I Was a Teenage Troll, and Other Stories of Hate
What an anti-Britney Spears website and a song about Barney taught me about hate
The children’s television show Barney & Friends premiered on PBS in 1992, just after my fifth birthday. As an American child, I’d loved many TV shows before, but this was the first to really make an impression. At five and then six, I was gaining consciousness, making lasting memories, morphing from a preschool tot into a school-attending child, and this show, with its educational foundation and silly songs and dances, seemed built for purpose. What wasn’t to love about a reasonably sized purple dinosaur who lived to cuddle and play games with children just like me? I tuned in every chance I got.
I don’t remember the exact moment I first heard the song that would end my Jurassic love affair. I don’t know if it was during recess or lunch or in line to board the bus, but I do know it was at school. And what I do remember, to this very day, are the lyrics, sung to the tune of a nursery rhyme:
Tic tac toe / Three in a row / Barney got shot by a GI Joe / Mama called the doctor and the doctor said / Whoop! Barney’s dead / Whoop! Barney’s dead!
Now let’s take a moment to break this down, shall we? According to this song, not only was Barney murdered by a member of the United States Armed Forces, but his death was also celebrated by a licensed health care professional. To be fair, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a weary, overworked doctor silently celebrating the passing of a terrible, crotchety, racist patient. We could all muster up a little empathy for such a scenario. However, it’s another thing entirely for a physician to field a call from a deceased patient’s mother and utter not one, but two cheery Whoops! in regard to the patient’s death. That’s brutal. But that just goes to show how awful Barney was in my classmates’ eyes. Completely undeserving of basic dignity. A sack of fetid garbage stuffed into a fuzzy, smiling costume.
They say hate is a plague, but for me, it was a purple dinosaur. Let me be clear: Deep down, I still liked Barney. In fact, I loved him. Even after hearing this song, I wanted nothing more than for my parents to drive me to wherever the show was filmed and allow me to audition to be one of Barney’s on-camera friends. I regularly soothed myself to sleep with the now-creepy thought of wearing a smock dress and skipping around Barney while holding hands with other adorable children as a television camera captured our every move. My heart-of-hearts opinion could not be swayed by a song, no matter how catchy. But something had shifted, all the same. I knew that if I wanted to be liked, I could no longer publicly admit to liking Barney. I knew that my opinion, my approval, my joy was wrong. All of it was wrong. I could no longer trust my own judgment. My taste was bad, and now I knew it was bad. I once was blind, but now I see.
And so I did what we all do. By my own volition, I became a Typhoid Mary. I carried the song home to my younger brothers, who hadn’t yet had the misfortune of being required to attend “big kid” school. They loved Barney just as I did, but as the song took hold in our house, they turned away from him as well. We sang it together, our voices rising in a chorus. We changed the channel with our fingers, if not with our hearts. I ruined it for them simply because it had been ruined for me.
To love something or someone is to be vulnerable. To hate is to be strong, united. It is far easier to attack than to defend. We see this all the time to varying degrees: populist leaders blaming national woes on the “other” in front of crowds of cheering fans. Users on Twitter collectively “canceling” celebrities for their misdeeds. This vegan vlogger and her followers hating on that one.
But hate is also a Band-Aid. We often employ it to mask our true feelings. That’s why you hear about internet trolls backing down after they’re forced to face their victims in real life. That’s why you hear about “anti-gay” politicians getting their rocks off at male cruising spots. We hate so that we can hide. We hate so that we can fit in. We hate so that we can wait for the wounds to heal and in the meantime, we hope that the Band-Aid doesn’t become the wound.
In 1999, Britney Spears’ debut album, …Baby One More Time came out. When I was 12, I listened to it for the first time at my friend Lauren’s house and was instantly enamored. Britney’s songs were poppy and fun, and she was cute and sexy and had a perfect body and great hair. Essentially, she was my polar physical opposite. She became our new object of obsession, in that particular way only young girls become obsessed. Lauren and I spent the whole weekend listening to the CD, styling our hair in pigtails and borrowing her mom’s makeup to try and achieve Britney’s look, then working on extremely inappropriate choreography to the upbeat tunes.
When I went home, I logged onto the dial-up internet and searched for Britney, hoping for some insider information and perhaps a leaked unreleased track, which would take approximately three hours to download, if I was lucky. Among the search results, I found a few fan pages — all flattering photos and midi versions of her songs and interviews plagiarized from teen magazines — but what interested me more were the anti-Britney sites. These sites were sharp. Funny. Spiteful. And they were infinitely more entertaining and appealing to my frizzy-haired, acne-ridden adolescent self. After all, why should the whole world worship this girl just because she was young and beautiful and good at dancing? Why should I?
Not long after, I used my burgeoning HTML skills to develop my own anti-Britney Spears website. Following in the footsteps of those who came before me, I wrote parody lyrics to her songs. “Crazy, I just can’t sleep / I’m so excited, I’m in too deep” became “Gravy, I must eat it / Some people tell me, it tastes like shit!” But while that may seem like some Weird Al-esque harmless fun, I also penned some early think pieces about how she couldn’t sing and was a “total fake.” I speculated about the possibility that Britney’s breasts and nose were not her own, taking the position that plastic surgery was a heinous crime, as though I wouldn’t jump at the chance to change my own appearance. I was ruthless. I was self-righteous. I was awful.
But for what it was, my site was good. Soon, other websites linked to mine. My page started showing up in search results. I received dozens of positive comments from visitors on my site’s guestbook. And yet, I continued to go to Lauren’s house on the weekends and sing along and do the dances and apply extremely unflattering shimmery eyeshadow. Lauren never found out that I was leading a double life. That I was loved by both her and by strangers on the internet for holding two totally opposing viewpoints. She never knew that I was a hypocrite and that I was terribly jealous of both Britney and her, both of them with their flawless faces and stick-straight hair. But as it does, life went on. And one day, some years later, when my skin had calmed down, I quietly deleted the website. The wound had healed.
Et’d be nice if I could say that I stopped being a hater after I watched the TMZ video of Britney shaving her head. That her nervous breakdown set me on a path to self-reflection. That would be a tidy ending, wouldn’t it? But I’ve never been tidy, and there’s no such thing as an ending, not really. My hate, while not directed at Britney, went on. In my early twenties, I fully embraced hipster culture, and I turned my nose up at all sorts of things I secretly loved: reality TV (vapid), Taco Bell food (inauthentic), romantic comedies (hokey), Starbucks (corporate).
With age, however, I came to accept my bad taste. I learned to love things “ironically” and then I learned to be honest. A few years ago, I grabbed my metaphorical board and decided to surf the cultural tide that says loving something doesn’t make you vulnerable. It makes you brave. At the very least, it makes you much happier.
That said, I’m not totally reformed. I continue to pile on during social media conversations about annoying politicians and celebrities and writers. In my personal life, I talk quite a lot of smack. But I try my best now not to ruin things for anyone else. I try my best not to lie or lead double lives or use hate solely as a mechanism to gain others’ approval. I do it now with a new awareness, a sense of caution. I do it armed with the knowledge that what I hate says just as much about me as what I love. And it often says it louder.