Pop Psych: Where we ask a real psychotherapist to delve into the mindsets of our favorite shows and TV characters.
The opening shot of Starz’ new series, The Girlfriend Experience (inspired by the movie, The Girlfriend Experience), tells us quite a lot about what’s on the mind of its protagonist Christine Reade. It’s an over-the-shoulder tracking shot, following her as she walks down a hotel hallway towards a door, and that’s all. After she arrives at the door a new scene begins where her friend Avery shows off some of the benefits of life as an escort, but to focus on this would be to miss the glorious solitude of that anonymous walk to the end of the hall. Here’s Christine, knowing exactly what she wants to do and how to do it, until that door opens and she has to interact with the living world again.
This very brief little scene, this moment of solitude and certainty, is so pleasant it almost feels out of place in the series. Most of the show’s run-time, at least through the first four episodes, is devoted to machinations and politicking. Character interactions are dominated by a kind of motivational judo – what does this other person want, and how can I find out without revealing what I want? It’s all quite transactional, which admittedly makes a lot of sense for a show about an escort, but to me it’s also exhausting to experience that kind of life. The Girlfriend Experience presents to us a world where we must be constantly on our guard, alert and searching out both danger and the weakness of others.
And into this world comes Christine, a promising young law student faced with a few different paths through her life. Offered what must be a quite prestigious internship at a patent-law office – a gig the show reminds us is the most lucrative of legal professions – Christine is absolutely on track to a life of traditional success and extraordinary wealth. At the same time this is happening, though, her friend Avery also gets her a kind of unofficial, yet paid!, internship as an Escort, and now she has a choice: what kind of fucking does she prefer? Which isn’t something I would usually say, but is definitely the kind of line you can expect to hear in this show.
She doesn’t seem to have any idea of what she’s after. This is presented in the show as some kind of outrageous indecisiveness paired with a potentially diagnosable lack of impulse control, but to me it just looked like my 4 o’clock.
Christine has a lot of talent, she’s good at every professional venture we see her engaging in, and she has to choose what she wants. Which is precisely her problem. She doesn’t seem to have any idea of what she’s after. This is presented in the show as some kind of outrageous indecisiveness paired with a potentially diagnosable lack of impulse control, but to me it just looked like my 4 o’clock. As a therapist who works primarily with teens and young adults, trust me: this isn’t rare. I looked up the average age of law students in this country, and according to Harvard Law it’s 26. When I was 26 I didn’t even know if I wanted drugs (I did) or a job (I didn’t). Maybe the boomers were buying houses with separate His and Hers beds in them by 26, but these days you’re ahead of the curve if you know which fad diet you’re sticking to by 30.
The point being, Christine looks pretty psych-standard to me – her neurosis seems like a lot of sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing. Which, literarily, suggests a different diagnosis, but remember for a moment you only pretend to have read Faulkner. The show hinges on her psychological character, and is constantly posing the question of what she wants, or if she even wants anything at all. We get to overhear her spilling her guts to basically anyone who will listen, which isn’t that many people in her world, that she doesn’t understand what joy people find in each other. On her first day as an Escort she tells her John that she’s never met anyone she wanted to talk to every 5 seconds. She tells some guy who I couldn’t place that conversation bores her. She confesses to her sister that conversation without a purpose makes her anxious. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
The show includes all this as expositional setup to pose a really pointed question: is Christine a sociopath? My take, having never met her, is a very measured maybe. In the show, Christine’s sister dismisses the idea out of hand, saying sociopaths don’t ask that question because they don’t worry about it. Which is great TV but not particularly accurate or kind. Do you remember that time in 5th grade when you came back from Summer vacation and everyone else liked Green Day but you’d never heard of them? So you pretended you knew what they were talking about and hoped desperately no one would ask you what your favorite song was? Imagine that was your whole life, and then tell me sociopaths don’t care that they’re sociopaths.
TV leans on this sociopaths as apex predators trope a lot, and admittedly you do find a higher prevalence of sociopathy among CEOs, but it’s a very limited view of what that life is like. Keep in mind, current estimates peg 5% of the population, 1 in 20 people, as diagnosable for sociopathy. So yes, your hunch about your weird cousin is right. More importantly, though, that means sociopathic traits are astonishingly common. A lack of empathy, impulsiveness, and antisocial behaviors are the common watchwords, but don’t forget alienation and confusion.
Look at Christine’s world: everyone is running an angle, and all the furniture is uncomfortable. She asks her boss about honesty, and his response is so fuddled and draped-over with charm that you’d think he’d never heard the word before. This is the public face of the life she’s worked so hard to step into. When she’s an escort, she gets to see it without the makeup – this is why she’s so curious about her first John’s real life when she finds out he’s a lawyer. Wouldn’t you want to get paid thousands of dollars to find out if you’ll be happy in twenty years?
Trace this back to her first sexual experience on the show, when she picks up some rando in a bar and they jump-cut to making out without a word of dialogue between them. She moves away from him and tells him to watch her masturbate, and then requests, “tell me what you like about this.” The obvious interpretation here is that it’s an invitation to dirty talk, to tell her he likes it when she reminds him of his emotionally unavailable mother or some such. But consider the possibility that we humans aren’t half as clever as we think, and that most of our questions and behaviors are actually revealing our absolute truth all the time. She might literally be asking for a guide in how to enjoy this encounter. What do you like about anonymous sex, what do you like about relating to another person at all? Why did you take a stranger to your home?
Which leads to a critical bit of information: Christine is curious about other people, and can relate to their pain. This is probably why she’s so good at being an escort, and why she has a promising career in law. More importantly, though, it’s why she’s not a sociopath. She stands up for her friend when their shared madam blacklists Avery, even though she hides it under the veneer of shrewd business. She can read when her boss is having an actual hard day and tries to comfort him, even though she hides it under a veneer of tough guy anonymous sexuality. When these decisions come back around to harm her, we can understand why she might prefer being an escort, where at least everyone has the courtesy to feign that there are rules. But that’s not a sufficient identity; it’s not even a full-time job. What may be the case for Christine is that she feels quite a bit too much, that she’s far too empathic for a world that has replaced emotional intimacy with dirty money and sterile sex.
Basically, the show thinks it’s asking a question when really it’s showing an answer. When Christine finishes her interview for her internship we get a funny little scene where her future employers make fun of her for being inauthentic, about twenty minutes before they hire her. Every carrot being dangled in front of Christine is best attained by employing traits of sociopathy. Every role model in her life is playing the hide-your-Humanity game expertly, which has got to be confusing. Even Conan the Barbarian received wisdom about what is best in life, and look at how well he turned out! Christine’s doubt about her own motivations makes perfect sense. Don’t forget her one piece of total authentic revelation: the best advice she ever got was simply “keep breathing”. She’s walking down a hotel hallway lined with doors, and behind each door lies the same perfect, sterile room. Might as well keep walking.