I never cared about Britney Spears growing up – never replicated the …Baby One More Time pigtails, failed to do the 1,000 crunches a day required for Oops! I Did It Again abs. I missed her TRL appearances, skipped her songs when they came on my Groov-e Boombox, declined to enter the frenzy for tickets to see the Dream Within A Dream tour.
All of which is more or less beside the point. For those of us whose consciousness was formed in those unholy years on either side of the millennium, Britney Spears was not “a” celebrity, someone whose influence you might opt into by way of cineplex viewings of Crossroads while wearing mall-bought acid-wash denim. She was the celebrity, a paragon wrapped in a paradox, the Platonic ideal of a girl-becoming-a-woman who managed, with a gymnast’s poise, to navigate the tightrope between being too virginal (Jessica Simpson) or too “whoreish” (Christina Aguilera) to the tune of millions of dollars worth of record sales and a fanbase rabid enough to purchase her chewed gum. “Everything about Britney’s image asserted her innocence,” writes Sarah Ditum in Toxic: Women, Fame and the Noughties, published by Fleet today, “and everything about that innocence’s ostentatious performance encouraged at least one part of the audience to imagine its despoiling.”
Until, of course, she couldn’t hack it anymore. And we hated her for it.
I suppose it’s natural to enjoy a certain schadenfreude when the yardstick against which you – and an entire generation of young women – are being measured breaks in a spectacular fashion. I can still recall the cruel hilarity in our voices as we sat around a table in my Connecticut high school’s cafeteria, picking at iceberg lettuce and laughing at the latest Spears scandal on Perez Hilton – our sense of mob justice echoed and validated not just by a blogger whose signature move was drawing semen around female celebrities’ mouths but by every tabloid lined up at the Super Stop & Shop checkout, by Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer, by Pulitzer Prize-winning media outlets.
Here was Britney, being upskirted at a nightclub. (“Britney Spears’ no-panties stunt is a disgusting abuse of power,” one Fox News writer offered by way of comment, without a trace of irony. “If anyone wants to see the uncensored pics of Britney’s private parts, the sad sight is on the Internet. But I warn you, the fantasies you may have harboured in the ‘Oops … I Did It Again’ years are not realised in these pics.”) Here was Britney, shaving her head, only for someone to sweep up the clippings and put them on eBay for $50 each. (“Not only her hair is gone,” reads a dispatch in The Observer. “Gone too is the perfectly toned physique of her videos and the fashionable outfits that inspired a generation of American youngsters. They have been replaced by an image of a pale shaven-headed woman, puffy-faced, and wearing a drab grey sweatshirt.”) Here was Britney, being placed under a psychiatric hold, a video of which is still available to watch on TMZ. (“OMG THE DRAMA! TMZ is there as Britney Spears was just wheeled out of her home on a gurney by paramedics. Look at that shot of her inside the ambulance – she’s frickin’ smiling! Why God, why?!?”)
None of this is new information, of course – nor is there all that much in the way of revelations in The Woman in Me, at least not the kind that can be easily translated into Mail Online headlines. (When the world has already dissected your very C-section scars, there isn’t much left to offer up in the way of monetisable gossip.) Instead, Spears’s account of her own life – told simply, and in loosely chronological order – is nothing more or less than the Reader’s Digest version of an American horror story played out over the course of several decades, one that began long before her highly public breakdown reached its zenith in 2008. It is both desperately sad and wholly worth reading, if only to comprehend fully, for the first time, the relentlessness of the scrutiny she faced, almost breathtaking in its invasiveness – and, more pressingly, your own inevitable complicity in it.
Because who among us could look away from her demise? Who wasn’t clicking on those Page Six articles, even if it was to condemn their contents? (Motive, for what it’s worth, has precisely zero bearing on digital ad revenue.) How did we not see how unfathomably grim it all was, long before hair clippers and umbrellas and conservatorships entered the equation?
Early on in the memoir, Spears recalls being asked, as a 10-year-old Star Search contestant, whether she’s dating (“You have the most adorable, pretty eyes,” host Ed McMahon informs her. “You have a boyfriend?”), then told her outfit at the 2000 VMAs was responsible for corrupting America’s youth on camera in Times Square a few years later (“Why did everyone treat me, even as a teenager, like I was dangerous?”). Her body was deemed too “perfect” to be “authentic” (“I smiled politely while TV show hosts leered at my breasts”), then ripped to shreds for no longer looking like a teenager’s once she became a mother (“At what point did I promise to stay 17 for the rest of my life?”). “Trying to find ways to protect my heart from criticism and to keep the focus on what was important, I started reading religious books like the Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch,” Spears writes of this period in a passage that might have served as a Joan Didion epigraph. “I also started taking Prozac.”
Britney’s saving grace, it would seem, is that she’s aware that her life has been spent caught between a rock and a hard patriarchy, even as that fact has slowly crushed her spirit. At its core, The Woman In Me is effectively Spears calling us – all of us – on our bullshit.
We were outraged, we insisted in the mid-Aughts, by the casual sex and the alleged drug use and the lack of a car seat for Sean Preston – Spears’s public breakdown representing nothing less than a tear in America’s moral fabric. Except, of course, having some sort of mental health issue was almost a prerequisite for a female celebrity in the ’00s, only serving to increase a girl’s allure as something fragile, delicate, in need of protection. Britney’s true crime was that her breakdown wasn’t of the “glamorous” variety. She wasn’t starving herself until her ribs were visible, subsisting on Marlboro Lights and black Starbucks filter coffee; she was being papped at McDonald’s drive-thrus, sipping Big Gulps. She betrayed us not with her partying or her divorce but by letting the effects of that partying show, by being visibly run down by having to raise two babies on her own. We weren’t offended that she was exposing herself in a nightclub; we were offended that she was exposing herself in a way that felt sloppy rather than titillating.
“I never knew how to play the game,” she writes. “I didn’t know how to present myself on any level. I was a bad dresser – hell, I’m still a bad dresser, and I’ll admit that. And I work on that. But as much as I’ll own my flaws, ultimately, I know that I am a good person. I can see now that you have to be smart enough, vicious enough, deliberate enough to play the game, and I did not know the game. I was truly innocent – just clueless. I was a newly single mom of two little boys – I didn’t have the time to fix my hair before I went out into a sea of photographers.”
To be clear, Britney Spears is not “every woman”. She is a 41-year-old pop star with a $70 million fortune who counts Donatella Versace and Paris Hilton as her closest friends. But our treatment of her has hurt us all, and there are lessons to be learned from The Woman In Me, ones that we should be ashamed it has taken us so long to absorb – if we have, in fact, absorbed them at all. Much has been made of how terrible the Noughties were for women – sometimes by women who had a hand in making them so terrible in the first place – but there is a large part of me that wonders whether the 2020s are any better, that wonders whether Britney is even really out of the woods.
Eighteen months ago, a rumour mushroomed online that Spears was related to Marilyn Monroe. They are, if several dubious Quora threads are to be believed, ninth cousins, three times removed. And, yes, there are similarities – peroxide, catastrophically bad parents, worse husbands – but there are differences, too, the most significant being that Britney didn’t, by some miracle, die at 36. We have bent and broken and laughed at her, but we have not made her story a tragedy in the most literal sense just yet. That, perversely, we would know how to handle – with public contrition and hastily penned hagiographies and pink carnations laid outside her childhood home in Kentwood.
What we don’t know how to cope with – what nothing has prepared us for – is for Britney Spears to have the audacity to live. She has survived us, has lived to tell the – her – tale, to rebuild some semblance of a life. If nothing else, I hope The Woman In Me serves as a reminder that we should let her live it in peace.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.