The story of Britney Spears has always retained a fairytale quality. Two decades ago, many might’ve assumed this to be of the Disney variety — a rags to riches tale in which a girl-next-door is transformed overnight into a princess, albeit of pop. With the release of her memoir, The Woman In Me, Spears confirms that the truth was closer to something dreamt up by the Brothers Grimm. There’s the wicked father who imprisoned her, and an army of shadowy co-conspirators exploiting her. Even her handsome prince is shown to be a villain in disguise.
Spears’ account comes at a moment when the misogynistic treatment of female stars in the nineties and noughties is undergoing a reassessment. It follows that the free passes handed to the male celebrities of this era are also under the microscope. The relationship between Spears and Justin Timberlake presents a neat analogy with which to demonstrate this dichotomy.The pair first met aged 11, when they were both cast as "Mouseketeers" in the Disney variety TV show, The All-New Mickey Mouse Club. By 1999 they had begun dating after Spears joined Timerlake’s band NSYNC on tour. Spears writes that she “couldn’t help but notice that the questions he got asked by talk show hosts were different from the ones they asked me. Everyone kept making strange comments about my breasts, wanting to know whether I’d had plastic surgery.”
She recounts an occasion when MTV made her watch vox pops of strangers critiquing her outfits and claiming that she was a bad role model for kids. During the same period, she writes that Timberlake adopted the vernacular of hip-hop artists, greeting RnB singer Ginuwine with the bone-shakingly cringe, “Oh yeah, fo shiz, fo shiz! What’s up, homie?”
While Spears was being crucified for having the temerity to perform in a crop top, it would be over a decade before Justin’s appropriation of black culture would be questioned.Despite later moving in with Timberlake, Spears was obliged to publicly uphold the fiction that she was a virgin (naturally, Timberlake wasn’t asked any invasive questions about his own sexual history). This meant that when she fell pregnant, and Timberlake wasn’t happy about it, she underwent a home abortion to avoid news leaking to the press. “I went into the bathroom and stayed there for hours, lying on the floor, sobbing and screaming,” she writes. “At some point [Justin] thought maybe music would help, so he got his guitar and lay there with me, strumming it.” Soon after, Timberlake ended their relationship over text message.
I went into the bathroom and stayed there for hours, lying on the floor, sobbing and screaming...At some point [Justin] thought maybe music would help, so he got his guitar and lay there with me, strumming it
Spears writes that there had been “a couple of times in our relationship when I knew that Justin had cheated on me,” including with a member of All Saints, and another, nameless celebrity. She admits that she too made out with her choreographer Wade Robson, but was blindsided when her comparatively minor indiscretion became a focal point of Timberlake’s bid for solo stardom.
His video for “Cry Me A River” featured a Britney lookalike cheating on him, and fuelled the narrative that she was the one responsible for their break-up. “After “Cry Me a River” came out, anywhere I went, I could get booed,” she writes. “Once I went to a Lakers game and the whole arena booed me.”
Such was the public condemnation that Spears was compelled to explain herself in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer. “It was completely humiliating,” she writes of Sawyer’s grilling, which included questions like, “You did something that caused him so much pain. So much suffering. What did you do?”The last encounter with Timberlake detailed in the book takes place at the 2007 VMAs. “Justin glided down the runway into his performance. He was flirting with girls in the audience, including one who [was] shaking her breasts as he sang to her… Later that night, the comedian Sarah Silverman came onstage to roast me. She said that at the age of twenty-five I’d done everything worthwhile I’d ever do. She called my babies “the most adorable mistakes you’ll ever see.” I was backstage sobbing hysterically.”If these anecdotes expose the gendered double standards at the heart of the noughties pop machine, worse was to come, and much of the book details the 13 years that Spears spent under her father’s conservatorship, since overturned.
Meanwhile, Timberlake has faced a public reckoning. In 2021 Timberlake issued a public apology encompassing both his treatment of Spears and Janet Jackson, who was cancelled in 2004 after he exposed her breast during a duet at the Super Bowl halftime performance. “I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism,” he wrote.
While sexism continues to be rife in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the former First Lady of Maryland saying of Olivia Rodrigo, "If I had an opportunity to shoot [her] I think I would," as she said of Spears in 2003.
These days, Britney has turned away from performing, largely choosing to process her trauma away from the spotlight. Still, her occasional forays into public life have been met with acclaim; her 2022 duet with Elton John went to number one in 40 countries, and her memoir has already broken the Guinness World Record for fastest selling non-fiction book of all time, usurping Prince Harry. “For so long, I didn’t have the power to make the world look the way I wanted it to,” she writes, “but I do now.” It isn't exactly a fairytale ending. But close enough.