Life in the Age of Authentic Artifice

by Meta Wagner

6 September 2010

We're mastering the art of presenting a persona rather than a person -- each becoming a distorted version of ourselves, further and further removed from the real thing.
Photo of Serpentine Pavilion, in Kensington Gardens, London. by
Paul Petrunia found on Archinect.com 

We are—hundreds of millions of us—broadcasting our lives and following the broadcasts of others as if our lives depended on it. I’m not just referring to Facebook or Twitter. I’m talking about memoirs, based-on-a-true-story movies, daytime talk shows, blogs, confessional songs, reality TV, and every other form of “sharing” that’s taken the culture captive. 

It’s as if we each bought a one-way ticket—no cancellations, no refunds, no turning back—to Realityville before we even decided that’s where we really wanted to go or figured out why we’d want to travel there. (Personally, I’d rather go to Barcelona). 

What are we hoping to find once we arrive? Entertainment? Distraction? Comfort? Truth? 

Sure, it makes sense to think of reality as a representation of the truth. Yet, as Picasso said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” And for millennia, people turned to fictionalized works of art—theater, literature, Adam Sandler movies—to bring them closer to the truth of their own lives.

What do today’s versions of reality—wall posts and Jersey Shore antics and Lady Gaga tweets—make us realize? There are times when they make me, personally, realize that fictional characters like Scout Finch and Elizabeth Bennett and Rob Fleming feel more real to me than real people.

I understand the appeal of the non-fiction/reality genre—heck, I write it, I teach it. Lately, though, I’m starting to wonder if the sort of authenticity we ascribe to reality (despite knowing better) may be the most sophisticated form of artifice ever.

We’ve become expert editors, taking the raw material of our lives and shaping it to make us seem more interesting, funnier, better looking, and more popular than we are in reality—real reality. We’ve learned how to calibrate just the right amount of revelation vs. withholding in order to control our image.

Therefore, we’re each becoming a distorted version of ourselves, further and further removed from the real thing.

It’s the art of presenting a persona rather than a person. Celebrities and writers and politicians have been doing it forever, and now the rest of us are having our turn.

That’s my concern. Yet, I have some hope that we may be entering the next phase of reality, one that takes us back to our true selves, possibly even our truer selves. 

Take Facebook, for instance. I was a Facebook holdout and only recently opened an account, which is akin to opening Pandora’s box: Who to friend? Who to accept as a friend? How much information should I reveal on my profile page? To whom? Do I really want to get back in touch with people I haven’t seen in decades? Would they really want to get back in touch with me? What if I get together with some friends but can’t invite everyone—will they be offended afterwards if they see the posted pictures? Ooh—bad hair day—untag that photo! And on and on and on. 

Then I started thinking how freeing it would be if I could stop worrying about how I appeared and who knew what about me and whose feelings might get hurt. 

I haven’t arrived at that point yet, but I admire others who have. For some people, it’s become so routine, so normal to live a life that others are privy to that they’ve developed the rare capacity to live in Realityville, not like actors in a play, but as people going about the business of living their authentic lives. They’re so comfortable in their own telegenic skin that they’re neither mugging for the camera nor hiding from it.

I was struck by that this summer, watching Bethenney Getting Married? Bethenney Frankel, previously a cast member of The Real Housewives of New York City, has become one of the breakout stars of reality TV. Why?  Because she’s self-deprecatingly honest about herself and because her life offers a wonderful narrative arc (troubled woman finds happiness at last). When she said she hopes her baby will be sweet like her husband Jason, not like her, or when she acknowledged she’s probably her mother-in-law’s guilty pleasure because she gets to say crude things out loud or when she tearfully toasted her assistant Julie, telling her she couldn’t have made it without her—these were moments of such self-acceptance and self-awareness that I found them genuinely touching. 

Maybe, someday, Realityville won’t be such bad place to live after all.

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