In 2011, Courtney Stodden was preparing for their first televised appearance with their 50-year-old husband, Doug Hutchison. Stodden had spent the previous three days starving themselves and attempting—and, by their own admission, failing—to shake off the pressure of being interviewed on Good Morning America by Lara Spencer. The cameras captured 16-year-old Stodden bouncing around their house in a leopard-print bikini top and hot shorts—drawing attention away from Hutchison and toward them. The interview covered their virginity, whether their breasts were real, and whether they’d been groomed by Hutchison. In contrast, during the interview, Hutchison’s infatuation with Stodden was described as coming amid “the wreckage of two failed marriages and one serious drinking problem [where he] hit rock bottom.” When Spencer asks “What age is too young?” and mentions the online community labeling Hutchison a pervert, Stodden interjects with protectionist statements about those who blamed him for the illicit seduction.
Hutchison’s predation, although painted as novelty, continued a pattern of established Hollywood actors grooming young women. Brad Pitt, Jerry Seinfeld, and Luc Besson—three men with a combined net worth of more than $1 billion—have all been in highly publicized relationships with female minors. And, although Hutchison doesn’t have as storied a career as these aforementioned men, Stodden—an actual child—was still the target of media attention. “I felt like I had to stick up for Doug, and that’s what that interview was for,” Stodden recently told the Daily Beast. “It was to make Doug look better and make him look like he’s not a predator.” Though the stench of perversion never left Hutchison, the redirection of blame was more than successful. ABC made no mention of the dangers of death threats and their association with rising teenage suicide rates; instead, they included anecdotes about Hutchison and Stodden’s sex life, more breast shots, Stodden laughing at being told to kill themselves, and a shared interest in a reality television show. Spencer’s voiceover explored their possible success as a consequence of “an era of low-rent fame where controversy can be as marketable as actual talent.”
This concept wasn’t lost on 2010 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie of the Year, Chrissy Teigen and her comeuppance at the beginning of tectonic social media power. Twitter, which seemingly started off as harmless, offhand thoughts, became the most powerful source of communication in the modern world. From August 2009 to August 2010, Twitter’s user base grew 76 percent, which translates to 96 million unique users. In February 2011—the same month as Stodden’s GMA interview—Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down amid a revolution partly sparked via Twitter. And yet, for most (including Teigen), accountability was hardly considered. Since she began her Twitter account in 2009, Teigen has employed a snark and cheeky tone. Having watched her Kardashian friends grow from shop girls to a televised prime-time wedding special, Teigen charted a course for reality fame, using witticisms and flippance on social media to propel her career. And, in the prime of Perez Hilton’s socialsphere and Britney Spears’s comeback album, Teigen, like most of Hollywood, understood the associated gratification of tearing down other celebrities, particularly those considered “infamous.”
Having a public platform didn’t stop celebrities from engaging in Twitter’s toxic social discourse: Teigen, Hilton, Rihanna, and the Kardashians are part of the quarter of Americans who have engaged in trolling. They recognized that trolling breeds engagement and engagement breeds fame. So in February 2011, as the burgeoning controversy wheel solidified itself, Teigen shot off the following tweets:
Teigen wasn’t alone in persecuting Stodden: She hopped on a dangerous bandwagon to travel a little bit closer to fame. However, celebrity Twitter trolls—particularly those on the cusp of being Generation X and Millennials (hereinafter referred to as “X-cuspers”)—have often targeted young women, including Stodden. Whereas younger generations acknowledge our online presence as a direct extension of our reality, X-cuspers spent their formative years absent from the yet-to-be-invented ubiquitary force of social media. X-cuspers—the first adopters of social media—used Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook as an outlet detached from reality. Their role helped shape the way we use the internet, establishing the prevalent online disinhibition effect (ODE), as described by Wired, where “people are more aggressive, rude and forthright online because they’re anonymous and can act as unpleasantly as they like without immediate consequence.”
