Over the last few days, it’s been said a lot on Twitter: “Chris Crocker was right.” But as Crocker explained during a recent interview with NPR, they don’t want to be right — and it’s not about them at all.
In 2007, Crocker, then only 19 years old, sat down in front of their camera to film a video that would become a major part of pop culture history. It would also become a stark illustration of just how much needed to change back then, and how much things still need to change.
In a video that grows increasingly emotional, Crocker outlined everything Spears had gone through recently — deaths in her family, a divorce, a custody battle — and tearfully pleaded with the world to “Leave Britney alone,” a rallying cry that led to ridicule at the time but has now, 14 years later, become the general consensus.
“Do we really want to see a 25-year-old woman leave behind two children and die?” Crocker asked into a grainy camera. “Have we learned nothing from Anna Nicole Smith? I know it’s hard to see Britney Spears as a human being but trust me, she is. She’s a person.”
When Crocker made the video, Spears was getting lambasted online for everything from her VMAs performance to her personal life. She’d shaved her head earlier that year, a moment which the paparazzi captured in invasive photos that were splashed across tabloid covers for months. Crocker had even seen suicide countdowns online targeting Spears, they told NPR — a breaking point for them.
But it wasn’t just about Britney Spears. Her treatment online and by the media struck a nerve for Crocker because Spears’ situation was mirroring difficulties in their own life. Their mother was homeless after having returned home from the military and serving in Iraq. She was struggling with severe PTSD and Crocker, who was raised by their grandparents, was pleading for their family not give up on her, they said. Just like they would later plead with the world not to give up on Britney, someone they described as a Southern, free-spirited woman, and who reminded them so much of their own mother.
“I was trying to fight for my other family members to still believe in [my mom],” they said. “I was begging them to give my mom a chance, and so there was a parallel in my life, that sort of tension of why I was defensive over a misunderstood woman, because my mom had me at 14 years old, you know, and she was very misunderstood. And I, in some ways, felt like I had to protect my mom and fight for her.”
2007 was a different, much harsher world
Today, none of what Crocker said in that video would be deemed problematic, and in fact, would be in-line with many recent calls for the public and the media to treat celebrities with more empathy. But back then? Crocker was lambasted publicly and there seemed to be no end to it — for years. They were mocked by late night talk show hosts and parodied on shows like South Park.
It was jarring for Crocker, who, before that video, had made comedic videos that were popular but had never experienced anything like what happened in the wake of the “leave Britney alone” post. That video got more attention than anything they’d ever posted before — even though they didn’t actually say anything the least bit controversial, they pointed out. Because there shouldn’t be anything controversial or funny about suggesting more empathy for a woman going through a difficult time in her life, all while under an unmoving, unforgiving spotlight.
“I always felt that if people just read the transcript and didn’t pay attention to how I looked or that I was screaming and just read what I said, there’s nothing comical about it,” Crocker told NPR. “Like I was listing the fact that Britney had lost her aunt. She was going through a divorce. She just had kids and, you know, I was scared she had post-partum [depression] or something. Like there was nothing funny about anything I was saying.”
Despite the truth of that statement, Crocker became a punching bag for everyone from stand-up comedians to anonymous online commenters, and the hits came from all sides. Sometimes, they explained, those hits were literal. It wasn’t uncommon for Crocker to go to local bars and get attacked by people who didn’t them or the video, and the attacks were often rooted in transphobia.
“There were numerous, I mean numerous occasions,” they explained. “There were situations where like, there were men trying to chase after me to beat me up and I got away. And there were other situations where I was literally just standing there and someone walks up and smacks me across the face.”
Crocker recalled during that instance that the man got kicked out of the bar, only to wait outside for two hours for them to come out and jump them on their way to the car. He physically attacked them, ruthlessly beating them, all while calling them an “embarrassment to the community,” they said. It was a violent act, one that was likely an extension of their assailant’s own struggles with self-acceptance, they explained. (“Not that that makes it OK, obviously,” they added.)
And as for the generally negative response the video received at the time?
“Still, to this day, people still make memes and make fun of that video,” Crocker, who is now 33, said. “So I’ve had to really realize it’s not about me, it’s just about how society gets really uncomfortable with truth that they’re not willing to accept from the messenger. I think no one now can argue with what I said — they just didn’t like the messenger.”
