If there’s a true, final boss villain of Britney Spears’s long-awaited memoir, The Woman in Me, it isn’t her alcoholic and abusive father, who made millions off her conservatorship and at one point claimed “I’m Britney Spears now.” Nor is it Lou Taylor, the architect of that conservatorship. It isn’t even Justin Timberlake, who broke Spears’s heart by cheating on her several times, convincing her to have an abortion when she was 19, then breaking up with her over text. The true villain? It’s the press.
The media, after all, heightened the dynamics of her relationship with Timberlake: When they were together, Spears recalls how the questions he’d get asked by talk show hosts were different from what they asked her. “Everyone kept making strange comments about my breasts, wanting to know whether or not I’d had plastic surgery,” she writes. (Like many celebrity memoirists, Spears wrote the book with the help of a ghostwriter, in this case, the journalist and novelist Sam Lansky.) After they broke up, Timberlake went on Barbara Walters and played an unreleased song called “Don’t Go (Horrible Woman)” that was clearly about her, and used the “Cry Me a River” video to win sympathy for himself and, in Spears’s words, paint her as a “harlot who’d broken the heart of America’s golden boy.” While promoting her 2003 album In the Zone, still grieving the relationship and feeling as though she was “no longer able to communicate,” her father and several handlers forced her to sit for an interview with Diane Sawyer in which the anchor demanded to know what Spears did to “cause [Timberlake] so much pain, so much suffering.” “The interview was a breaking point for me internally,” she writes. “I felt something dark come over my body. I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf, into a Bad Person.”
And it was the media who’d created the spectacle of Britney Spears during the fallout: While she was pregnant with her sons Sean Preston and Jayden James, the paparazzi tailed her whether she went out or stayed inside, using decontextualized moments in time to portray her in the tabloids as unattractive or an unfit mother. “I got cornered by the paparazzi with [Sean Preston] ... they kept on taking my picture as, trapped, I held him and cried,” she writes. “The magazines seemed to love nothing more than a photo they could run with the headline ‘Britney Spears got HUGE!’ … At what point did I promise to stay seventeen for the rest of my life?” She refers to the paparazzi as “enemy combatants” who “seemed to multiply every time I checked.”
Britney Spears is far from the only famous woman (or non-famous woman) to be vilified by the press, and certainly not in the 2000s, a time when the tabloids were even more vicious and sexist than they are today, in large part because there was no real-time feedback to said sexism in the form of social media. But her story is perhaps the most indicative of the media’s culpability in the suffering of all who find themselves swept up in its force.
If you’d only read about her in the tabloids or watched daytime talk shows, the story of Britney Spears is a simple one: A young, beautiful ingenue from the rural South comes from nowhere and takes over the music industry, immediately hailed as a bimbo sex object when she was just a teenager. Then, after a few years, Hollywood gets the better of her and the fame starts to take its toll — suddenly she’s partying too hard, having kids and failing to take proper care of them, and ultimately having several public “breakdowns.” Cut to: the conservatorship, the Free Britney movement, and her eventual freedom. It’s the classic rise, fall, then rise again narrative that the press is eager to spew and the public is ready to consume.
The Woman in Me complicates that narrative, mainly by letting us learn more about Spears the person. Spears, as she repeats several times over the course of her memoir, is “weird,” and the media has never known how to handle weird. Spears means it in a good way, the way artists are often weird: During filming of the 2002 teen movie Crossroads, she writes that she was unable to separate herself from her character even when the cameras stopped rolling, like unintentional Method acting. “I ended up walking differently, carrying myself differently, talking differently. I was someone else for months while I filmed Crossroads. Still to this day, I bet the people I shot that movie with think, She’s a little … quirky. If they thought that, they were right.” She describes herself as “disturbingly empathetic” and that “what people are feeling in Nebraska, I can subconsciously feel even though I’m thousands of miles away.” She recalls a time when, on a road trip, she and a friend both felt the presence of God, or perhaps aliens. “There have been so many times when I was scared to speak up because I was afraid somebody would think I was crazy,” she says, and it’s a heartbreaking reminder of what people did think of her.
Add that to the fact that Spears comes from a family with a long history of violence, trauma, and abuse, the fact that she was always hounded by paparazzi, and the “weird” gets weirder. She describes her own strangeness as being childlike — in the way that she demanded white marble floors in her Los Angeles home even when the designers said it would be dangerous, in the way she writes her emoji-laden and often chaotic Instagram posts — largely stemming from childhood trauma. Under the conservatorship, she became “a sort of child-robot. I had been so infantilized that I was losing pieces of what made me feel like myself.” Venting on Instagram, she says, was her way of rebelling against its strictures and beating back media narratives: “Maybe this has been a feminist awakening,” she says, “I guess what I’m saying is that the mystery of who the real me is, is to my advantage — because nobody knows!”