The original X-cusper superstars of the app, Teigen included, recognized that fame and Twitter—a direct line to their fans—are intrinsically linked. Suddenly, a constant stream of thought and consciousness was readily available for fans to cling to. In a 2015 article for Arch Public Health, researchers found that unfettered access affects “self-conception,” which “includes the thoughts and attitudes people have of their actual self, those they would like for their ideal self, and those they use to present their social self.” For celebrities who portray themselves as “relatable” to their fans, their tweets and ideas triggered fans’ “self-consistency motive,” where the motive is “to maintain one’s actual self.” Teigen, one of the queens of Twitter, has always employed this kind of relatability. Even her apology to Stodden included this insight: “I have always tried to be beloved.”
Chrissy Teigen wasn’t alone in persecuting Courtney Stodden. Instead, Chrissy hopped on a dangerous bandwagon to travel a little bit closer to fame.
Beloved is an operative word. Teigen is unaware of whom she is beloved by; instead she understands love through engagement. The Arch Public Health article cites results from “three studies on parasocial interactions—unidirectional connections fans make with media personalities—people with low self-esteem used celebrity relationships to move closer to their ideal self, a benefit that people with high self-esteem derive from real relationship partners.” So while Teigen’s fan base grew, nasty engagement—bordering on cyberbullying—was behavior that found reward. Teigen has been cyberbullied herself—most famously by Donald Trump—yet she perpetuated the cycle with unforgivable vitriol. Though wishing death upon a teenager is specifically appalling, celebrities in Teigen’s demographic have bullied younger women to resounding fanfare. In 2014, Rihanna tweeted a comparison photo of her and a 16-year-old fan who had handmade her prom dress in tribute to Rihanna’s 2010 Echo Awards ensemble. Rihanna captioned the edited photo as “Instagram vs. Real Life” to make fun of the teenager’s version. The picture was retweeted more than 9,000 times. She later tweeted an image comparing the fan to the Wu-Tang Clan logo using the hashtag #PromBat.
In 2016, in response to the virality of the Kardashian-Swift video where the former provided doctored “evidence” of the latter’s agreement to Kanye West’s lyrics in “Famous” (which later caused a PR firestorm), actor Chloë Grace Moretz tweeted “Everyone in this industry needs to get their heads out of a hole and look around to realize what’s ACTUALLY happening in the REAL world.” In response, Khloé Kardashian posted a photo of an anonymous woman’s vagina and anus accidentally being revealed. The photo, where the woman wore a red bikini, was incorrectly linked to Moretz. Kardashian captioned the photo: “Is this the a hole you’re referring to @ChloeGMoretz ???” The anonymous woman’s vagina received more than 11,000 retweets. Kim Kardashian also tweeted: “Let’s all welcome @ChloeGMoretz to Twitter, since no one knows who she is. your nylon cover is cute boo.” Neither has been deleted, despite Moretz being a teenager at the time.
Clearly, cyberbullying innocents can garner great returns, and though we herald ourselves as enlightened, even the most progressive cultural critic participates in this ecosystem. Even in 2021, we find ourselves picking apart children who have ascended to fame or infamy, denouncing their actions as though they’re capable of making the decisions we expect them to. Charli D’Amelio, a 16-year-old TikToker, lost one million followers and faced countless death threats after an escargot taste test went wrong. In the video, Charli decries the dish in a manner that could best be described as “bratty.” And, although this is not ideal behavior to highlight and relay to fans, sometimes 16-year-olds annoyingly act like brats—they shouldn’t be told to die. While many people are shocked by Teigen’s remarks, we must remember her unacceptable barbarism was pleasantly received by a self-hating society stuck in a loop of constant malevolence. More importantly, we must remember society still loves to attack teenage girls, rarely considers the impact of Hollywood predation if the predator is likable, and “the internet’s not written in pencil…it’s written in ink.”