This is not an ‘I told you so’ moment
It was a difficult time in Crocker’s life, to have so much negative attention focused on them at the age of 19, and it led to a diagnosis of complex PTSD. But if you’re wondering if Crocker feels vindicated now, with the influx of people on social media saying that they were right and they deserve an apology? The answer is an emphatic no, and they would argue that there’s no place for any kind of vindication at all, not when Spears herself continues to suffer, as she has done silently for years.
“There’s no way to feel vindicated about it because the entire point of making the video was for her to be happy and free and to know that in real time, at this very minute, she still is not?” they said. “Overall, it’s still not about me. And I think people like to retroactively clap for me or say they should have listened, but I’m more interested in people self-reflecting on why they didn’t.”
“Listen, at the time, I think it had much more to do with how I looked and how I was saying it,” they explained. “And it’s hard to feel vindicated when she’s still trapped.”
Spears herself confirmed her situation in shocking detail during her recent conservatorship hearing. In a passionate statement to the court, Spears expressed her anger at the way her life is now and how others have been allowed to treat her for so long. She’s unable to control her own finances. Her handlers control her every move. She isn’t even allowed to ride in her boyfriend’s car, and even though she wants to get married and have children, she isn’t allowed to remove her IUD — an especially sickening detail.
But as Spears made clear during her statement, she has had enough of being silenced: “I have the right to use my voice and take up for myself,” she said.
For Crocker, it’s the only upside.
“To hear all these lists of just the different things she’s having to endure made me so angry on one hand, and then on the other end, my heart was just so happy that she’s able to say all of this, and with such conviction,” Crocker said. “I really think most people are weary of any statements on social media or anything because we don’t know if she can control that or not. You know, hearing her say ‘No, I want the public to be able to hear this,’ and then go on and be so empowered … I was just so happy for her. But I did get emotional. I think, like a lot of people, it was just really hard to hear.”
Fans of Spears have gathered together over the years to fight for her freedom as part of the “Free Britney” movement, and what some may have thought to be another internet conspiracy theory turned out to be disturbingly true. Spears herself had claimed over the years that nothing was amiss in her life, but she recently took to Instagram to confirm that those statements were a type of “fairy tale,” something she did out of pride and embarrassment at what had been happening to her, she explained.
This is Spears’ time to finally have her voice heard.
The “Leave Britney Alone” video was posted online 14 years ago. In 2007, Spears’ mental health was used as fodder for many a late-night talk show monologue. An intensely vulnerable moment became a Halloween costume, a caricature crafted out of someone else’s trauma.
And 14 years later, Crocker’s message is the same: leave Britney Spears alone. But not just Britney, either.
“I just think that if this doesn’t prove anything else, it proves that the de-humanization of people and celebrities [is a problem]. Because they think that [because] they have money and that their lives are perfect and they’re a part of some super elite groups, it makes their problems go away. It doesn’t,” Crocker said. “Fame doesn’t change anything. Money doesn’t change anything. And it brings a lot of vultures and controlling, weird people around.”
“And as I said in ‘Leave Britney Alone,’ she’s just a human,” they continued. “And I think that was the issue then. It’s that her fame was so huge that it made people dehumanize her. They were not able to see Britney Spears as just a person. And I think now that seems like a normal thing to say, but back then, it was radical.”
It’s not just Spears who needs to be treated with more empathy — it’s everyone. But in reality, it can get complicated. While we are in an age of increased mental health awareness, we’re also living in a time where the specter of being “canceled” can result in feeling as if there’s not very much room for mistakes and growth, Crocker explained. So where does that leave us?
“I think being aware of the nuances and complexities of just being a human is what it all goes back to,” they said. “If we’re mental health advocates, we have to just as equally be able to see people as complex beings.”
What Crocker wants people to do is this: Take the energy that’s being used to applaud them on social media, and direct it to where it really belongs.
“I don’t really know how to [react] when people are always like, ‘Chris Crocker is right,’ because that’s not really the point,” they reiterated. “It’s sort of like, every time [Spears] in the headlines, they want to retroactively clap for me, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate people being kind, it’s just that it’s not about me. So if they could use that energy to keep it about what she has to say, that’s what’s important.”
As for Spears, her legal battle may be just beginning. At the close of her latest hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny, who referred to Spears’ statement as “courageous,” instructed Spears to formally petition for an end to her conservatorship, according to an earlier NPR report.
Spears’ next hearing is scheduled for July 14, ABC News reports. While it’s unclear how her case will ultimately play out, one thing is certain: Britney Spears is speaking up, and it’s time for all of us to listen.