The torture of Britney Spears should no longer be used as entertainment
Britney Spears’ memoir, The Woman In Me, is a hit. In an Instagram post, which has since been deleted, Spears said that the book was “the highest selling celebrity memoir in history”, claims that, at the time of writing, are yet to be confirmed. Regardless, according to TMZ, The Woman In Me did sell 400,000 copies within a day of publication, and remains the bestselling non-fiction book on Amazon.
Given the numbers, it makes sense that Hollywood would come sniffing. In a report, Deadline said that “bids are coming in already” from those hoping to adapt The Woman In Me, be it as a feature film, television series or documentary (Deadline suggested that, following the box office failure of a Whitney Houston biopic and Madonna’s inability to get a biopic off the ground, that “it seems like the most fertile ground might be in the limited series category”).
There is clearly an appetite for a potential documentary series. Since 2019 and the beginnings of the #FreeBritney movement, numerous films and TV shows were produced about Spears and the complex legal situation that she was, at that point, still under.
Most notable were Framing Britney Spears and Controlling Britney Spears, two feature-length documentaries produced by the New York Times and FX, which included in-depth reporting and explosive testimony regarding the nature of the conservatorship that controlled Spears’ life for 13 years, while also highlighting Spears’ mistreatment by the misogynistic media narrative that preceded it. Allegations raised in those two documentaries, including statements regarding the level of surveillance Spears was allegedly subjected to under the conservatorship, were later cited by Spears’ lawyer and appeared in The Woman In Me.
Of course, there were less thorough documentaries: Netflix’s Britney vs Spears was a cheap and exploitative attempt to capitalise on the growing #FreeBritney movement, while TMZ’s revolting and intrusive Britney Spears: The Price of Freedom shamelessly tried to perpetuate a narrative that Spears was somehow out of control following her freedom from the conservatorship.
What all these documentaries had in common was Spears’ absence; the singer did not appear in a single one. On Instagram, she said the films left her feeling “embarrassed” by how they focused on “humiliating moments from the past”. “So for the documentaries that were done on me, they were trash and nothing more than trash … period,” Spears wrote.
Such a response leaves a big question mark hanging over the necessity of a possible adaptation of The Woman In Me. While the book allowed Spears to share her story in her own (admittedly ghostwritten) words, she refused to record the audiobook of her memoir. “Reliving everything has been exciting, heart-wrenching, and emotional, to say the least,” she said in a statement to People. “For those reasons, I will only be reading a small part of my audiobook.” It’s doubtful, then, just how much involvement she would want to have in any potential television series or film.
What’s worth questioning is why a documentary or dramatisation of The Woman In Me even needs to exist. Anyone who has read the book or watched the existing documentaries will be aware that throughout her life Spears was subjected to countless layers of maltreatment, exploitation, bullying, misrepresentation, abuse and subjugation. Her account of her experiences read less like a celebrity memoir and more like the stuff of a horror story. It’s impossible to feel anything but fear when, following the implementation of the conservatorship in which he controlled everything from what his daughter ate to how she spent her money, Spears’ father turns to her and says, “I’m Britney Spears now.” It’s terrifying to read about Spears’ alarming experiences in 2019 when, after pushing back against some choreography she found difficult, she was sent to a mental health facility against her will, forced to take lithium and isolated from the outside world for months.
These are just two examples of the torture Spears was subjected to. For years she was unable to share the realities the situation herself. The significance of The Woman In Me as a book is not that it’s a compulsive read (although it is), it’s that, for the first time in over a decade, the world got to hear from Spears herself.
Now that she’s done that, it’s difficult to see the value in a potential television adaptation. Spears has said her piece. But what the story she shares in The Woman In Me demonstrates is how little her voice often matters. Ever since she debuted in 1998 with “…Baby One More Time, the media, her ex-partners, her family, and the public have projected and pushed their own narrative onto Britney Spears.
This hasn’t always been a bad thing. When Spears was at the height of her powers, she was rightly celebrated as a once-in-a-generation entertainer; she became the blueprint for the music industry, the sort of popstar that record labels would encourage their own artists to emulate. With that, though, came the disparaging commentary about her body and appearance, the fearmongering over her sexuality and womanhood, and the continuous undermining of her authenticity. As Spears writes in The Woman In Me: “Whether it was strangers in the media or within my own family, people seemed to experience my body as public property: something they could police, control, criticize, or use as a weapon.”
The perception of Spears changed following the events of 2007 and the subsequent implementation of the conservatorship in 2008. Her sometimes erratic behaviour – driven by floods of paparazzi, the grief over the loss of custody of her children, and the breakdown of her marriage – caused a media circus. The life of Britney Spears became a spectator sport, one presented as an entertaining car crash by tabloids, who didn’t want you to look away. Instead of being venerated for her artistry, Spears became someone to be pitied. The media, and the public, luxuriated in this supposed fall from grace. Her trauma became our entertainment.
During the conservatorship, Spears’ once exhilarating performances became dulled. “By holding back onstage, I was trying to rebel in some way,” she writes in The Woman In Me, “even if I was the only one who knew that was what was happening.” The knock-on effect of such quiet rebellion was the inadvertent perpetuation of a narrative that Spears was somehow not OK. This robotic stage persona, the result of unbearable abuse during the conservatorship, became just another aspect of Spears’ life for the world to point at and mock.
Such voyeuristic consumption of Britney Spears’ trauma continued a project of dehumanisation, which itself is a symptom of broader scheme intent on utilising women’s pain for entertainment. In the last few years, we’ve seen this play out numerous times. In 2022, Pamela Anderson refused to be involved with the Hulu series Pam & Tommy, which dramatised the rocky relationship between the Baywatch star and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, and the unauthorised release of their sex tape. “It was already hurtful enough the first time,” Anderson told the New York Times. “It’s like one of those things where you’re going, ‘Really?’ People are still capitalising off that thing?”
The treatment of Amy Winehouse by the media in the years before her untimely death in 2011 mirrored the hounding Spears received, too. Winehouse is now not alive to speak out about how her life has been mined, which hasn’t prevented Sam Taylor-Johnson from going ahead with a biopic, Back to Black, which is due for release in 2024. Films like Factory Girl, which relished in the demise of actor and model Edie Sedgwick, and 2019’s Judy, a dramatisation of the last year of Judy Garland’s life, have similarly capitalised on the demise of famous women.
There’s something either willfully ignorant or deeply suspicious about the media’s ongoing and cylical generation of content concerned with how the very same media ecosystem fasciliated the destruction of these women's lives. It's as if by documenting the toxic media culture that contributed to these women's trauma, those involved in generating it can absolve their complicity.
In Spears’ case, the writing of The Woman In Me feels like an attempt to push back against that while also reminding the world of her humanity. Turning that reclamation of her personhood into further content for public consumption feels wrong. What reason is there for adapting the stories Spears has already shared aside from the indulgence of our own appetite for her misfortune? Have we not feasted on her agony enough? The torture of Britney Spears should no longer be used as entertainment.
“It’s been a while since I felt truly present in my own life, in my own power, in my womanhood,” Spears writes in The Woman In Me. It’s time to let her enjoy that without us taking another piece of her.