for daiquiris and allowing her to drive a car at 13, suggesting that these were fun, bonding moments for her. What most confused me, though, was the relative absence of her father in the early chapters of her book. She mentions that he was an alcoholic and would often be gone for days on end, and she mentioned that she was afraid to drive in a car with him, but there are otherwise very few details about her experiences with her father during her childhood. For a man who has been so vilified by her conservatorship, I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t using the opportunity to paint him as a bad guy from early on in her life. Later, I would understand that he was just that absent from her life.
Even her discussion of her relationship with Justin Timberlake wasn’t the bombshell I was expecting it to be. She reveals that he cheated on her – which surprised no one. She also details the traumatic abortion of his child, a detail that had already made headlines before I read the book. Maybe it was this second revelation that JT’s PR team was so worried about, but Britney does not use it as an opportunity to paint him in a terrible light. She says he wasn’t ready to be a father, but she does not insinuate that he pressured her into the abortion; instead, she admits she didn’t want to force him into fatherhood. She says they agreed to the (dangerous) circumstances of her abortion, and she describes him lying with her and singing to her “until it was all over.” People wanted Spears to use her memoir as an opportunity to reveal all of Timberlake’s darkest secrets, but she didn’t do that. She just repeatedly emphasizes how much she loved him and how hard she took their split. Instead, she directs her anger at the sexist and misogynistic entertainment industry, calling out the double standard in how the two stars were treated after their breakup.
At this point in reading, I found myself frustrated. Yes, I wished there had been a few more seedy details, but more significantly, I found myself disappointed in the author. Spears says, “… no one could seem to think of me as both sexy and capable, or talented and hot. If I was sexy, they seemed to think I must be stupid. If I was hot, I couldn’t possibly be talented.” That, however, was never my opinion of her. Not only had I wanted to look like her when I was young, but my own life experience had taught me that it is impossible for anyone as talented as she is to be dumb. I had wanted her memoir to reveal her brilliance, and so far, it hadn’t.
From the moment she mentioned Kevin Federline, however, my opinion changed. It quickly became evident that everything up to that point was just necessary background information, but it wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. The story she wanted to tell, the story she needed to world to know, began with him. It is amazing how quickly her life spiraled out of her control, and the language and details of her writing reflect that. Her language became more complex, detailed, and reflective, and suddenly, I couldn’t put the book down.
She paints Kevin in, what I would argue, in a worse light than Justin, but as with Justin, Kevin isn’t the ultimate bad guy in her book. My favorite line from the whole book is, “He really thought he was a rapper now. Bless his heart – because he did take it so seriously.” Every Southerner knows exactly what she truly meant in those lines. If nothing else, Kevin used her as a stepping stone for his own career, but if you believe what Britney writes, he went from being a negligent husband and father to someone hell-bent on proving that she was the unfit parent. She says that, during their divorce proceedings, he wouldn’t let her see her boys “for weeks on end.” I found myself wondering how the heck this was possible. How could a father who had barely been present keep them from the mother who had been with them? What system would allow that? Where the hell were her lawyers?
It seems everyone wanted to use Britney shaving her head as evidence that K-Fed was right, but from her perspective, it was the result of her children already being taken from her, of no one listening to her, and of the paparazzi’s desperate attempt to get headlines out of her. Every action that the media documented as evidence that she was having a mental health crisis and was unfit was, according to her, was actually driven by fears generated by others. She attacked the paparazzi with an umbrella because they would not leave her alone. She locked herself in a bathroom with her youngest child because she grew terrified that she would never see him again. Who could really blame her for these fears?
It was only after this last event resulted in her hospitalization that her dad waltzed back into her life and with unbelievable speed took over her life and her assets. As Spears points out in her book, and several of the documentaries also mention, he was an alcoholic and a failed businessman, but somehow the courts believed he was better suited to control her actions and finances than she was. Britany is much more direct and damning in her descriptions of her family than she is of any of her significant others. Her family controlled her every action, worked her to the brink of exhaustion, and used threats and fear to garner her compliance. They were certainly her jailers and her tormentors, but as with her major relationships, they aren’t the biggest problem.
Spears consistently highlights throughout her book that the greatest culprits are the systems that surrounded her: an entertainment industry that held double standards for its male and female performers; a media industry that prioritized sales and sensationalism over truth and safety; and a court system that would willing separate children from their mother and give unlimited control of her life and assets to a single member of her family and a legal team not of her choosing. And despite all that she was able to accomplish in the 13 years of her conservatorship, these systems continued to spin tales about her mental health and refused to give her opportunities to reclaim her life or even to honor her requests to put someone, anyone, other than her father in control. Even now, after the #FreeBritney movement successfully helped bring an end to her conservatorship, people continue to behave as though her business is their own.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be worried about her. I think her book offers one side of the story, and there are probably details that would make her look a little less like a victim if they were released. I think she does struggle with mental health issues and does need help addressing those, but I think it should not be forgotten how much of the trauma she experienced, much in the name of her health, contributed to the struggles.
People see her social media posts and worry about her mental health, but I just think she’s gone mad. She might look “mad” as in crazy, but really, she’s just “mad” as in angry, and she has every right to be.
As Taylor Swift says:
Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy
What about that?
And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry
And there’s nothing like a mad woman
What a shame she went mad
No one likes a mad woman
You made her like that
After reading her memoir, my greatest hope for Britney Spears is that she’ll grow fat and happy; that she’ll find a team of people who support her and love her rather than use and abuse her; that she’ll figure out exactly who she is, now that she can, and give the whole world a big middle finger when they dare to say anything about it.
I know we’d all love for her to make a comeback and go on a world tour, but I’d absolutely love to see her behind the scenes too: as a choreographer, as a director, and as a mentor making sure the same things don’t happen to future child stars.