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What Britney Spears really means when she says 'The Woman in Me'

That Spears understands womanhood, or becoming a woman, in terms of freedom is refreshingly distinct.
Photo Illustration: Current and archival images of Britney Spears
Britney Spears' new memoir "The Woman in Me" is both an indictment and a compelling cry for freedom. Justine Goode / Getty Images

Even the most casual of Britney fans know that the title of her newly released memoir, "The Woman in Me," is taken from the chorus of her 2001 ballad, "I’m Not a Girl / Not Yet a Woman": "I’m not a girl, don’t tell me what to believe … I’m just trying to find the woman in me, yeah."

Given the context of Spears' punishing 13-year conservatorship and her relentlessly cruel treatment by the media, the title feels almost like an indictment of us all for not listening to her, for decades, tell us who she is and what she wants. It also suggests entrapment — of not having the freedom to live authentically, on her own terms. As a feminist cultural critic and armchair philosopher, I find Spears’ understanding of freedom the most compelling aspect of this book, much more than the celebrity gossip that has been sensationalized in the media.

The title, in fact, says it all: "The Woman in Me" is about becoming free and becoming a woman at the same time.

Spears presents an idea of freedom that is tethered to gender, and specifically being and becoming a woman. The title, in fact, says it all: "The Woman in Me" is about becoming free and becoming a woman at the same time.

Womanhood is defined by freedom and there is freedom in being a woman. That Spears understands womanhood, or becoming a woman, in terms of freedom is refreshingly distinct from the general feminist political standpoint, hemmed in by the harmful gender binary, that has historically positioned "woman" as "the second sex," as defined by oppression, not freedom.

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman," famously declares Simone de Beauvoir in "The Second Sex." At first read, the line refers to the societywide instantiation — in every institution and discourse, from law to medicine — of woman as inferior to man. Yet the line suggests a different reading when juxtaposed with its source: French philosopher Alfred Fouillée’s "One is not born, but rather becomes, free."

As you can see, the only variation between the two sentences is the final word: Beauvoir substitutes "woman" for "free." The parallelism presents us with a different interpretation of Beauvoir’s line — let’s call it, "Britney’s version" — that finds freedom in becoming a woman. And Beauvoir’s philosophy on freedom substantiates this idea: The meaning we find in our lives comes from our freedom to choose how to live it, including the choice of how to become a woman, and how to live as a woman despite living in a misogynistic world.

Of course, all of our lives are defined by our specific socioeconomic contexts. The scope of choices available to us — including the extent of the risks we can afford to take — are unique to the advantages afforded to us. Conversely, the absence of choice, as bell hooks told us in "Feminist Theory," is the definition of oppression.

Spears’ conservatorship represents the crystallization of what I identify in my book as the three primary forms of women’s oppression: of mind, body and movement. By the patriarchal state and the patriarchal father, she was denied the freedom to make choices about her life; denied the freedom to control her body; and denied the freedom to move, to leave her house, spend time with her friends, and go wherever she wanted whenever she wanted.

Spears describes this oppression in terms of her infantilization: "I had been so infantilized that I was losing pieces of what made me feel like myself," she writes. "The conservatorship stripped me of my womanhood, made me into a child." There is a very clear distinction between being a woman and being a child in terms of freedom, and the word "child" — including variations like "child-robot" and "ghost-child" — is employed throughout the memoir to indicate her dehumanization, of being sexualized and commodified to the point of her destruction.

Spears calls herself a "ghost-child" when she is ignored and a "child-robot" when speaking about her exploited labor. Twice she invokes her condition as akin to fictional character Benjamin Button; she was aging backward, forced into a soul-crushing state of dependency that annihilated her sense of self and self-worth. "I’d been taught through the conservatorship to feel almost too fragile, too scared" — again, vulnerable and powerless like a child. Indeed, in her recollection, this violent conditioning is by design. In one of the memoir’s most spine-chilling moments, Spears writes that her father tells her: "I’m Britney Spears now."

Spears rightly understands that freedom is relational and conditional. We experience freedom in relation to other people and our freedom is conditional upon other people. And she credits the #FreeBritney movement with raising awareness about her conservatorship and imbuing her with the confidence to fight an inhumane system, despite years of gaslighting by her family. "I had to take control," she writes. "The first step toward securing my freedom was for people to begin to understand that I was still a real person — and I knew I could do that by sharing more of my life on social media."

With the termination of the conservatorship, she notes having the "freedom to do what I want has given me back my womanhood." Once again, she uses the child/woman dichotomy to convey this difference:

Since I’ve been free, I’ve had to construct a whole different identity: I’ve had to say, Wait a second, this is who I was — someone passive and pleasing. A girl. And this is who I am now — someone strong and confident. A woman.

britney spears, "The woman iN me"

For Spears, freedom is found in both self-determination and bodily autonomy: "to control my own destiny"; "to search for joy"; and "to make my own decisions, to set my own agenda, to wake up and decide how I wanted to spend the day."

She also explains how the conservatorship extinguished her creativity — a vital expression of freedom:

As an artist, I didn’t feel able to reach the sense of freedom that I’d had before. And that’s what we have as artists — that freedom is who we are and what we do. I wasn’t free under the conservatorship. I wanted to be a woman in the world. Under the conservatorship, I wasn’t able to be a woman at all.

Britney Spears, "The woman iN Me"

Spears’ insight, here, is that creativity is essential to how we design our lives to create a sense of self, our own sense of individuality. This creative self-determination, or what I call self-creation, is how we express and experience freedom and give meaning to our lives.

Storytelling is one form of self-creation. It resembles the flow of life, as a narrative of continual becoming. The power of storytelling is that it allows us to express not only who we are but who we want to become.

"The Woman in Me" is not just a testament to, as Spears writes, "the woman in me [that] was pushed down for a long time." It is the realization of her womanhood, a realization of the freedom to be a woman on her own terms, and of seeing the identity of woman itself not as defined by oppression but by freedom.