Before Joanne the Scammer or Miranda Sings — even before Drew Droege as Chloë Sevigny — there was Chris Crocker, a prototype for what would become known as the YouTube sensation. Fourteen years ago, society labeled Crocker “crazy,” “insane” and even “deranged” for saying something that today would be considered by many, if not most, quite level-headed: “Leave Britney alone.”
His words referenced pop superstar Britney Spears who was, at the time, enduring relentless public scrutiny and ridicule. Crocker’s words echoed the same ones documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said at the time. But coming from a gender nonconforming, home-schooled, gay 19-year-old in Tennessee, it just landed differently.
The video, now deleted but archived in the annals of the Internet, was a four-plus minute monologue passionately defending Spears from critics like Perez Hilton following her much-maligned 2007 MTV VMA performance. It felt like camped-up performance art to some, while others saw it as a cry for help. Few took it seriously.
“If anything ever happens to her, I’m jumping off the nearest fucking building,” Crocker began the video, talking through tears.
Many seized at the opportunity to exploit Crocker’s “craziness,” much in the same way they did with Spears.
Crocker struggled for legitimacy from the on-set of his overnight fame. Appearing on talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Maury, he did his best to avoid the verbal tomatoes being thrown his way. The Stranger, an alt-weekly newspaper, called Crocker the “new type of teenager — a young man connected in ways that let him transform his rural frustrations into national online fame, but who is still painfully disconnected.”
He also faced ridicule in ways not dissimilar to Spears.
“I remember the MySpace ads where you would move your cursor over a moving Chris Crocker head with a sniper scope trying to kill him,” read one recent tweet reflecting on the backlash.
Fourteen years later, Crocker is back spotlight, thanks to a new documentary, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, which focuses on the media’s mistreatment of Spears, particularly its role in perpetuating misogyny and stigmatizing mental health, mothering and female sexuality.
As calls for #FreeBritney, a movement seeking to draw attention to Spear’s ongoing court battle over her conservatorship, accelerate — even as high up as Sarah Jessica Parker, Courtney Love and Miley Cyrus — I can’t help but look back at Crocker with a tinge of remorse. He sounded an alarm that too many of us (myself included) were critiquing the sound of, rather than heading the warning. And why is that?
“Maybe people reaching out to tell me, ‘Chris, you were right,’ would feel good if I knew that people could unpack that the reason no one took me serious was because I was a gender-bending teenager and the reaction to me was transphobic,” Crocker said in a statement posted to his Instagram last week. “When I said it, I had to fear for my life. Death threats were sent to my grandmother’s house. I was already living in the south as a gender-bending teenager with no money or ways of feeling protected.”
“This hate was also directed towards me by other LGBT people,” he continued. “Not just verbal, but physical attacks were made towards me at gay bars and out in the streets by LGBT people who were embarrassed of me because of the way the media made fun of me, which made them feel I gave them a bad name. This was during a pre-Drag Race time, before everyone and their mom was saying ‘Yass queen!’ It was a time of only embracing the heteronormative people in media.”
But don’t think Crocker is waiting for, or expects, any kind of apology.
“Me saying I am owed an apology wouldn’t really sound right or describe how I feel,” he told In The Know. “In my statement, I was trying to get people to realize that prior to Drag Race, femme queer people and gender expressing LGBT people were mocked even by LGBT people because it was at a time where people said things like, ‘I’m gay, but I’m not like Chris Crocker.’ And the shame felt by the community was because, at that time, there was no emphasis on being multidimensional. You were either the Jack or the Will. We were more interested in assimilating to heteronormative standards. So a femme queer person crying over a woman was uncomfortable — and we must ask ourselves why. The messenger (a.k.a. me) became the focus in the video, rather than my words.”
There’s a reckoning happening amongst many for the role they played in perpetuating the paparazzi and tabloid media obsession that fueled so much of late ‘90s and early ‘00s popular culture. In some cases, it’s those with direct ties, like Justin Timberlake, who issued an apology to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson in which he wrote that he was taking “accountability for [his] own missteps in all of this.” (He failed to specify what the “all of this” was meant to convey.) For others, that means looking at the ways we have failed not just celebrities, but everyday people.
Perhaps it’s less about apologizing to the messenger and more about forcing ourselves to reexamine their words, then and now.
Doesn’t sound too “crazy” now does it?
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