Inside Phoebe Bridgers: Portrait of a modern female sociopath 

The Phoebe Bridgers - Chris Nelson Defamation Case 

“Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore”. 

Articulated by Phoebe Bridgers herself in her song ‘I Know The End’, these lyrics provide the perfect metaphor for the short-lived defamation dispute Bridgers faced following her public declaration against the sexual misconduct of producer Chris Nelson. Indeed, the $3.8 million lawsuit against the 29-year-old was dismissed almost as rapidly as it was filed, owing to protection under the First Amendment right to free speech. But, before turning to the outcome, let us first answer the question – what occurred to prompt the case’s filing? 

In October 2020, Bridgers took to Instagram in support of Nelson’s ex, Emily Banon who had made public allegations of sexual misconduct. In the now-removed post, Bridgers declared “I can personally verify much of the abuse…perpetrated by Chris Nelson”. The reaction from Nelson was twofold; first, he filed a $3.8 million lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court on the basis that Bridgers “maliciously” intended to “destroy” his reputation. Nelson then proceeded to claim Bridgers and Bannon engaged in their own relationship, labelling the accusations as little more than a “revenge plot”. 

In a rather cynical sense, it cannot be said that Nelson’s response came as a surprise, given he had previously sued Bannon – alongside musician Noël Wells – under the same claim in December 2020. In the case of Bridgers, much like the others, the presiding judge ruled for a dismissal on the basis that the singer was protected by California’s anti-SLAPP laws – that is – legislation disallowing the use of litigation to intimidate against free speech. Following the ruling, Bridger’s team released a statement declaring “We feel vindicated that the court recognized this is frivolous…it was not grounded in law but was filed with the intention of causing harm to our client’s reputation”. The spokesperson went on to state “this victory is important not just for our client but for those she was seeking to protect using her platform.” This response is highly valid when considering the consequences of a successful lawsuit on the willingness of victims to speak out. Given that there is already a stigma around reporting assault, if the price of doing so appears in the form of a $3.8 million lawsuit it surely makes the prospect that much less enticing. 

Despite the success of Bridgers in the case’s outcome, her trials have by no means ceased with the emergence of a documentary, removed last week by Bridgers’s legal team, labelling her a ‘modern female sociopath.’ The classification of the signer under this label can be argued as problematic for multiple reasons – two in particular. 

For one, the labelling of Bridgers as a ‘sociopath’ simply for calling out Nelson’s behaviour implies that the singer was the one out of line. This exacerbates the previous point on the willingness of victims to come forward. Indeed, if the repercussions of an individual having the courage to call out assault or harassment are deemed sociopathic, the incentive to do so decreases significantly. There is perhaps a sense of irony that emerges in considering that it is the action of calling out inappropriate behaviour that is criticised as crazy rather than the behaviour itself. 

On another note, the use of the term ‘sociopath’ speaks to the growing colloquialization of medical terminology within modern dialogue. In recent years, there has been a trend of using technical terms in a casual context which has served to exacerbate a disconnect between language and meaning. This phenomenon – ‘semantic satiation’ – is problematic as the casual repetition of a term causes the actual condition the word describes to lose meaning. The harm of this has been described by linguist Dr Zsofia Demjen, who argues using “technical words to describe mundane experiences means the original meaning is diluted”. In the context of ‘sociopath’, the term itself describes a serious, diagnosed condition. When considering that some of the behaviours that classify sociopathic tendencies include lack of empathy and impulsive outbursts, it becomes apparent that the classification of Bridgers under the same title is both inaccurate and inappropriate. The discussion surrounding this is much more complex than the breadth of this article can cover, but it warranted mentioning as an interesting point to understand the impact of the documentary. 

It can be inferred that the combination of the documentary and the defamation case – despite its dismissal – would have been a source of great stress for one individual. On this basis, it is understandable that Bridgers made the personal decision to take a step back from the public purview of social media. Despite this, her year has started strong with four wins – more than any other artist –  at the recent Grammy Awards. This speaks to the ongoing adoration of her fans who remain abundant in support and wait in hope – and with much anticipation – for the announcement of a new chart-topping album.  

As Nelson attempted to destroy her reputation, Bridger ironically reached the precipice of her career. Whilst we can only look at this series of events through the public eye, Bridgers has won out; legally, semantically, and as is very clear musically. Even though we cannot truly ascertain what the future holds, we can say one thing about this experience – it will probably make a pretty good album. 

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