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23 October 2023

Why Britney Spears will never be free

The Woman in Me shows how trapped the singer has become.

By Esther Watson

On Friday 12 November 2021 a Los Angeles Superior court judge terminated the conservatorship that had ruled Britney Spears’ life for 13 years. For the first time since she was 26 Spears would be free from the restraints of the court-approved structure under which personal, economic and legal decisions were made for her by her father and a team of staggeringly well paid lawyers.

Tomorrow (24 October) Gallery Books will publish a memoir, The Woman in Me, which according to the publisher “illuminates… the importance of a woman telling her own story, on her own terms, at last”. Spears’s life has never really been on her terms: a superstar from the age of 16, she then lived under the terms of gruelling contracts that made her work non-stop for years. A very public breakdown followed, then a public humiliation which resulted in her having all her civil liberties removed. It was only recently, aged 39, that she was able to begin to explore what life could be like living on her own terms. Before she could even begin that exploration she signed this book deal, for a reported $15m.

On the front cover of The Woman in Me Britney is seen at the pinnacle of her success. Metallic hot pants, washboard abs, baby face, sultry make-up. That is forever the image people want of Spears and this is the one the people will get.

Spears’ popularity exploded in 1998 in the wake of her debut single. In the video for “Baby One More Time” a 16 year-old Spears was dressed as a (sexy) school girl; the lyrics exuded a vulnerability about first love. It resonated with teenage girls across the globe. Her brand was staked on this idea: Spears was a doe-eyed virgin, your regular girl next door. 

Millions of records were sold, and in the year she turned 18 her tour grossed close to $1m a show. Brand endorsements, films and books all followed. She made many people very rich. And then, under the scrutiny, her life unfolded. Custody battles, involuntary psychiatric holds, publicly shaving her head and attacking the paparazzi who had made her life so insufferable led to the conservatorship that went on to dictate every aspect of her life for over a decade.

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[See also: Why say #FreeBritney if she’s not free to post nude photos on Instagram?]

The book deal came months after the end of her conservatorship, which was supposedly the beginning of her freedom. But after years of having her career, her finances, her relationships and allegedly, according to Spears, her contraception, controlled by her father, is this finally the freedom she wanted? Is a woman who has repeatedly made clear her disdain for the media and the invasion of her private life really as free as we are led to believe?

The Woman in Me is another act of exposure. Salacious details from the book are being touted across the press ahead of its release. Once again the Spears narrative – an American dream that turned out to be more of a Shakespearean tragedy – will be hung out for the public to stare at. Once again the press will pour over and dissect every detail of her life, they will hound her for further comments, for pictures, for more. The Daily Beast made a list of the “best of the best” revelations from the book, this included Spears having an abortion aged 19 (a decision Spears said she “would not have made” if it had been up to her alone); Page Six then ran a piece about when she actually lost her virginity. Although the press’s attitude to young women has shifted since “Baby One More Time”, Spears somehow remains fair game. The appetite for her will never be sated. And once again the bottom line will be money.

Spears was only allowed access to social media for the first time aged 39 – the online antics that followed were reminiscent of a child’s first foray into Snapchat. She did catwalks in her house, made up dances, posted inspirational quotes and has recently, rather alarmingly, taken to dancing with knives. It is a stark reminder that Spears appears to be frozen at the age she became a star. A teenager’s idea of what’s sexy, and of what’s rebellious.

The reason Spears’ breakdown was so unpalatable was because it was the antithesis of everything she embodied. Youthful energy, fun, beauty, light-heartedness. Today’s young female artists, such as Billie Eilish, embrace the darkness of teenage angst, and play with the rhetoric and imagery of mental illness. Spears – who has experienced as much if not more anguish than any pop star – never used it as an engine for her music. Unlike Eilish, Spears’s image has always been light. She sang about being “born to make you happy”; she sang “I’m a slave for you”. Eilish sings “try not to abuse your power”. Why are Eilish or Taylor Swift not cautionary tales like Spears? Like Spears, they became world famous when they were still children. But they never faced the catastrophic repercussions that she experienced. Notably, they dominate the press, rather than being dominated by it like Spears continues to be.

Questions surrounding how much control Spears has had over her career have surrounded her since the Noughties. Was she a byproduct of a machine around her? How much was she being manipulated by people in power who profited handsomely from her image? Did she ever have any control? One question does have an answer. There was always a correlation between press intrusion and her misery. Why is she opening herself up to so much scrutiny again? The difference is that this time, she is telling her story, on her terms. But with her father gone there is a new team of people working stringently to protect her interests: managers, lawyers, financial advisers. It feels like she has swapped one conservatorship for another.

The Woman in Me will be a lucrative publishing event. Yet again it will be at Spears’ expense. She went through unspeakable horrors twice. First she lived them. Now they are fuel for this memoir. Exposure is the only constant in her career, whether by other people or by herself.

In a 2006 interview a 24-year-old Spears announced one of her biggest wishes. She wanted the paparazzi to leave her alone: “privacy and respect are things we have to have as humans”. She never got her wish. The publication of her memoir will serve as an invitation once more to disregard her proclamations that privacy is what she wants; last weekend, after the internet exploded with revelations from the book, Spears briefly deactivated her Instagram account. The publishers, the managers, the PR agents and the financial advisers will have reassured Spears that releasing a memoir would be beneficial, not just financially, but in setting the record straight once and for all. Even before its release the attention and scrutiny The Woman in Me brought Britney Spears has proven to be too much.

[See also: Toxic positivity movements are gaslighting women]

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