Why Couples Therapy and Courtney Stodden epitomize the empty narcissism of reality TV
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I began watching VH1’s disgustingly addictive Couples Therapy out of a morbid desire to see Bay Area independent-rap pioneer Too Short resolve his relationship issues in an exhibitionist, queasily exploitative group environment. So it brings me no joy to report that Too Short is a total washout as a reality-television star, because he and partner Monica Payne—an attractive, successful, and strong-willed woman roughly the rapper’s own age—actually seem to like and respect each other, and, in a bizarre twist, might actually have come on Couples Therapy out of a sincere desire to strengthen their relationship. Those kinds of stable, reasonably mature relationships between civil adults have no place in the grotesque tabloid realm of Couples Therapy, which invariably favors bonds so toxic and wrong they must be rent asunder by an angry universe, for they are in flagrant defiance of God’s will.
The marriage between 52-year-old actor Doug Hutchison and 18-year-old Courtney Stodden (who was 16 when they married) is one such union, and I do not write that from a moral or religious perspective. Even in a household filled with grasping attention whores from the skuzziest recesses of reality television and tabloid media, Stodden and Hutchison’s grotesque Lolita-and-Humbert Humbert-on-paint-thinner routine stands out as particularly appalling and grotesque. Too Short may have become a hip-hop legend by selling nasty tapes out of his trunk, calling women bitches, and rapping about being a pimp, but he’s Milquetoast Q. Borington compared to the psycho-sexual trainwreck that is Hutchison and Stodden’s marriage.
There is a profound disconnect between what Stodden and Hutchison have nauseatingly, if not unsurprisingly, dubbed “Dourtney” and the rest of the couples in the household. Part of the gap is attributable to age. In one of the many queasy aspects of Couples Therapy, Stodden was legally a minor when the show was filmed, so she can’t actually sleep in the house where the other couples live, and can only work so many hours out of every day. At 17, Stodden is nearly a decade younger than the show’s next youngest participant, 26-year-old Shayne Lamas, daughter of B-action star Lorenzo, the “winner” of the 12th season of The Bachelor, and the wife of major-league scumbag Nik Richie, founder of TheDirty.com, one of the many websites dedicated to running photographs of scantily clad women accompanied by viciously misogynistic comments about said women.
Lamas isn’t the only Couples Therapy participant with a dubious reality-television “pedigree.” Alex McCord and Simon van Kempen were cast members of The Real Housewives Of New York who were kicked off the show following its fourth season. McCord, van Kempen, and Lamas are all products of the reality-show world, but none of them have internalized the toxic narcissism and monstrous self-absorption of the genre as thoroughly as Stodden.
I suspect that’s because Stodden has never known a world where The Real World was not already a cultural force. The other cast members on Couples Therapy all recall a time before reality television as we know it was born (not including proto-reality fare like An American Family or Real People), an age before Facebook and Twitter empowered Americans to be more self-absorbed than ever before, and before tabloids morphed slowly but surely from a staple of grocery-store checkout lines to an amorphous, rapacious beast with slimy, slithering tentacles all over the Internet and television.
In “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” his adroit essay about The Real World from Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman writes that the producers of the landmark reality show “weren’t sampling the youth of America—they were unintentionally creating it.” What he meant was that Real World cast members had a distinct tendency to re-create themselves to fit a series of archetypes that persisted from season to season on The Real World.
The early cast members of The Real World only had a few seasons of one reality show to help define themselves. Stodden has literally decades of The Real World to draw from, not to mention Jersey Shore, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and countless other reality shows dedicated to the telegenic, vacuous, narcissistic, and needlessly argumentative.
It’s a testament to how thoroughly reality television informs Stodden’s plastic essence that she seemed like a reality show star well before she was ever cast on a reality show. It doesn’t seem overly cynical to suspect that a reality show was both an endgame and a primary goal in Stodden marrying a man literally old enough to be her grandfather. The only thing that’s surprising about Stodden doing reality television is that she and her grand-hubby are tragically forced to share screen time with other exhibitionists lunging madly for the camera instead of starring in their own vehicle—which they tried to do last year, shopping a Merv Griffin Entertainment-produced show around to networks, none of which bit, surprisingly.