The media has trained the public to view any element of weirdness as evidence that something sinister is going on behind the scenes, almost always implying either drug use or mental health struggles (and this was a time before most magazines, newspapers, or talk shows knew how to talk about addiction and mental health). The effects haven’t worn off: Take, for instance, the volume of conspiracy theories that still abound over Britney’s “real” whereabouts and well-being even after being freed from her conservatorship, most of which come down to skepticism of her Instagram posts and her self-presentation. Read the book, however, and it’s clear that her Instagram isn’t a cry for help — it’s Spears venting against the system that used and exploited her. Of her personal style, she says, “I never knew how to play the game. I didn’t know how to present myself on any level. I was a bad dresser — hell, I’m still a bad dresser.” She frames this as being bad at the game of being famous, and on some level, she’s right: Spears never knew when to speak and when to demur, how to act, or what to wear. She’s anxious and distrustful. No one prepared her for the media tornado they’d sent her into.
It wasn’t just the photographers and the tabloids. In one interview with Matt Lauer, he kept bringing up that “everyone” was asking, “Is Britney a bad mom?” On the rare occasion she’d go out with Paris Hilton, the tabloids would call her a slut or an addict (Spears says she never took illegal drugs and never had an alcohol problem). When she was undergoing a devastating custody battle and separated from her children for weeks, “out of my mind with grief,” the paparazzi captured her shaving her head in a hair salon; a few days later, they hammered her with questions until she snapped, hitting one of their cars with an umbrella. When she performed “Gimme More” at the VMAs in 2007, just after having a panic attack and running into Timberlake backstage, Sarah Silverman referred to her children as “the most adorable mistakes you’ll ever see,” and Dr. Phil called the performance a “train wreck.” When she did an interview with Ryan Seacrest to promote Blackout, the album she was most proud of in her entire career, all he asked were questions like, “Do you feel like you’re doing everything you can for your kids?”
Then, when Spears’s father and Lou Taylor imposed the conservatorship, her mother used the press to gain sympathy for herself in the form of a highly publicized, tell-all memoir. The media, meanwhile, never seemed to make much of the fact that Jamie Spears was an alcoholic who’d declared bankruptcy, failed in business, and was now in total legal control of his accomplished, millionaire daughter. It wasn’t until the Free Britney movement was years underway that the media began paying attention to the fact that one of the most famous people in the world was under a guardianship usually reserved for elderly people who cannot take care of themselves, and even then, the attention usually came with an air of skepticism.
The journalists, producers, and publishers who shaped the narrative around Britney weren’t the only people profiting. Spears was constantly surrounded by a system of managers, handlers, and publicists who squeezed as much money and attention as they could out of her whether it benefited her or, more often, didn’t. Of the “virgin” persona that dominated her early career, Spears writes, “My managers and press people had long tried to portray me as an eternal virgin — never mind that Justin and I had been living together, and I’d been having sex since I was fourteen.” When Justin accused Britney of cheating in “Cry Me a River,” she was then slammed as a hypocrite, even though she’d never wanted to be seen as a virginal role model to begin with.
It’s too bad that the public didn’t get to see the “real” Britney from the start. Young female artists now are entering a wildly different media landscape than she did; for one, they have more power to portray themselves in whatever way they want via social media, and many of them, having built their careers online, don’t have an enormous fame apparatus around them instructing them on what to do and say (part of that is because there is significantly less money in the music industry than there was in the ’90s). The result is that it’s rare for an artist to become as rich and famous as Britney Spears, but they’ll likely have had more autonomy along the way.
The media, too, is different; it’s more forgiving and less prescriptive (commenters on social media are, however, the opposite). But because Britney Spears is still Britney Spears, she continues to be the subject of vicious rumor-mongering and irresponsible reporting from outlets like TMZ and the Daily Mail, which since the end of her conservatorship have attempted to portray her as an unfit mother, an addict, and mentally unwell. After two decades and endless appeals to be left alone, Spears is still at the mercy of the tabloids, who along with much of the public, expected that she’d “go back to normal” once the conservatorship ended.
With Britney, though, there is no “normal.” In the final pages of the book, she tells us this herself. “I’m free now. I’m just being myself and trying to heal,” she says. “Freedom means being goofy, silly, and having fun on social media. Freedom means taking a break from Instagram without people calling 911. Freedom means being able to make mistakes, and learning from them. Freedom means I don’t have to perform for anyone — onstage or offstage.” The media in 2023 still feels unprepared to handle a Britney Spears — or any female celebrity — who is unconcerned with performance, who is living only for themselves, and who is, by her own description, weird. But hopefully she can do so anyway. She’s certainly earned the right.