Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Nation of Depersonalization

A few months back I saw an article or blog post or maybe just a facebook comment bemoaning the duckface - that pouty-lipped expression so many of the female persuasion assume when posing for a photo or taking a selfie. It was a mom, shocked and horrified that her young daughters took these awkward knee-out, hand-on-hip, pouty stances when asked to pose for a picture. She knew the family had worked hard to keep them sheltered from the type of mass media which spawn these things, but ultimately, they couldn't be sheltered from the mass population of young people exposed and influenced by these pictures. The girls didn't know they were copying some ill-conceived celebrity trend, they were just responding to the way their friends took pictures - nothing more out-of-the-ordinary than "say cheese."

It's easy to condemn the celebritizing of our culture. Everything we (the societal we - you can self-righteously exempt yourself at whatever point you wish) do revolves around professional celebrities. (Kim Kardashian made more money from the release of her cell phone game than any actual artist will make from their work this entire year.) Our celebrity-obsessed media culture sets the tone for life - what's cool, what's important, what's "news" - and it's all, essentially, a facade. Celebrity culture is marketing - it's fake.

I can remember the sadness I felt as a teenager when I discovered that even the "personalities" our favorite stars exhibit when on the couch with Kimmel or Fallon is an act. We don't ever get to know the "real" people because we don't actually have relationships with these people. I mentioned to my wife just this week how, in my memories, Gwyneth Paltrow always seemed so cool and now she seems, at best, really odd - never thinking that perhaps her life got busy enough and complicated enough that the maintaining of her public image isn't a top priority any longer.

Ultimately this is about depersonalization. We don't want our celebrities to be people - we want them to feed our egos. We want celebrities we love unconditionally - Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are insanely beautiful people who found each other and travel the world helping poor people; it doesn't make sense that she'd get married in an ugly dress simply because her kids helped design it. The notion that her family means more than our image of her makes Jolie a person, and that makes us uncomfortable.

We'd be incredibly uncomfortable knowing as much about our neighbors as we know about our favorite athletes and actors. We'd either feel creepy for knowing so much or uncomfortable because there'd be some expectation of reciprocal life unveiling. We don't want people to know that much about us - they might not like us, they might point out all the faults we're already well aware of and secretly beat ourselves up over ever night as we cry ourselves to sleep.

To treat someone like a person is to be included in everything - and frankly, most of us are pretty messed up people. Celebrities can't be themselves on TV because real people are boring and strange and troubled and ultimately uninteresting (and just in case you want to go that direction, the people on Jerry Springer are just as much depersonalized characterizations, they're just otherwise anonymous ones).

But what really made my heart sink was the realization that our society has depersonalized itself. I came to this tragic conclusion reading some of the stories about the recent dump of hacked celebrity cell phone pictures. I was intrigued because this seemed to be getting far more media coverage than the typical leak. It is because of the sheer volume - several dozen (some accounts more than a hundred) female (and it's always female for some reason) celebrities had nude or risque pictures and videos released to the wild. There was also a groundswell of opposition - reminding the public that these people are indeed people and it's an invasion to even look at the pictures.

Despite that warning, a lot of the articles had samples - albeit with blacked out eyes and digitally imposed modesty bars. I didn't even recognize most of the names, let alone out-of-context necks and midriffs, but what I found most shocking is that these celebrities, in their most private and intimate moments, assumed the same poses our kids do when snapping a selfie.

With the salacious parts properly covered, few of the photos I saw looked any different than those these women are paid to pose for. They've essentially participated in the mass depersonalization for so long, it's shaped and formed them as much as it has the rest of society. There was nothing natural or normal about these pictures - no one looked like they were taking candids in the privacy of their hotel rooms - even if they were.

I've talked before about how some of our societal problems we created ourselves, but have now grown so large than we're incapable of actually defeating them. Things like hunger, homelessness, violence, etc. It's part of the reason I believe in God; I recognize humanity's inability to fix itself, even if we're the cause of our own problems.

Selfishness is nothing new - and that's exactly what this sexualized depersonalization is: a feeding of our own selfish desires. When I think about the kind of girl I wanted to date when I was sixteen, it was usually someone who could exist in my life without challenging or changing it. I wanted someone who looked pleasant and attractive at all times, someone who liked the same things I did, someone who understood me completely and always knew what I wanted or needed. In short: I wanted someone to indulge me. I didn't want someone who possessed traits and abilities I lacked, I wanted someone who would give me what I wanted, but didn't have.

In growing up, getting married and staying that way, I've realized the most important thing in another person is a different perspective. My wife and I are frustratingly different. I never know what to expect or how she thinks. I guess I'm better at it than I used to be, but in many ways we're still struggling to live together well - because real relationships involve real people. Real people are sometimes tired, stressed out, and unpleasant. They push you to think differently; they expect you to change and adapt to the world around you. They won't be content to give and give without getting something in return - relationships take two invested people.

Our society has long fought that notion, because it's bad for business. Selfish indulgence makes money. It makes money because selfishness is never satisfied. We want more and whatever we get isn't enough. At some point, this was an intentional ploy by marketers - tapping into our insatiable desire to drive the economy - but I wonder if now, it's just an uncontrollable force. I'm not even sure those perpetuating it - the actors, directors, producers, advertisers - even realize what they're doing any more. Clearly these actresses come by it naturally - or they learn to do so very quickly, not just in front of the professional cameras, but in front of their own as well.

This doesn't excuse the invasion of privacy or the continued depersonalization that dominates the comment sections of these stories. But it does, I think, move the problem from one of "us and them" to one that we all have to own.

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