Britney Spears’s story has always had a touch of magic to it. Many would have thought, twenty years ago, that this was a Disney story, a rags-to-riches story about a girl next door who becomes a princess, albeit a pop princess, overnight. Spears reveals that the reality was more akin to anything imagined by the Brothers Grimm with the publication of her biography, The Woman In Me. She was imprisoned by her evil father, and she was being taken advantage of by a bevy of enigmatic accomplices. It is revealed that even her charming prince is a villain in disguise.
The testimony by Spears is being released at a time when the misogynistic treatment of female celebrities in the 1990s and 2000s is being re-examined. As a result, the free passes given to modern-day male celebrities are also being scrutinized. Spears’s and Justin Timberlake’s relationship offers a useful example to illustrate this contrast. When they were both chosen to be “Mouseketeers” on the Disney variety TV program The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, the two initially became friends at the age of 11. They started dating in 1999 when Spears went on tour with Timerlake’s band NSYNC. 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?”
Even though Spears was being ridiculed for performing in a crop top, more than ten years would pass before Justin’s appropriation of black culture was called into question. Spears was forced to maintain the public lie that she was a virgin even though she later moved in with Timberlake (naturally, Timberlake wasn’t questioned about his sexual past). This meant that she had a home abortion when she found out she was pregnant, which made Timberlake unhappy, to prevent the press from finding out. “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 a text message.
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 many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism,” he wrote.