By Alberto Cox Délano | Celebrity | December 21, 2022 |
By Alberto Cox Délano | Celebrity | December 21, 2022 |
(I stole the tile for this article from Big Joel’s YouTube essays about… Youtubers).
If you are British, you know who Jeremy Clarkson is. If you’re someone with a passing interest in cars, anywhere in the world, you know who Jeremy Clarkson is. And if for some reason you weren’t aware of him, this week you became painfully aware of his existence. Because every well-connected Briton over 50 gets a column in the UK’s main tabloids, Clarkson chose his to rant against Meghan Markle. But “rant” here is carrying a lot of weight; it’s just the most neutral word we can use to describe what he said about her, what his semi-civilized ape mind thought was an acceptable thing to say about a woman who has done zero harm to anyone who matters. For some reason, he thought we would all be interested to know he hates Meghan Markle so much (for all the same reasons bitter, racist, and insular Brits hate her) that he dreams of subjecting her to Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Atonement.
The fact that he missed the entire point of that moment in Game of Thrones shouldn’t surprise us. It’s a scene framed to make us feel sympathetic towards Cersei, showing just how hypocritical this crapsack world can be. But I guess for the average, bitter, racist, and insular Briton, that scene is viewed in a more positive light: Just a big-budget enhancement of what they read in their tabloids every day.
Not content with giving us a glimpse into the mind of the bitter, racist, insular but also horny male Briton, he compared Meghan to the Pantheon of women he hates, which includes Nicola Sturgeon (guilty of wanting to untether Scotland from the colossal shitshow that is England) and Rose West, a child murderer. Others have written about the broader social implications of giving this particular drivel a platform; or how the entire British right-wing press is complicit in the racist and misogynistic harassment of Meghan Markle. Or how The Crown closes that circuit of abuse by brownnosing the very press that leeches off of them: Just a few days before Clarkson published his 4chan fanfiction, he, alongside Piers Morgan, was invited to a Christmas party hosted by the Queen Consort and the World’s Most Successful Goomah.
Instead, I want to focus on Clarkson specifically, what he embodies and how the character he plays was inevitably going to be the character that wrote that column. But also, I want to focus on him because this exactly is what happens when your problematic faves blow up in your face, as they are wont to do.
Long story short: Jeremy Clarkson rose through the ranks of automotive journalism, eventually becoming the host of Top Gear in 2002, the most popular car show in the UK. With the help of his co-hosts, James May and Richard Hammond, Top Gear went on to become the most popular car show in the world, spanning a broader franchise, turning it from just a consumer’s advice magazine with a mixture of talk-show, comedy variety hour and car culture storytelling. At its core, it was the ultimate bloke’s show, relying on the chemistry and very British comedic timing of its three hosts, who did what old male friends do: Take the piss out of each other while having a blast driving either very expensive or very crappy cars. In spirit, the show was a permanent mid-life crisis (Clarkson was 42 at the time he took over the show, which back then was today’s 56, and Clarkson always looked middle-aged).
The role Clarkson has played ever since is an interesting one: A man in a perpetual mid-life crisis, but also, one that has the appetites and impulse control of a teenager. Each one of the Top Gear trio embodies a type of idiot: James May is the sophisticated and brainy one with zero street skills; Richard Hammond is the working-class lad who is a mechanical genius but completely over his head in anything else. Clarkson bridged the gap between those two by being a childish brute, but with enough of a brain, middle-class background, and Southern English accent (though he’s from York) to be appealing to every demo. And by God did the formula work. To this day, Top Gear remains one of the most entertaining shows out there, as with the ever-branching number of specials and parallel shows and documentaries starring the trio. It has been my very own comfort food for over a decade: A balance of stupidity and wit with good-ol’ fashioned hetero-comradery.
