The predominance of pop cultural narratives of confined spaces and solitary prisons has got me thinking: Why is our culture so anxious about being boxed in? Isn’t western culture today the freest it has ever been? Isn’t America in the 21st century the place where you can literally be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, as long as it is an authentic expression of your true, autonomous self?
If you've grown up in America--or even if you've just had America imported to you via media and pop culture--the air you breathe with respect to identity and purpose is something along the lines of "be who you want to be," "follow your dreams," "find yourself," "don't let anyone get in the way of your dreams."
If you’ve ever seen the MTV show, The Hills, you know how utterly unique, interesting, and, well, odd it is. On one level, The Hills is just another MTV teen drama-fest with all the usual trimmings: hot twentysomethings, vacuous dialogue, an orgy of product placement… But there is something very different about the form of the Hills-type shows, and it strikes me as one of the more intriguing “experiments” of post-network T.V.
Essentially The Hills, like its groundbreaking predecessor/model, Laguna Beach, is a “faux reality” docudrama that is equal parts Melrose Place, The Real World, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. The plots are simple: rich, beautiful white kids living the jet-set scene in Hollywood and beyond. The Hills centers around Lauren Conrad (who also starred in Laguna) as she pursues a career at Teen Vogue magazine in Los Angeles. The drama of the show comes from Lauren’s various romantic entanglements, friendship/feuds (most notably with Heidi Montag), and mini-crises of the “I ruined my dress” or “what should I wear?” variety…
It sounds trite and passé, right? Well, yes, but something about it is definitely resonating with the youth culture zeitgeist, because it’s the highest rated program on cable television. Season Three just resumed last week, and the premiere episode was 2008’s highest-rated cable telecast—with 4.7 million viewers. Clearly there is something alluring and addictive about this show, which also streams online to an average audience of another 1-2 million viewers each week.
I can only take so much of it, but when I do watch an episode (and I watched last Monday’s “Paris Changes Everything” episode), I am struck anew by the curiosity that is The Hills. It’s such a strange thing to watch “real” people interacting in such a staged/performed/fake (pick your word) way. One could argue that this is what all “reality TV” is, but The Hills takes it to a new level. They flaunt the uber-constructed, un-reality of it all. These kids are living out fantasies and movie scripts and E! adventures in Hollywood, arranged and financed by the world’s biggest pop culture pimp: MTV. It’s about as unreal as it can get—and the MTV producers know it. Question is: do the audiences know it? And more intriguingly: do the stars of the show know it?
Does Lauren Conrad know that any value her “career” at Teen Vogue might hold pales in comparison to the value she—as an iconic commodity of flighty pop-culture fluff—offers the MTV/Madison Ave advertising behemoth? Do Heidi and Spencer know that their “relationship”—its survival or failure—is only important as a plot point or dramatic foil for the ongoing soap opera that is their publicized twentysomething lives? In short: as these “characters” live out their “real” lives, how much of it are they playing for the camera vs. living for their lives? Or perhaps those two have become indistinguishable?
When you watch any given interaction on The Hills, you can see two things very clearly: 1) scenes are setup and scripted, just like anything you see on TV, and 2) there exists some reality, somewhere—some measure of truth to every interaction, expression, and plot development. For example, in last week’s episode, Spencer tracks down Heidi at her picturesque Crested Butte cabin where she is “working on herself” in the comfort of her parents’ comfy abode. I was struck by one scene with Heidi and Spencer at dinner with Heidi’s parents. The scene was clearly setup by the producers to be a high-water mark of awkwardness—and several things Heidi and Spencer say are very suspiciously “straight from a movie.” But in watching the scene you can see—in Spencer’s eyes, in Heidi’s blank stare—that there is some truth to their relationship; they are really going through this tension and awkwardness, on some level. But herein lies the fascinating thing about this show: it fuses reality and fiction on a very cerebral, intrinsic level.
The stars of The Hills are performed characters. But they are performances of real people. “Lauren,” “Heidi,” “Audrina,” and all the rest are avatars for some real girls who are also called Lauren, Heidi, and Audrina. They are the performed selves of some actual selves (and, interestingly, there are also virtual selves at play here in "The Virtual Hills"). But in the end, are they necessarily different?
In this digital, second-life, avatar age, are our public constructions of self who we really are? The girls on The Hills seem to think so. Audrina told TV Guide, "Who I am on the show is who I am in real life.” And why wouldn’t she want to think this? On the show she is a rich, glamorous covergirl who can get into any club in L.A. If she is or ever was someone else in her life outside of MTV, that “self” is now no longer relevant and certainly no longer desired. When you become a character that millions across the world want to be like, who cares who you really are? The glossy, costumed, makeup’d character is who you want to be.
In our Facebook/Myspace/blog culture, who we are to ourselves (our “inner” or “ultimate” Self) is less important than the image we present to the world. Or rather, perhaps who we are to ourselves becomes the self we project to others. In either case, it is clear that our culture is characterized by identity confusion—and The Hills is cashing in on it.
Recently I’ve been fascinated with the notion of the avatar—whether our Facebook picture or our IM Buddy icon or our actual videogame avatars. I’ve been playing on the Nintendo Wii and having way too much fun creating Miis… little cartoonish avatars that I can make from scratch and then play in games. But it’s a pretty interesting thing to consider on a deeper level—the attraction and increased ubiquity of avatars in a digital age.
In his essay, “Hyperidentities: Postmodern Identity Patterns in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” Miroslaw Filiciak argues that “on the Internet … we have full control over our own image—other people see us in the way we want to be seen.”
