Last time, I wrote about how the “like” button on Facebook is an important indicator of how we categorize each other and ourselves. As you may recall, I ended with this:
Yet, here we are defining ourselves and others by all these little “likes”, thinking that they display something truly substantive about ourselves. Therefore, our very definition of “realness” is tied up in all these “likes” that are associated with it. Sadly, when “realness” because a phony cliché, we turn into walking stereotypes. And, most frighteningly, we proclaim that stereotype to be substantive; we proclaim this or that stereotype to be indicative of our true self. So, what is this cultural virtue of “realness”? What does this stereotype mean? What does it look like and what does it “like”?
Because any discussion of pretension (“being fake”) requires a discussion on the authentic (“being real”), the difference between to the two relies your attitude toward reality. The major problem with this is that everyone bends reality to suit their needs. Everybody. You do it. I do it. Everybody does it, whether they wear Chacos or Birkenstocks. Everybody is “fake” to some degree, whether they like Marcel Proust or those ghastly vampiric sagas written by that Mormon. To show this, let’s for a brief moment consider the cultural phenomenon that is reality television.
As you probably don’t know — because y’all are more saintly than I am — reality television is a style of entertainment that presents itself as actual unscripted events in the lives of the non-actors. Reality Television can be anything as dangerous and real-to-life as showing true police work in Cops or as mind-numbingly boring as any single one of the Bravo reality shows staring well-to-do gay men with overly-manicured eyebrows having petulant temper-tantrums that put the fits of a five-year-old bipolar girl to shame. It can be the Real Housewives of x, where insipid and overly-rouged middle-aged women have petulant temper-tantrums at parties. Or, it can be like one of the Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, where washed-up child actors have petulant temper-tantrums while trying to get help for their drug and alcohol addictions. Sometimes they’re even in the form of a game show like Celebrity Apprentice, which is the exact same scenario as Celebrity Rehab, except they’re trying to win money, instead of getting help for their heroin addiction.
No matter the format, it is presented as true-to-life, it is presented as reality.
Of course, the problem with all of this is that we know it is not reality. For example, MTV’s The Real World – a pioneer in the genre — claims the right to modify any parts of the cast-members’ lives in order to better suit the narrative of the show, even to the point of falsifying information. It also turns out in order to better suit the narrative, many reality shows actually have writers on staff. You read that right, writers (and, yes, that might be my dream job). In her masterful short history of Reality Television in The New Yorker a few months back, Kelefa Sanneh writes of an academic who is studying the genre:
Having logged those thousand hours, Pozner can attest that reality shows have a tendency to blur together into a single orgy of joy and disappointment and recrimination. In her view, this is no coincidence: the shows are constructed to reinforce particular social norms, she argues, and she finds examples from across the reality spectrum.
Wait a second! I thought all these reality shows were . . . well, you know . . . real! Next I know, you’re going to tell me that Dennis Rodman really didn’t have an alcohol problem! You lied to us, Dr. Drew!
I bring all this up not to show the downfall of Western culture, but to show that reality — or what we think of as reality – is not as pat and dry as we imagine it to be. As “fake” as it is, I don’t even blame these shows for having writers in order to form a narrative arc. I don’t blame them, because I do this everyday (and you do, too). May I give an example from my own life?
If I wanted to tell the story of my life as a tragedy, I could pick five stellar moments from my childhood, how I was the blessed child who had the world handed to him on a tin platter, followed by five awful moments from the last three years of back-stabbing and betrayal. It would read like my childhood was spent in the Garden-of-Eden, Indiana only to find myself exiled to The-Backside-of-the-Desert, Tennessee ten years later!
Conversely, I could tell my life-story as if it were an inspiring story about overcoming obstacles, I could pick five different tales from my childhood. I could tell all those heartbreaking stories about how I was misunderstood by most of my peers and by most people in my hometown. Then, I could talk about how I triumphed over those obstacles in the last three years, become the fine, upstanding man that I am today. I could tell how Tennessee was my salvation!
The frightening thing is that I could tell both of these stories equally: most days, I choose to tell the later but catch me in the wrong mood and I might tell you the former! With either of these stories, I’m taking the random real events of my life and applying a narrative to it. Frankly, this is similar to what all those reality television shows do, albeit with less deception. And in many ways, using any narrative to tell any life-story is “fake” as it takes the facts and bends them towards some theme. While, perhaps as not as extreme, we are just like any one of those “Real Housewives”. Ouch.
So, take this idea – the idea that we’re all “fake” to some degree – and add in the fact that we are now defining ourselves by what we like. And we’re in a dangerous, precarious position. Essentially, the guy who likes folk is just as “fake” as the guy who likes opera. So, what exactly, then is pretension? Does it even exist?
(More to come in Part III)