A Local Britney Spears Expert Shares 5 Takeaways From ‘The Woman in Me’
11:27 AM CDT on November 1, 2023
Britney Spears’ new book The Woman in Me (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages) is the celebrity memoir of the year—you can tell because it’s not just getting written up in People and Variety, but in CNN and Forbes and the dang New York Times (where it’s been the subject of near daily coverage).
But how do we get a piece of that sweet, sweet Google News traffic? We called up Chris Stedman, of course! Stedman is the Minneapolis-based author, lecturer, and Britney expert who wrote and hosted the award-winning Brit-themed podcast Unread, which we spoke with him about at length earlier this year.
Stedman tore through the book in about 24 hours last week, and says that “even for the most diehard Britney fan, there’s a lot in here that’s new information.” So for those fans—and for any of us who’s ever danced to a Brit banger or shared a “Free Britney” Instagram tile—here, in Stedman’s words, are his biggest takeaways.
1. Britney’s trauma is intergenerational.
She starts the book with some family history—which isn’t unusual for a memoir, right? But in a lot of memoirs, the family history kind of feels unnecessary, like, OK, you had grandparents, so did all of us. But in this case it actually turned out to be really illuminating. Most relevantly, she talks about a grandfather who ended up committing two of his wives to institutions, both his first and second wife. One of them was put on lithium, and one of these women ends up taking her own life on the grave of their child who died shortly after birth. Really dark family history. That same grandfather—this is her father’s father—is just extremely harsh and punishing in raising Britney’s father, and in turn Britney’s father is really harsh on Britney and her siblings.
The reason I mention this is that later, Britney was forcibly institutionalized and put on lithium against her will. It’s kind of shocking, when you learn this, because it feels like in a way, even though she was one of the most famous, talented musical performers in history, it still feels like she was doomed to repeat her family’s tragic history. Being so powerful, so wealthy—even that couldn’t protect her from this intergenerational trauma.
2. The men in Britney’s life seriously suck. (Actually, almost everyone does.)
Obviously, this is partly what readers came to the book for; there was all this teasing in the runup to the book about all these revelations about Justin Timberlake. And Britney posted on Instagram, she was like, “I feel like people are focusing on the wrong things here.” But again, I think it kind of puts what happened to Britney into perspective… Basically, Justin Timberlake built his solo career off casting Britney as a bad person—someone who cheated on him, all this stuff. And it’s really wild to learn her perspective and what she says happened between them, because it sounds like he was not necessarily a great partner, but she decided to be the bigger person. It’s heartbreaking to read about how he—and it feels like basically every man that she’s ever spent time around—basically saw in Britney, “What can I gain from this situation?”
So the men in Britney’s life aren’t great, her family obviously takes advantage of her quite a bit, and then the media is also cruel to her. And Britney doesn’t cast herself in this victim role, but as you’re reading the story, your heart breaks as you see one person after another take advantage of her.”
3. Britney is incredibly resilient, and so is her capacity for empathy.
There’s this part in the book where Britney reflects on how she feels like she has unusually strong empathy. Not in the annoying, “I’m an empath” way—more like she feels really sensitive. And I will say, throughout the book, she really shows this to be true. There’s one part I liked where she’s talking about how her relationship with K-Fed is disintegrating, and he’s basically just abandoned her completely and is trying to become a star, a famous musician. She talks about being at this award show, and she has to go on and present some award, and they’re doing this skit about K-Fed, about putting him in a safe or something and throwing it in the ocean, something like that. And she basically says, like, “Who is that helping? This is the father of my children, this is not actually helpful to me.”
I just felt like… she’s surrounded by these people who don’t have her best interests at heart, but still, throughout the book, she seems to be looking for ways to show them understanding. She’s very honest about what happened with her and Justin, but she tries to make it clear that she doesn’t think he’s a bad person, that they were young, all these things. One of the most moving passages in the book for me was near the end, when she speaks of her grandfather, who was clearly very abusive to a lot of people. She talks about how she feels he’s been visiting her in her dreams and saying that he’s changed in the afterlife, or whatever, and that she’s found herself able to forgive him. After sharing that, she says she hasn’t gotten to that place with the rest of her family, but that she hopes to one day. Which, after you’ve read everything that her family did to her in this book—to me, it’s very impressive that she still seems to be seeking the ability to forgive them and to see their humanity.
4. She’s truly a creative force.
She was always called a puppet, you know—people always acted like it was other people calling the shots and creating this pop culture phenomenon. But you learn throughout the book that she really was the actor behind some of the most iconic moments of her career. Like her debut single, “Baby One More Time,” at the time she’s 15, 16 years old, and the night before she’s going to record she decides to stay up all night so that her voice will be kind of rough and gravelly, because she’s been listening to Soft Cell and she wanted to emulate that in the single.
I just thought, wow, at that age, to have that kind of insight—like, her voice in that song is so iconic, and what made it such a big single. Similarly, her label had an idea for the music video that she should be fighting some big robot, or something. And she is the one who says, “No, let’s put it in school, let’s do this schoolgirls outfit and change to different clothes for the dance scene.” You just learn how all these things that you think of when you think of Britney, these were things she came up with herself.
5. She’s a hero for anyone who’s struggled.
One of the big things that I learned while making Unread was just how much Britney is this icon specifically for people who find life difficult. And a big part of that is, people can look up to her and say, “This creative genius, this icon, this person who has changed the world—they too have struggled in life, and they too have found life difficult.” I think Britney is really doing the world a huge service in telling her story and being so honest, because I think a lot of people are gonna find validation, resonance, in her experiences. It’s such a cliche that you see it on mugs everywhere, but ‘If Britney Spears can get through 2007, I can get through today.’ It’s silly, but there is some real weight behind it, and I think for a lot of people she’s this stand-in for themselves. There’s a dark side to that—the projecting people can do on her—but there’s also something really beautiful and wonderful about it.
Britney had no obligation to tell her story, though obviously she had a financial incentive to. I just think with this book, one of the biggest things I felt while reading it was just: This book’s gonna do a lot of good for a lot of people, which is such a gift.
And a bonus takeaway: Britney can friggin’ write!
Britney is a great, and actually really funny writer. Obviously she acknowledges her collaborators. She had help on the book; she’s not a professional writer. She makes a joke in the acknowledgments like, “I bet you expected the book to be filled with emojis.” But you read celebrity memoirs where it’s really clear that it is not their voice, that it’s the voice of the ghostwriter. And that was not the case in this book—it really feels like Britney. You really do feel like you’re having a conversation with Britney, or listening to her talk. Anyone who follows her on Instagram knows that she’s funny and weird, and that definitely comes through.
Some of these moments are really deadpan. Like she refers to her sister, Jamie Lynn, at one point as “a total bitch.” Or, it’s really dark, but in one of my favorite moments she writes, “In that moment, I made peace with my family, by which I mean that I realized I never wanted to see them again, and I was at peace with that.”
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