On Couples Therapy, Stodden behaves as if her parents put her in a cardboard box with only a television and a smartphone for company at an early age, so instead of being socialized and taught by schools and coaches, she was raised by reality television, celebrity gossip sites, and the rankest of tabloids. She consequently dresses as if a Maxim photo shoot might break out at any second and she must be prepared, vamps like she’s in softcore porn, and answers questions from the show’s therapist as if she’s dispensing platitudes onstage at a Miss Hawaiian Tropic contest. Even in the bullshit world of Couples Therapy, the other cast members regularly call Stodden on her bullshit. In the realm of the faux-real, her phoniness feels particularly egregious. To the other cast members, Stodden is an emissary from a bizarre world they can’t begin to understand, a weird-looking alien doing a terrible impersonation of a plausible human being.
It’s not just Stodden’s nymphet sexuality that feels like a stylized and calculating performance; every aspect of her existence feels like a stylized and calculating performance that has been gleaned not from real life but from the shabby simulation found throughout our ever-trashier media universe. When the therapist tells Stodden that wiggling around in a thong bikini is distracting from the ostensibly serious business of trying to repair fractured relationships, and asks her to wear something more appropriate, Stodden processes the therapist’s eminently reasonable request as vicious bullying, and defiantly returns to the house in one of her many skimpy bikinis.
In one of the more jaw-dropping moments in the series, Stodden, her voice puffed full of delusional, grating self-righteousness, tells the group that she is an activist and humanitarian who has “saved many lives” by standing up for people’s right to self-expression. That would be all well and good, but to Stodden “self-expression” means being able to eat breakfast while clad in a thong bikini even after people you are living with repeatedly ask you to wear something less revealing and tacky. As a child of reality television, Stodden sees everything as a stormy drama, starring her as a fearless heroine boldly standing up for her principles in the face of vicious judgment and bullying. Stodden doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a world of difference between a gay 10-year-old in Mississippi getting the shit beaten out of him after school every day and a reality-television “personality” being asked to wear more than a stripper might at any given moment.
Though she looks like a weathered 37-year-old and acts like a 7-year-old, Stodden innately understands that Couples Therapy is ultimately not a show about repairing troubled relationships. If she saw it that way, she might spend even a fraction of the show attempting to mend her weird, tragic bond with Hutchison. No, for Stodden Couples Therapy is a competition that, in the weird, publicity-crazed realm of reality television, you win by purposefully ignoring the goals of the show and using it as a springboard to launch your career as a “personality.” Stodden has won the second season of Couples Therapy by completely derailing the show’s ostensible purpose and transforming it into a referendum on her relationship with Hutchison—and, more importantly, her relationship with herself, her ego, and a sense of grandiosity that knows no bounds. She has transformed a show with “couples” in its title into The Courtney Stodden Show.
Couples Therapy is just the beginning for Stodden. She has never lived in a world without reality television. She grew up and came of age in a world where reality television is a dominant medium, if not the dominant medium. And I suspect she will spend her adult life flitting from one reality show to another, with plenty of appearances in the tabloids and gossip magazines thrown into the mix. She has found her medium in a genre that played a huge role in shaping and creating her. She is the reality that reality television made, a creature fresh out of the genre’s sleazy, sordid, grubby imagination. Stodden’s leeringly lascivious, alliteration-addled Twitter page describes her as a, “Model, Singer, Actress, TV Personality, Animal Activist, Hostess, Dancer and Doug’s girl,” but her existential identity will forever be that of a reality-television star. As if to underline this fact, her website contains, in addition to lots of the expected photographs of her mugging at the camera in various states of undress, an iTunes link to her latest single. The title? “Reality,” of course.