But of course, you can’t put three white British men over the age of 40 in a show without them running their stupid mouths, and when your entire identity is based on being someone with very poor impulse control, Clarkson accumulated yellow cards like a football match between Uruguay and The Netherlands. There was the time he casually dropped the N-word in an unused take. There was the time he dropped a very colonial, old-school slur in a take they actually used. Here is a whole Wikipedia entry for Top Gear controversies, because who said only teenage white boys engaged in deliberate troll behavior? His temper would eventually get the best of him when he got into a fistfight with a producer. He would be fired by BBC, but would land on his feet once again, as Prime Video would offer him and his co-hosts their show: The cease-and-desist-proof titled The Grand Tour. The show is now limited to travelogue specials, as the trio probably were getting too old for their usual antics.
After each one of his fuck-ups, Clarkson would release apologies that, on the surface, came across as sincere. They were cohesive enough with his Top Gear persona, in which the host was the target of mockery on a relatively equal footing with how he mocked everyone else. Just an asshole ogre taking things too far, but not a mean-spirited one. Plus, there was his long-standing feud with Piers Morgan, who he punched once, so we were always eager enough to excuse away his behavior.
He repeated the same routine with his column on Meghan Markle: A folksy-worded apology, different ways of saying “I don’t know what I was thinking” but with enough “sorry you feel that way” thrown in the mix. After all, his entire career is proof that he never needed to be sincere. So far, he’s keeping his job as host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? at ITV.
Unlike other male stars that thrive on being provocateur assholes, Clarkson has carefully cultivated a shield around himself: If he is openly an asshole, and if his colleagues openly mock him for being an asshole and unpolished, he can deflect any backlash. Of course, he is casually racist and sexist, he’s a white British Boomer from outside of London. Of course he has no filters; he’s a shock-comedian. Of course he loves gas-guzzlers, deregulation, and denies Climate Change; he’s a classic Tory. But at least he is witty, at least he is pro-European, he mocks the US’s puritanism and imperialism. He has fashioned himself as someone nuanced enough to always have the benefit of the doubt. Clarkson wants us to think he is the ultimate Conservative British Gentleman: cultured and centrist enough not to be grotesque (like the Americans), but firmly Middle Class and self-made. Enough to qualify as a voice of reason. He’s just … rough around the edges. But honest.
Until they come for the things someone like Clarkson isn’t honest about.
A perpetual state of mid-life crisis requires an obsession with nostalgia. And Top Gear and The Grand Tour are one third-nostalgia. Here’s a drinking game for you: A shot for each time the hosts mention The Battle of Britain, Spitfires, Jaguar E-types, Corgi toys or anything made in post-war Britain, before Maggie’s reign. At the top of that pyramid of British nostalgia is imperialism and the royal family.
This nostalgia is the cultural cornerstone of British Conservatism, and in particular, the entire sense of identity of Conservative British Gentlemen. It makes them feel they stand out above the Americans. So when a Black American woman comes and puts all of that into question, the witty, level-headed Conservative British Gentleman drops the act and turns into what he has always been: A colonial operator, trading their Maxim guns, Enfield rifles, Mosquito bombers, targeted famine and divide and conquer tactics for … columns … in newspapers, only some of which are read by their audience. But what happens when the Conservative British Gentleman drops his phlegm and exposes himself as the bitter, racist, and insular type he is but only finds rejection? Can he weaponize his wit and charisma again? Can he shield himself in his tongue-in-cheek insincerity into the persona he turned himself into?
I’d like to think the backlash against Jeremy Clarkson is just his chickens coming home to roost, that his outburst is just the Conservative British Gentlemen deflating in front of our eyes, a sign that the forces of progress are winning, Clarkson and his bitter, racist, insular peers running out of things to say. Or perhaps he’ll become the useful idiot of the British aristocracy, the Northern, middle-class social climber that says what they are thinking in the dumbest way possible, making them look sensible. Or maybe he’ll carry on, becoming the face of the very large number of bitter, racist, and insular Britons. A very ugly face, but still more charismatic than Piers Morgan.
He will still pay a price: The Grand Tour is becoming more boring every season, more repetitive, and more staged. And that means losing its younger audiences (or his daughter); we who looked the other way at his toxicity, now turning away. All we would lose is a few meme templates.
Alberto Cox still doesn’t know what a transmission actually does. Find him soon on Post!