On Wednesday, the day after Valentine’s Day, Conde Nast’s new video property, The Scene, posted a glossily produced clip of a young woman named Kourtney confronting her ex-boyfriend Leonard about his brazen infidelity. “What did you do?” Kourtney asks Leonard, holding back tears. “I did everything,” he coolly responds. The six-minute video has more than 200,000 retweets and generated an eruption of attention online. The video clearly and coldly displays Leonard's callousness and Kourtney's hearbreak. On the other hand, it also exploits a predictable predilection of many audiences: They want to see a disaster in action.
He cheated on her. Now she wants to know why. pic.twitter.com/5hdlpKisjZ— The Scene (@SCENE) February 15, 2017
Leonard, a quintessentially overconfident guy with an Odell Beckham haircut, appears uncompromising in his commitment to appear as much of an asshole as possible. He glibly tells of the scores of women he slept with while dating Kourtney. And in one particularly harrowing moment, Leonard describes a time when he told her to leave the room while he was WITH ANOTHER WOMAN. The audacity of the situation calls several things about this video into question. What kind of guy does this? Why are men so trash? What does a girl do if she’s hooking up with a guy and his girlfriend comes in and he tells her to leave? This perhaps explains the explosive virality of the clip, which spawned the hashtag #HurtBae, describing Kourtney’s predicament.
Debate raged over whether Kourtney should have just broken up with Leonard. Why did she stay with a guy who continually hurt her? In the video, she explains, heartbreakingly, that she decided not to break up with him because he was her "best friend.” But the bigger question is: What the hell was this guy doing manipulating this woman with such bold disregard for any semblance of decency? The video’s effectiveness lies in that relatability. In the comments, women shared their own horror stories, creating a sort of feedback loop of man-induced trauma.
In her book, The Selfishness of Others, Kristin Dombek describes our obsession with the idea of narcissism. In trying to pin down a working definition for the word, she explores what she calls the “narcisphere,” a loosely connected set of blogs, self-help books, and thinkers who present a familiar avatar for the brokenhearted. Did your ex “do everything?” Maybe he was a narcissist! Of course, the concept of narcissism is an intimate one. One’s display of narcissistic tendencies can only be recognized by those close to them; in effect, it is something done to another person.
The video raises another, more cynical, question — what was the purpose of putting this woman through this trauma again for public consumption? Glamour posted a similar video a year ago, albeit with a much less physically appealing male scumbag. This genre of video seems to play into the same dark curiosity that makes daytime television shows like Maury so popular. There’s something undeniably icky about watching a couple argue about the paternity of a child, but the practice is one of daytime TV’s most enduring tropes. Most of the reaction to #HurtBae focuses on how real and “raw” the clip is, but there’s never any real explanation of why and, of course, nothing produced at this level and for this purpose is truly real. What is the value of watching two college kids talk about how awful one of them was to the other?
The topic of ex-lover confrontation has effectively become online media's version of the televised paternity test. BuzzFeed, for example, had exes go forehead to forehead — as in, touching foreheads — while asking each other intimate questions for a video that amassed more than 3 million views. The YouTube channel Watchcut Video, which has over 1 million subscribers, runs a series called “Truth or Drink,” in which exes ask each other questions while getting increasingly drunk. The millennial media brand Elite Daily even had exes ask each other questions while hooked up to a lie detector test. We watch these videos as a form of catharsis, imagining a world where we might have the fortune (or misfortune) of getting unanswered questions addressed by an ex on camera. It’s the same reason, as Dombek writes, that articles about dating narcissists are so popular. We're always looking to others for visions of ourselves, and the internet provides them in excess.
For his part, Leonard has gone on the defense since the video was published. The internet was quick to uncover his Instagram and Snapchat accounts, and at least one post suggests that he feels he was treated unfairly. Thanks to the virality of the clip, it won’t be surprising if Leonard starts making the rounds on morning talk shows.
Dombek’s assessment of the “narcisphere” isn’t particularly forgiving. The epidemic of narcissists is “a story that divides us, by defining empathy as something we have and others lack,” she writes. In looking for the narcissism in others, it’s easy to lose sight of one’s own tendencies. Plenty of people can relate to “hurtbae” in that they’ve had shitty relationships. But how many people are willing to recognize when they’ve been her ex?