Of the many pop-culture memories I accrued in the early aughts, the ones that have stuck with me the most deeply all feature a teenage girl who looked like me — except she was allowed to wear latex catsuits and put blonde streaks in her brunette hair. Every day, I would rush home from school to watch TRL in the hopes of seeing my new best friend; my brain exploded when I saw Britney Spears dancing to my favorite song in a sexy Catholic-school uniform.
This was the late 90s. Social media didn’t exist; the Internet did, but just barely. “Content” wasn’t something you were barraged with all day long; when you encountered it, usually on TV in the evening, it packed an incredible punch, like having a week’s worth of viral TikToks shot straight into your veins. This is why millennials (and all the other olds before them) have such special relationships to the pop icons of our youth. We remember a time when access to the culture that you loved was scarce and precious.
It was harder, back then, to lean into an obsession. We were years away from having Spears’ deranged yet charming Instagram posts to parse. But I’d stay up late with snacks to watch every awards show in anticipation of an iconic Spears moment, and whether it involved wearing a horrific matching denim outfit with then-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, dancing with a real live python, or even kissing Madonna, she always delivered; I was all in and raptured.
This fascination continued, even as Spears began to unravel in public. I’d go with my mom to the grocery store just so I could camp out in the tabloid section and read “journalism” about her 72-hour quickie marriage in Vegas or the time she went apeshit on a paparazzo’s car after botching a performance. One of the first viral videos I ever saw was Chris Crocker’s 2007 rallying scream-cry “Leave Britney Alone,” in which he urged the press to give Spears a break. Even back then, we all knew she was being treated unfairly by the media, though it’s taken us decades—along with a nudge from the #MeToo movement and the contrite reexamination of 2000s pop-cultural discourse it helped engender—to really unspool why and how.
As of this week, we have The Woman In Me, a memoir—the highest-selling celebrity autobiography in history, per Spears herself—which gives us a million more reasons why we should have left Britney alone. While superfans have been crafting their own victim narratives around her for years—giving birth to the influential Free Britney movement that helped emancipate her from a conservatorship that had robbed her of adult agency for 13 years—Spears finally gets to share her perception of all those iconic and heartbreaking moments.
The result is a staggering testimony of a young girl from humble beginnings in Louisiana hustling from tryouts to rehearsals and back again, all in the hopes of one day escaping poverty and a father she describes in the book as an abusive alcoholic. Spears details all the trauma her touring left her no time to process, including her abortion and subsequent breakup with Justin Timberlake and her custody battle with Kevin Federline, as well as the breakdowns that came from years of being surveilled, harassed and baited by the paparazzi. We get to see, up close, how her mental-health struggle became a perfect storm that allowed her father, Jamie Spears, to take control of every aspect of her life, from who she called on the phone to her diet and birth control.
It’s an extraordinary story — especially when Spears breaks it down in her own words — but somehow also a highly relatable one. It always has been; it’s what set her apart from the moment she came on the scene in 1998. Other pop stars were all aspiration; Spears was sexy but still palpably a plucky young girl from Louisiana thrust into the spotlight at a very young age, with the financial weight of fixing a broken home on her shoulders. It doesn’t get more American than that. Plenty of other pop stars practiced as hard, pushed themselves and were pushed as fiercely, sang as well or better, but Spears connected in ways they didn’t, not because of her strengths but because of her weaknesses. Her quirky inability to do fame properly, to dress right, made everyday girls with mousy brown hair born in places like McComb, Mississippi think they too could one day date a boy-band member with a ludicrous blaccent.
In an iconic Rolling Stone profile of Spears from 1998, when she was just seventeen, writer Steven Daly goes in search of the “real Britney” and finds her at home in Kentwood, Louisiana, recovering from a knee injury. The pilgrimage is worthwhile, Daly notes, because in a short time Spears has already become a “generational mascot.” What he said 25 years ago still rings true: “Hearing a Britney Spears song for the first time is oddly comforting, like finding a Starbucks in a strange town. “
When teen Spears is questioned by Daly about her sexy schoolgirl outfits (wholesome, when you consider how routinely other interviewers asked her about her tits), she sounds like any normal teen whose parents don’t want them to leave the house wearing eyeliner. “All I did was tie up my shirt!” she says. “I’m wearing a sports bra under it. Sure, I’m wearing thigh-highs, but kids wear those—it’s the style. Have you seen MTV—all those [women] in thongs?”
Even though her brand was endorsed by adult male record executives, it was also adult men who then punished her for it. “I was never quite sure,” she writes, “what all these critics thought I was supposed to be doing—a Bob Dylan impression? I was a teenage girl from the south. I signed my name with a heart, I liked looking cute. Why did everyone treat me, even when I was a teenager, like I was dangerous?”
We tend to think she lost that All American Girl status when she started losing her mind, but from my seat, after reading The Woman In Me, that part of her story makes her more like us than ever. What woman wouldn’t go insane, given the circumstances? All of the harmful gender dynamics that defined the early aughts happened to not-famous girls and women too. I’ll never forget the first time I was sexualized by an adult man as a child; it wasn’t pleasant, but it also wasn’t recorded on TV and presented as cute. In The Woman in Me, Spears remembers appearing on Star Search, where host Ed MacMahon asked her, “You have the most adorable, pretty eyes—do you have a boyfriend?” She was ten at the time.
The inability to be free, to be yourself, to feel like you’re enough, is the great feminine problem. It’s humbling to know that the most famous pop star of her generation doesn’t get to rise above that, either. Even her dating history is somewhat sympathetic—an older guy with a girlfriend creepily sneaks into her house to kiss her when she’s in high school; another guy cheats on her (Justin Timberlake) and then makes critically-acclaimed art about how actually he was wronged; a predatory scumbag (Kevin Federline) cons her when she needs love most.
The best and most devastating parts of the book come when Spears pulls back from the details of what happened, diving into her emotions and taking her power back. It’s strongest when she explains the female rage behind the decision to shave her head, a move that was mocked and ridiculed in pop culture for decades.
“Shaving my head was a way of saying to the world: Fuck You. You want me to be pretty for you? Fuck you. You want me to be good for you? Fuck you. You want me to be your dream girl? Fuck you. I’d been the good girl for years, I’d smiled politely while TV show hosts leered at my breasts, while American parents said I was destroying their children by wearing a crop top, while executives patted my hand condescendingly and second guessed my career choices even though I’d sold millions of records, while my family acted like I was evil. I was sick of it.”
We’re fucking sick of it too, Britney. That’s why we’re buying your book.