In Praise of the New Narcissism
We love ourselves. And finally we're honest about it.
By Stephen Marche
Television is inherently an act of narcissism. It both feeds and fuels what Freud described as the core of the narcissistic personality — "the delusion of being watched." Television's narcissism is currently shifting ground. This month, The Carrie Diaries relaunches the Sex and the City franchise while Girls starts up its second season. The contrast is stark: In the old narcissism, we have dumb, beautiful moneyed people trying to become more beautiful and more moneyed. In the new narcissism, we have smart, unattractive poor people trying to confront their pervasive, intense self-obsession. All of the best shows on television, the most urgent, most relevant pop culture of the moment — Louie, Community, the upcoming season of Arrested Development — reflect us as we are: narcissists in search of a cure from ourselves.
Self-conscious narcissism of the Carrie Diaries variety is still the bulk of mainstream culture, of course. Why do people watch the Kardashians or any other reality-television show? To learn how much self-exposure is acceptable. And every episode conveniently gives the same answer: more. In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10 billion on plastic surgery, according to an industry association, and about $5 billion on NASA space operations. By this logic, having perfect tits is worth twice as much as exploring the universe. The academic authors of The Narcissism Epidemic found that among thirty-seven thousand college students, the rise of narcissistic traits from the 1980s to the present was as steep as the rise in obesity. And the epidemic is largely generational: According to a National Institutes of Health study, 10 percent of young Americans exhibited symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder, while only 3 percent of older Americans did.
In a shockingly brief span of time, narcissism has come from nowhere to dominate all human activity. Amazingly, the term narcissism was coined only a little over a century ago, to describe what was then considered a psychological ailment: people taking sexual pleasure from themselves. If we have progressed in any field of human endeavor over the past century, it is self-pleasuring. Masturbation has made greater strides than the microchip — growing more accessible, more open, faster, and less shameful every year. Narcissism is the same: no longer, properly speaking, a disease at all, but our way of life. The economy runs on it. The educational system has shifted almost entirely to living-up-to-your-potential goals. Parents value their children's self-esteem far more than they do their virtue or knowledge. Even technology drives narcissism: The streets are full of people who no longer look up; the world comes to them through the self-directed glow of their phones. Narcissism, not love, makes the world go round.
In Freud's masterwork "On Narcissism," he connected narcissism with the desire to remain in a state of infancy, arguably a by-product of the fact that human beings take longer to develop independence than any other species. We are all narcissists in Freud, at least for a while, because we are all born too young. Is there a better description of our time right now? Everybody's been born too young. With narcissism's increased prevalence, it has become more self-conscious. Think Joel McHale on Community compared with Ryan Seacrest. McHale doesn't deny that he's a narcissist. On the other hand, he recognizes its ludicrousness. Seacrest lives at the bottom of a hole of himself, furiously digging deeper. McHale is at least looking up.
This self-consciousness is new, which is why Girls really is legitimately the marker of a generational turn. There were women like the women on Girls fifteen years ago. I remember them. They had graduated from the Ivy Leagues, they didn't have good jobs right away, and they were so obsessed with the drama of their own potential that they forgot to do anything. They were writers who talked about what it meant for them to be writers rather than paragraph structure.
The brilliance of Lena Dunham — or one of them anyway — is that she's aware of this self-induced crisis. In one of the final scenes of last season's Girls, her boyfriend screams at her, "You love yourself so much," and then gets hit by a truck because he's not paying attention to the world around him. Exactly. She has been self-aware enough to pass through narcissism, at least partially.
The problem is that the only way to escape narcissism entirely may be to stop making television. That seems to be the case with Louis C.K., who has decided to take a hiatus from his show. In the final scenes of his last episode, he traveled alone to China, to a place so foreign that he found no reflection whatsoever of himself. It was the first time he looked happy. Louie has essentially been a chronicle of a recovering narcissist. If he actually recovers, what is there to watch?
"Each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom," W. H. Auden wrote in 1940. The writers of the new narcissism have lost that conviction; they have abandoned the idea that they can be happy in themselves. The abandonment of the old narcissism is an abandonment of the self-destruction that accompanied it. Drug use has dropped 30 percent in thirty years. Cocaine is down nearly 40 percent since 2006 alone. But Adderall is on the rise. Vapid self-indulgence has been replaced by scrupulous self-management.
Our best shows point out exactly the same paths of escape that Freud identified: There is a cure by love and a cure by analysis. Only a lucky few can manage the former. For everybody else, there's television.