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‘The Woman in Me’: Britney Spears or the American Eve

The singer’s memoir describes her descent into hell as though it were a gothic novel, with the reader swept into a world of ghosts, forests and foretold tragedy

Britney Spears
American singer Britney Spears, in a video posted on her Instagram account in July 2023.CONTACTOPHOTO
Álex Vicente

A pop princess as a gothic heroine. That’s the daring narrative strategy behind Britney Spears’ long-awaited memoir, The Woman in Me, which has become the literary sensation of 2023, netting the singer up to $15 million. Unlike other celebrity memoirs, what matters in the book are not its tabloid-worthy revelations, but rather how it describes the singer’s descent into hell: it uses a voice that’s far from the vanilla narration of similar works.

The book is filled with subtle gothic touches. It begins in Britney’s hometown in semi-rural Louisiana, and follows her as she makes her way in the grimy entertainment industry. She’s like Dorothy in the Land of Oz, but this journey is more of a Lynchian nightmare. Whoever wrote the book — according to the U.S. press journalist Sam Lansky was the ghostwriter — they handle the gothic leitmotif with exemplary skill. In the first pages, we’re taken to the forests of Britney’s childhood, where she took refuge away from her alcoholic father and moronic mother. “Lying quietly on those rocks, I felt God,” reads the stunning prologue.

And that’s not where the gothic feel ends. Spears’s family home is described as “a madhouse” where she felt like “a ghost.” One day during her breakdown in the early 2000s, she writes: “I felt myself turning, almost like a werewolf, into a Bad Person.” Towards the end of the book, when remembering how her fans rallied behind her during the #FreeBritney movement in 2021, there is another hint of the paranormal: “The same way I believe that I can sense how someone’s feeling in Nebraska, I think my connection to my fans helped them subconsciously know that I was in danger.”

Like other novels in the gothic genre, The Woman in Me centers on a woman who is the victim of manipulation and ridicule, who at times doubts her own sanity. As does the reader at times. Is this damsel in distress delusional, or is she lucid when she describes her mistreatment at the hands of a misogynist system that saw her as an easy target due to her age and apparent fragility? “Tragedy runs in my family,” she says, continuing the gothic subtext. Britney’s grandmother Jean committed suicide by shooting herself at the grave of her son, who had died at the age of three. Like Britney, the granddaughter she would never meet, she too fell into depression and was treated with lithium. It’s almost as if the singer is fulfilling a prophecy: her given name is Britney Jean.

Her other grandmother had emigrated from the United Kingdom to the American town of 2,000 inhabitants, where Britney grew up cleaning crabs in the family business. These transatlantic origins made her feel like she came from a more sophisticated place — a London that she unrealistically describes as of “afternoon teas and museums.” But her life would take a different direction: by 13 she was smoking cigarettes and drinking daiquiris with her mother, and at 14, she lost her virginity to her brother’s best friend (for the psychoanalysts in the room, she continued sleeping in the same bed as her brother until “sixth grade”).

Britney Spears in a promotional image from 1998, months before the release of her first album.
Britney Spears in a promotional image from 1998, months before the release of her first album.L. Busacca (WireImage)

At the heart of the book, in every sense of the word, is the story of her downfall. It begins with her separation from Justin Timberlake, who accused Britney of cheating on him. She was made to look like “a harlot who’d broken the heart of America’s golden boy,” when in reality, they had both cheated on each other. The backlash, however, was far from even. From that moment on, she felt “under a sort of curse.” From there, things got worse. She got married in Las Vegas and divorced two days later, another marriage ended in her losing custody of her two children, there was her calamitous performance at the MTV Awards and her live breakdown when she shaved her head in front of cameras. Shortly after, she was placed under a legal conservatorship, imposed by her family to ensure that the goose that laid the golden eggs — upon which everyone depended — did not go to lose everything. Britney spent 13 years under the yoke of her father, who controlled her schedule, her diet, and even her birth control.

The book brings to mind different literary characters. Britney describes herself as an adult-child who ends up a child-adult, drawing comparisons to Benjamin Button. “In some ways, they turned me into a teenager again,” she writes. She is talking about her family, but it could apply more broadly. In a country obsessed with knowing whether her hymen was still intact, she was tolerated as long as she pretended to be a virgin. But she was immediately expelled from pop paradise when it became clear that she used her genitals for more than just reproduction.

This is also a hint of Hester, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version of an American Eve. Hawthorne also looked at the scourge of settler Puritanism in The House of the Seven Gables, which is about the Salem trials. It’s no coincidence that Britney compares herself to those women. “I‘d always heard about the way they’d test to see if someone was a witch in the olden days. They’d throw the woman into a pond. If she floated, she was a witch and would be killed. If she sank, she was innocent, and, oh well. She was dead either way.”

In one scene, the singer’s father tells her: “I’m Britney Spears now,” thus concluding the usurpation of her personality, another trope of the gothic subgenre.

Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007, in the midst of a custody battle for her children. A few days later she attacked the paparazzi with an umbrella.
Britney Spears shaved her head in 2007, in the midst of a custody battle for her children. A few days later she attacked the paparazzi with an umbrella.Cordon Press

While the reader is aware that the book is a literary construction — it’s clear from her chaotic messages on Instagram that she did not write it alone — we have the conviction that we are listening to her voice. In that sense, as with Michelle Williams in the audiobook version, Lansky’s work is admirable.

Despite possible contractual limits, the ghostwriter manages to leave a personal mark on the memoir, while remaining faithful to Britney. It’s like a song that is custom-made for her.

The most disturbing moment of Britney’s journey comes towards the end, when the singer has been left a broken doll, sharing strange dance routines with knives on Instagram. “I was born into this world naked,” she says. In other words, if she poses in revealing outfits it’s not because she’s trying to appear sexy, like when she was a teenager, but rather to return to that primordial moment when everything was still possible. So she beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into her dismal present.

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