A portrait of the artiste as a persecuted woman

Frank and inspiring, that's Britney Spears's memoir

03 December 2023 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers
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'The Woman in Me' by Britney Spears.
'The Woman in Me' by Britney Spears.
Image: Supplied

The Woman in Me ★★★★
Britney Spears 
Gallery Books UK

“At what point did I promise to stay seventeen for the rest of my life?” 

Pop (culture) icon, best-selling artist and multi-award-winning chanteuse Britney Spears rhetorically — and ominously prophetically — poses in her memoir, The Woman in Me.

An alternative title could have been A Portrait of the Artiste as a Persecuted Woman, owing to the vilification, infantilisation, sexualisation and aggressive hounding Spears was subjected to by the media and which she writes about frankly, with tangible anger: from her nascent, 16-year-old days of ... Baby One More Time-stardom until her court appearances overruling her conservatorship, reading Spears's account of her life elicits feelings of shock and fury at the system which benefited from her, yet so deeply betrayed her. 

Imposed abortion, perinatal depression, anxiety, divorce, miscarriage, sectioning, conservatorship at the hands of her father: the Princess of Pop endured — and overcame — loss, loneliness, despair and violation. 

Nonetheless, her determination to “be a woman in the world” and reclaim her personhood is an encouraging (dare one say inspiring?) motivator to be included in the written account of her near-Sisyphean journey to freedom. 

Not to the mention brief behind-the-scenes glimpses of the starlet's Friends in High Society which add a sense of frisson and levity: her two-week long “brawl” with Colin Farrell (“Brawl is the only word for it — we were all over each other, grappling so passionately at it was like we were in a street fight.” Great craic, Brit!), the iconic 2003 VMAs kiss with Queen of Pop and Spears's confidante Madonna, a casual mention of hosting a New Year's Eve party with Natalie Portman and meeting Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Keri Russell during their stints as Mouseketeers for Disney's Mickey Mouse Club.

The prose is genuine and unpretentious, verging on simple and near-naive (Joan Didion this southern gal raised in Kentwood, Louisiana, ain't ... ), yet Spears's sincere voice only adds to the authenticity of what the deeply wronged songstress wishes to convey — to be heard, to be recognised, to be seen, to be free — in her own words and of her own volition.

Regression and the denial of autonomy are two palpable Leitmotifs in Spears's life, which she frequently returns to throughout her memoir. 

Writing that "[l]ife in Louisiana had passed me by. I felt like I had no-one to talk to. Going through that break-up [with Justin Timberlake, the man who enforced her abortion] and seeing how much I didn't fit in anywhere anymore, I realized that I was technically growing up, becoming a woman. And yet, honestly, it was almost like I went backward at the same time and became younger in my mind ... Somehow that year, in becoming more vulnerable, I started to feel like a child again,” the dichotomous nature of a woman forced to grow up far too soon, with the added burden of a Madonna-whore complex attached to her, is conveyed.

Not to mention the mental deterioration (figuratively speaking) age-wise, as her conservatorship stripped her of her autonomy: “They decided where I went and with who ... Security guards handed me pre-packaged envelopes of meds and watched me take them. They put parental controls on my iPhone. Everything was scrutinized and controlled. Everything”.

Security guards handed me prepackaged envelopes of meds and watched me take them. They put parental controls on my iPhone. Everything was scrutinized and controlled. Everything.
Britney Spears

Spears also poignantly writes that "[t]ragedy runs in my family”, introducing readers to the young Britney who adored singing, dancing and acrobatics, playing basketball and the odd girl's trip with her mom, which stands in direct correlation with her dad's alcoholism, the bullying he endured from her paternal grandfather, her mother's fits of anguished rage at her husband's alcohol dependency and how her paternal grandfather had her paternal grandmother sent to a “by-all-accounts horrible asylum in Mandeville, where she was put on lithium. In 1966, when she was thirty-one, my grandmother Jean shot herself with a shotgun on her infant son's grave, just over eight years after his death. I can't imagine the grief that she must have felt.”

A terrifyingly realistic omen of what Spears was to face: she too was sectioned; she too was put on lithium and she too had to part with her sons when denied custody of the two after her divorce from Kevin Federline, deeply embedded in the warped maws of her so-called insanity and maternal unfitness.

And it was her fierce determination of a mother denied seeing, holding and being with her children which further determined her to reclaim her life — yet tragically, documented and depicted by contorted media imagery. 

We all remember the photos: Britney walking into a hair salon, taking a pair of clippers and shaving off all her 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.”

We all remember the meme, “If Britney survived 2007, you can make it through today”. Straight-up callous, considering the context ...

Yet Britney emerged stronger (than yesterday): for all my fellow-manifestation girlies out there — and those who scoff at it — manifesting is what propelled Spears to secure her freedom, writing, “If I can manifest anything, I thought, let me manifest an end to this”. 

“This” referring to her conservatorship: “If I was strong enough to survive everything I'd survived, I could take a chance and ask for just a little bit more from God. I was going to ask, with every bit of my motherfucking blood and skin, for the end of the conservatorship. Because I didn't want those people running my life anymore. I didn't even want them in my goddamn kitchen. I didn't want them to have the power to keep me from my children or from my house or from my dogs or from my car ever, ever again.”

Her first step into freeing, and reclaiming, the woman inside her? 

Showing the world that she's still Britney, bitch, “for people to begin to understand that I was a real person”, which she did by turning to Instagram: from modelling new clothes (“I found it incredibly fun”) and subconsciously pulling a Julia Cameron by tapping back into her creativity by following visual and musical artists on the social media platform (“I came across a guy making trippy videos — one was just a baby-pink screen with a white tiger with pink stripes walking across it. Seeing that, I felt a natural urge to create something, and I started playing around with a song. At the beginning of it, I added the sound of a baby laughing ... Artists are weird”).

From virtual creation to a literal recreation and reclamation of her self and her womanhood, we salute you, your calibre, grit and mettle in sharing your life story with us, Ms Spears. 

Brava, Britney! Brava. 

Click here to buy a copy of The Woman in Me

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