Two fascinating deconstructions of our collective obsession with “authenticity” appeared this past week, both of them confirming its status as cultural little ‘l’ law numero uno (for the moment). It’s interesting for a number of reasons, and not just because Mr. Artfully Inauthentic himself, David Bowie, released his first new album in 10 years on Tuesday. For example, while the exact shape of things like Success and Beauty may always be changing, at least we all tacitly agree that those things exist. Authenticity, on the other hand, is a phantom. Not only does its pursuit preclude its attainment a la Humility, but the more you drill down, the more it reveals itself to be almost entirely theoretical. That is, either everything (that exists) is authentic, or nothing is. There’s no clear line. Which means the commandment of Thou Shalt Be Authentic is not just impossible or cruel, it’s nonsensical. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from pursuing it with all our strength and persecuting those who don’t. (Vulnerability, which is what most of us probably mean when we use the A word, is another matter entirely).
Exhibit A here is what the always insightful Heather Havrilesky refers to as “Oscar night’s Lawrence/Hathaway carnival ride of attraction/revulsion” in her column for The Vulture, “Why Jennifer Lawrence and Mila Kunis Are Beloved.” Havrilesky is right to suggest, in relation to Lena Dunham, that authenticity doesn’t stand alone–it’s more like an extra (and extra ephemeral) hurdle for those women who’ve already cleared the other, more basic ones of beauty, smarts and talent (don’t worry–it may be a little less brutal, celebrity-wise, but men have their own deadend obstacle course). As we’re fond of saying, and as the article makes painfully clear, this is not a race anyone can win–we either need a substitute runner/ringer, or the whole track needs to be demolished, or both. You might say this is the double-bind of the law at its most, er, authentic:
[Mila] Kunis’s behavior — like Lawrence’s, Garner’s (before Affleck), and Aniston’s (before her 172nd Oprah appearance) — is far too confident and natural to be an act. Rest assured, though, it’s about to become one… Apparently by pushing the envelope on this carefree tomboy schtick, Kunis and Lawrence have unlocked some secret chamber of veneration.
Even so, there’s something very specific, and very dramatic, about this everygirl/diva study in contrasts — as embodied by The vocal negative reaction to Hathaway and her ilk… suggests a sea change in the way we encounter celebrity. We may have reached the outer limits of our patience with the kind of self-involvement that rises from a life in the spotlight. There are just too many ways to be famous, or at least to draw an audience — from blogging to posting clips on YouTube to tweeting something pithy during the Super Bowl — for most of us to want to see a star treating the world’s attention as something that they’d been destined to bask in since birth.
[Lena] Dunham rarely comes off as anything but earnest and funny and self-deprecating, the same party tricks demonstrated by Kunis and Lawrence. So why all the hate? Apparently it’s not enough for a woman to be smart and likable and humble. Audiences presumably don’t crave Dunham as their best friend because they already have a best friend just like Dunham. They want an upgrade. The key is to act just like average humans, but not to look remotely like them.
These days, not only are there more artifacts and pieces of evidence than could ever be examined by a jury of one’s peers, but the latest offending or uplifting opinion piece or tweet or YouTube snippet travels across the globe at the speed of light. If any single aspect of your personality or public image — your attitude, your fashion sense, your taste in men, your sense of humor — fails to impress, watch out. You must be gorgeous but humble, smart but self-mocking, talented but awestruck by others with talent, young but wise beyond your years, perfect but anxious to admit your flaws to the world. And you’d better do it every second of every day…
Eventually, of course, commenters and tweeps and the celebrity press will lament that Lawrence and Kunis have gotten too big for their britches, or that Dunham has “gone mainstream” by toning up, and Hathaway will be painted as some kind of downtrodden underdog, causing the masses to rise up in her defense and forget her trespasses against them. Fame giveth, and fame taketh away — now faster than ever. We demand beauty and smarts and talent with not even a trace of pride or vanity. We demand the impossible.
Sigh… I guess there’s some comfort to be found in the fact that authenticity is just the latest in a long line of ostensibly good things we’ve co-opted for purposes of justification. The winds will shift soon enough. In the meantime, that Kunis interview really is refreshing.
Elsewhere, Steven Poole took up the same topic a bit more broadly in a terrific essay for The New Statesman, “Why Are We So Obsessed With the Pursuit of Authenticity?”, looking at the roots of the obsession, how it has been commercialized, and how ultimately self-defeating and -deceiving the whole thing is for both performer and consumer. It’s probably as thorough and amusing a takedown of authenticity-as-virtue as anyone could put together, ending as it does on an ominous note of self-validation and the will to power. If only understanding the double-/triple-/quadruple-bind here were enough to free us from it:
…our present predicament: there is no way out of simulation. What we get in an “authentic” cultural product is still a simulacrum, but one that insists even more loudly that its laminated, wood-effect veneer is the real thing. Authenticity is now yet another brand value to be baked into the commodity, and customers are happy to take this spectral performance of a presumed virtue as the truth.
Even Marks & Spencer’s men’s underwear is branded “authentic”, posing the nice question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts or trunks would look like.
If you type the words “authenticity” and “authentic” into Google’s Ngram Viewer, which plots graphs of the use of words in books over a given period, you will find that there has been a strong uptick in usage since the early 1990s. It might be no coincidence that this parallels the rise to ubiquity of digital creative technologies. Perhaps people become more worried about art’s authenticity once they understand that modern technology makes everything liquid and endlessly revisable.
More disturbingly, the unexamined hunger for authentic culture can rapidly turn into a witch-hunt. After Beyoncé sang “The Star- Spangled Banner” at Barack Obama’s inauguration, the story got started that she had been lip-syncing. But in several videos available you can clearly hear two Beyoncés: there is a pre-recorded vocal, plus a Beyoncé who is, perfectly obviously, singing live. One would like here to diagnose a mob-like rage for authenticity which fastened on a sacrificial victim with no regard for the justice of its accusations.
So, too persuasive a performance of authenticity will be taken as a sign of inauthenticity. The authenticity-obsessed want something to be real, but they’re on a hair trigger to cry foul if it seems too real to be true… So the authentophiles can no longer reliably perceive what they claim to value; indeed, they risk destroying it. (Why bother doing something for real if no one will believe you did?)…
As a side-note, I watched the new Beyonce documentary on HBO last week, Life Is But A Dream, and the authenticity factor was there in spades, and mainly in a good/non-distracting way. She talks about her faith and her marriage, for example, in very gut-level terms, which she didn’t have to do (to say nothing of her miscarriage). That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that both my wife and I wondered aloud if the whole no make-up thing was the publicist’s idea. So inculcated we are in this topic.