My question is this: To what extent are these avatars or online identities really “identities,” insofar as we recognize them as being in some way “us”? Do we see them as extensions of ourselves, or substitutes, or “one of many” variant, circumstantial identities? Do we empathize with our avatar as a function of being its creator and controller? Or as a result of its being our digital likeness and online persona?
“Identity” as an idea is complicated enough, but “postmodern identity” is another ball game entirely. Filiciak attempts to grasp the postmodern identity in his essay, citing people like Jean Baudrillard (identity is the “label of existence”), Michel Foucault (“self” is only a temporary construct), and Zygmunt Bauman, “the leading sociologist of postmodernism,” who argues that the postmodern identity “is not quite definite, its final form is never reached, and it can be manipulated.” This latter notion seems to be the crux of the matter—the idea that identity in this networked world is not fixed but fluid, ever and often malleable in our multitudinous postmodern existence.
Filiciak cites social psychologist Kenneth Gergen, who writes about how we exist “in the state of continuous construction and deconstruction.” While this is not a new idea (psychologist Erving Goffman argued, in his 1959 classic, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, that the presentation of self is a daily ongoing process of negotiation and information management, with the individual constantly trying to “perform” the image of themselves that they want others to see), it is nonetheless an idea which does seem ever more appropriate in this DIY, user-generated, “massively multiplayer” society.
The type of “self” we construct and deconstruct in everyday life, however, seems to me to be a subtly different thing than what we can and often do in videogame avatar creation. A primary attraction of avatar creation, I think, is that it allows us to create “selves” that are both our creation and our plaything, something that can be as near or far from us as we want. We can and often do construct “identities” that are far from who we are or would ever want to be in the “real” world. Why do we do this? Because we can. Where else can I create a detailed character—complete with eyes, nose, hair, lips, eyebrows, all proportioned to my curious heart’s content—who I not only have authored but can now control and “act as” in a simulated, interactive space?
I find it interesting that when I began to create my first Mii, my initial instinct was not to carefully craft a Mii in my image (I did do this later on, and found it rather boring), but rather to play around with the tools and manipulations at my disposal and create the weirdest looking, side-ponytail-wearing freak I could come up with. Given the opportunity to create any type of Mii, I had no inclination—and I never have, really—to create an avatar that is remotely like who I am (or who I think I am). Thus it strikes me as questionable whether avatars are primarily something that we are to empathize with, at least in the visual sense.
In a sense, my attraction to an avatar is not so much the ability to portray and empathize with a digital alternate to my self, as it is an empathy or affinity towards the ability to create and control this being. To create the avatar is—to me—the most enjoyable part of having one. Of all the things I’ve played on the Wii (sports, Mario Paper), Mii creating was definitely my favorite part. There is something very attractive to the idea of formulating a person from scratch—assembling features in bizarre and unnatural ways with no penalty for cruelty or ugliness. As Filiciak writes of the avatar creation of MMORPGs:
There is no need for strict diets, exhausting exercise programs, or cosmetic surgeries—a dozen or so mouse clicks is enough to adapt one’s ‘self’ to expectations. Thus, we have an opportunity to painlessly manipulate our identity, to create situations that we could never experience in the real world because of social, sex-, or race-related restrictions.
Indeed, if we view avatars as a sort of extension of our identity, then here is one case in which we truly can be anything we want to be.
We can also do anything we want to do, or at least things that are taboo or unthinkable in our real lives (play Grand Theft Auto for a good example of this). Here again we see that our empathy with the avatar occurs not just in what the avatar is, but perhaps more in what the avatar does, or is able to do at our command. Filiciak believes the freedom we have with the avatar “minimizes the control that social institutions wield over human beings,” and results not in chaos but liberation: “avatars are not an escape from our ‘self,’ they are, rather a longed-for chance of expressing ourselves beyond physical limitations … a postmodern dream being materialized.”
It’s an interesting notion, to be sure: the vaguely Freudian idea that who we really are (our true identity) can be realized only when the many limitations of everyday life are removed (as in a game). Gonzalo Frasco, in his essay “Simulation versus Narrative,” makes a similar point about how videogames allow for a place where “change is possible”—a form of entertainment providing “a subversive way of contesting the inalterability of our lives.”
I think that the ability to transgress the limitations and inalterability of our real lives is an especially important attraction of the avatar. But within this ability of the avatar (to be and do things that are beyond the scope of our real lives), I think, lies the very limitations of our identification with it. It seems that what draws us to the avatar is the very thing which ultimately alienates us from it. If true empathy is possible with the user and his avatar, he must first get past the fact that this digital incarnation of “self” can do (and is really meant to be) substantively different than we are—unbound by the many limitations (physical, emotional, cultural, etc) which mark our existence.
The pleasure we derive from our relation to an avatar, then, seems to be less about empathy or identification than creative control and interactivity. With my Mii creations, for example, my enjoyment came from the ability to create in any way I wanted—to play God in some small way. There was little in the Miis that I could relate to my own identity; little I could really empathize with. But I still enjoyed creating, changing, and controlling them. This reflects a tension that is, in my mind, central to the videogame experience. It is the tension between the “anything is possible” freedom of virtual worlds and the user’s desire for empathy. The former may produce the higher levels of fun and gameplay, but the latter is a fundamental human longing. And I believe the two are negatively correlated: as “anything is possible” increases, the opportunity for empathy decreases, simply because limitation—as opposed to unbounded freedom—is what we know. It’s our human frame of reference.