“You should have put a muzzle on that girl.” If anything sums up the story of Britney Spears, it’s this recent comment by Timbaland. When asked about Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” (a song he co-wrote) making headlines again following the publication of Spears’ memoir The Woman in Me, Timbaland joked about Spears being “crazy” before saying he “wanted to call JT” to advise him to silence his ex. Hilarious! Where’s a 13-year conservatorship when you need one?
Timbaland has since apologised, but it doesn’t really matter. He’d already made his point, and his audience laughed along. There will be no serious consequences for him. After all, what could Spears ever do? Is there any response to this — other than the madness of smiling and sucking it up — which could not get a woman deemed insane all over again?
I am not a particular fan of ghost-written noughties celebrity memoirs. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to read The Woman in Me as a follow-up to Sarah Ditum’s Toxic, a brilliant account of the misogyny of noughties celebrity culture. There’s a part of me that has always been drawn to Spears’ story, not just because of what it tells us about womanhood and fame, but also the relationship between psychiatric diagnoses, female credibility and control.
The Woman in Me is one of the most disturbing things I have read. This is not because one discovers a great deal that was not already public knowledge (the abortion might be news, but it is a minor precursor to a horror that happened in plain sight). It’s not down to any particularly inventive, intense musings on Spears’ inner life. What gets you, though, is the sense of entrapment. Here, there are qualities that remind me of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, her story of the descent into “madness” of the first Mrs Rochester. In both stories, you already know the ending: all this is leading to an attic and a house on fire; or to a shaved head, a gurney, lithium, years making millions for others whilst being considered too insane to manage your own affairs. In both stories, you try to hunt for any escape routes missed — what would you have done in the same situation? How would you have ensured that no one would think that you were mad, too? I honestly think that in Spears’ situation, I’d have been much, much “madder”.
It comes through extremely powerfully how much shame was heaped onto Spears from the moment she became famous. She was shamed for being young, then for growing up; for being sexual, then for having boundaries; for being visible, then for hiding away. It’s a staggering example of how women can be hated as much for conforming to the impossible standards of femininity as they are for defying them — because Spears did both, and she did both to extremes.
In Ways of Seeing, the art critic John Berger described the way in which a woman’s presence beneath the male gaze leads to a form of self-objectification: “her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another”. Spears knew herself as an object more than most and, as she repeatedly tells us, she tried so, so hard to be a good one. Alas, one senses that it was her trying that did for her as much as anything else. “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her,” writes Berger. “You put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you depicted for your own pleasure.” The viciousness directed at Spears — from women as well as men — significantly pre-dates her supposed scandals, rebellions and breakdowns. She had to be shamed; the objectification of Britney Spears had to be made into something she dreamed up all by herself.
The anxiety over whether she will ever pass as sane is always present
Throughout the memoir itself, Spears — or her ghost-writer — provides a commentary on whether behaviour that the press deemed bad or crazy was “really” all that awful. Some things (getting drunk with Paris Hilton) are classed as definitely not crazy, whereas others (shaving her head, hitting a reporter’s car with an umbrella) are presented as bad, but with some qualifications. Spears wants you to know that she knows what it looks like (but also that were she male, she would not be having to defend herself in this way). Even as she notes the double standards, the anxiety over whether she will ever pass as sane is always present. The tone is as apologetic as it is angry.
“Were you really mad?” is a pointless question, though (as anyone who has ever been labelled crazy knows) nothing looks so suspect as questioning the diagnosis itself. What The Woman in Me ought to do is force us to ask exactly what function these labels are serving, and who benefits. For Spears, the conservatorship constituted a further stripping away of her privacy. “I’m Britney Spears now,” her father tells her. She recounts not being allowed to eat dessert and feeling as though this were a legal directive. “Women,” writes Berger, “are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.”
What is especially depressing about the Timbaland comment is that the book is barely about Justin Timberlake (if anyone is an obvious pantomime villain, it is Spears’ father). Yes, Timberlake is part of the story, and, yes, he could have behaved better, but Spears makes it quite clear that he was not breaking the rules of the game. Timbaland has claimed, absurdly, that Spears just wants to “go viral” and “do something that gets people’s attention”. As though that were all the woman-as-object could possibly care about. As though any pain of her own were confected, merely another way to indulge her own vanity. As though there weren’t a patently obvious reason why she could not have discussed any of this before.
The bizarre thing is, she is saying so little in addition to what was already known. As long as it wasn’t narrated in the first person, though, we could tell ourselves it wasn’t so bad. Regardless of whether the words are Spears’ own, just knowing that they could be is enough to cause outrage.
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