The above music video has managed to sum up pretty much everything that’s wrong with using traffic to dictate editorial strategy. But to explain precisely why requires you to know about someone named Courtney Stodden and how she came to be a celebrity.
The reason Courtney is famous is because she married Doug Hutchison (the guy who played stretchy serial killer Eugene Victor Tooms in The X Files) in 2011. She was 16 years old to his 51. That is the reason she became famous. That 35 year age gap.
What happened next was the stylistic conventions of celebrity news reporting kicked in. Writers were looking for ways to add a little flavour or context to this newcomer and one of the ways you do that is referencing their career. It also helps with keeping the reader interested and on the site as well as beefing up keywords for search engine optimisation (SEO). But her age meant Courtney didn’t have one of those so a substitute was brought in.
As well as being “teen bride” she was “aspiring country music singer” or “pop singer” thanks to the songs she had posted on her YouTube channel. Sometimes she was also “aspiring actress” as she had met Hutchison because she wanted to take acting classes from him.
Once the initial cycle of articles about the wedding and the timeline and the parental consent had concluded there was sufficient volume (of news coverage and of search engine traffic) to switch her label full-time to “teen bride”. But Courtney isn’t just any teen bride. Rather she manages to be a teen bride and a strangely elaborate pastiche of a teenager and a bride at the same time.
Think of all those porn videos featuring “teens”; women in their late twenties at the very least but pumped full of botox and silicon and collagen to iron out any traces of time passing and wearing the ultimate signifiers of teen girlhood – pigtails and a fetishised version of a school uniform. That’s basically Courtney Stodden at age 16. A real teenager mimicking an older woman mimicking a teenager.
The bride thing is similar; a pastiche of being an object (and I use that word deliberately) of desire. Watching her being interviewed you soon become acutely aware of the amount of deliberate wiggling and pouting and jiggling as well as the pointedly chosen anecdotes (her version of housework apparently involves getting on all fours and scrubbing a floor while wearing a bikini and cutoff denim shorts). The woman is legally a wife regardless of how she acts or dresses and yet she prefers the version of “wife” that looks like it’s been cobbled together from generically bad bikini babe music videos and domestic product advertising from the early twentieth century.
At the root of these peculiar performances is celebrity news reporting. Specifically how it accommodates women by reducing them, particularly in picture-led stories. Bikini bodies, womb watch, flaunted curves, fashion face-offs – these categories are prone to column inches and it’s because they get page views.
Editorial strategies are then refined based on the internet’s currency of traffic – the fact that we flock to these articles in our hundreds of thousands for a frisson, whether of outrage or arousal. The writing which accompanies the picture focuses more and more closely around narrow keywords, reducing the scope of the woman’s existence to the terms being optimised for. She is attractive, she is young, she is only semi-clothed. The more she ticks these three boxes, the more commercial value she has.
But the traffic volume also means that these stories are the ones being ingested in huge quantities and across large swathes of the population. Writ large through every high res sideboob is the message, “sit at the convergence of attractive, young and minimally attired and you are of worth to us”. It’s a massive part of the fame culture we have now – coverage being far easier to game than talent.
That’s what I think has happened with Courtney Stodden. The girl herself has grown up ingesting this underlying message (like we all have) while her momager – an uncomfortable label with connotations of financial concern masquerading as familial love – has seen its business potential. There’s also her actor husband whose entire industry revolves around exploiting it.
Put simply, Courtney and those from whom she takes advice and instruction know that you can trade off being pretty or young or sexy or all of the above and so, to maximise her chances of success, she must level up all three to the best of her ability. It’s a bastardised version of control – being the one projecting the porn-adjacent image rather than having it projected onto you.
The momager/celebrity couple triad within which Courtney exists muddies the waters when it comes to deciding who exactly is calling the shots but the point here is that those shots (both the metaphorical ones and the staged photoshoots in collaboration with a picture agency) now reside on the Stodden side of the subject/media divide. She does a photoshoot and publications bite repeatedly. It’s financially viable. It’s business.
Then the music video launched.
It was always going to be trashy and clubby because that’s the default for celebs turning their hand to the music industry. It tends to manifest as something lumpen and drab like Kim Kardashian’s Jam (Turn It Up) or, if you get lucky, something slightly more jagged which tips over into moments of accidental brilliance like Paris Hilton’s Drunk Text.
‘Reality’ – for thus it has been [cynically] titled – manages to be neither of the above and instead falls into a nasty category of experience all its own. The music is dreadful and actually discordant, the lipsyncing is bad, the set dressing cheap and the special effects woeful.
None of these things alone are particularly surprising and neither is the idea that a business enterprise involving Courtney seems entirely cynical or exploitative. But put them all together and watch them with the memory of those first articles. The ones where the mass of hair extensions, the spray-on dresses and the lucite heels were parcelled up as an aspiring singer as well as a teen bride.
Suddenly the lollipop licking, the groping, the nudge nudge borderline self-aware lyrics “realer than my body” are not just tawdry, they are actively upsetting. If “aspiring singer, aged 16” has the ring of a child’s fame daydream, then the grotesque realisation of that daydream involves a now-18-year-old writhing around on a wipe-clean yellow bed before pretending to go down on a guy who doesn’t even look like he wants to be in the room.
Reductive, statistics-driven titillation is the force behind Courtney’s teen bride persona and her continued celebrity. It is also the force behind her foray into music. Maybe she knows these things, maybe she doesn’t. Regardless of who is manipulating whom at this point, ‘Reality’ is a comprehensively nasty 3 minutes and 22 seconds constructed entirely from our obsession with getting eyeballs on pages.