The Imaginary Heroine

searching for the plot

Doppelgängers of Facebook February 17, 2010

A few days late to the party, I decided to join Celebrity Doppelgänger Week on Facebook, during which members change their profile picture to a look-a-like celeb and let the flattering comments roll in. As a general rule, I latch on to Facebook trends just as everyone stops paying attention to them. The difficulty of living away from real-time friends is you’re pretty slow on the uptake.

I’ve always had a fair amount of people tell me I look like *insert fair, dark-haired and -eyed celebrity here* or someone they know. I had a classmate tell me I look just like their friend Wendy and then call me by her name the rest of the class. One day on campus I had an entire conversation with a girl I desperately tried to place, before realizing I actually had no clue who she was…and she didn’t seem to know me either. She had mistaken me for someone else.

The BooHooWhatAboutMe part of my brain says I must look pretty generic if I look “just like” so many people. The OhGrowUpNotEverythingIsAboutYou part of my brain says that people are generally just not that perceptive. The majority of the world has no reason to be as interested in me as more intimate acquaintances. We observe in broad strokes, discarding idiosyncratic minutia for a passable short hand (tall, pale, brown hair. Done.). When considering the big picture it’s also interesting to note that the physical limitations on facial morphology for humans mean all of us are going to look like a lot of other people.

After discarding Anne Hathaway (pale and brunette, but totally unlike me in all other meaningful ways) and Sandra Bullock (thanks Dad and random hobo guy outside my office building, but meh…not really similar), I tried the MyHeritage face recognizer. What I got was a selection of stars who neither looked like me, each other, or themselves – the photos were from odd angles or with weird faces or very dated. I suspect that MyHeritage simply cobbles together a random list and hopes you’re so flattered that you’ll just run with whatever they give you.

I also suspect this may be the point of Celebrity Doppelgänger Week. It’s a way for people to have their appearances validated by association with cultural ideals. I’m attractive – see! I look just like So-and-so!

Other bloggers have pointed out the problematic racist/sizeist elements to the doppelgänger game. With the limited number of popular, non-white celebrities, should someone select a doppelgänger that is of the same race, but otherwise unlike them (playing into the “All *people of group X* look the same” stereotype) or should they select a celebrity with similar features who may be of another race (eliding their racial identity). If you are fat, are you required to chose from the minuscule pool of celebrities with a similar size or should you risk ridicule by selecting someone whose features are more similar of yours, but happens to be smaller than you? What do you do when there really isn’t a celebrity who looks like you at all?

Celebrity Doppelgänger Week is simply another way of reinforcing the reductive power of beauty ideals. I look enough like a celebrity to be considered attractive OR I don’t look like any celebrity and thus I must not be attractive. It’s a way of sorting, dividing, and excluding the majority of people in favor of the few who posses prized and rare physical qualities. We don’t really question the dubious connection between physical perfection and perceived intellectual/spiritual perfection, but the implication is deeply ingrained in our communal identity. For myriad reasons, beautiful people are treated as valuable people.

In reality, the vast majority of us don’t look like the narrowly defined and ever-homogenizing beauties that populate Hollywood (taking into account the overuse of Photoshop, neither do they). Which is okay! It really is. Not only because it’s demonstrably false that outer beauty is a necessary condition for inner beauty, but because the parameters of a term like Beauty change based on time, place, point of view, etc – everyone and everything is beautiful to someone.

A lack of celebrity doppelgänger is especially good when you think about what the word “doppelgänger” actually means. A doppelgänger is not a super attractive celebrity that everyone will pretend looks just like you so you can get a self-esteem boost. Although the Facebook meme uses it as a synonym for “twin” or “double”, “doppelgänger” is actually a very old and well-used trope of the horror/fantasy genre:

“In German folklore, a wraith or apparition of a living person, as distinguished from a ghost… To meet one’s double is a sign that one’s death is imminent.”

Sure, celebrity “doppelgänger” profile pictures might not be a sign of imminent mortal peril, but they do seem to be indicative of a certain kind of identity peril, a willingness to discard our unique features in favor of those approved by society as “correct.” It invites the erasure of intimate beauty that lies in the individual nature of someone’s form. Isn’t that a different kind of imminent death?

After climbing out of that philosophical rabbit hole, I decided to change my profile picture to Waterhouse’s “Pandora” instead.

 

27.3% of America Feels “Up in the Air” January 30, 2010

(SPOILERS: Contains discussion of major plot points from the movie)

Last night 7abibi and I managed to catch Up in the Air before it left theaters. Despite the presence of the lovely and talented Anna Kendrick of Jessica-in-Twilight-and-New Moon fame I was kind of left feeling meh by the trailer. Guy. Planes. Whatevs. I’m so glad he talked me into it, because I thought it was smart, funny, and full of timely philosophical questions.

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a corporate downsizer for hire, rolling around the country slashing jobs and dreaming of reaching 10 million frequent flier miles. A new hire at his firm, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), drops in a to rain on his parade with her idea to revolutionize the industry by nixing expensive travel and firing people via videoconference. Through the marvel of modern technology, downsizers like Bingham can now fire anyone anywhere from the comfort of their home office, no travel costs incurred.

Bingham fights for his jet setting lifestyle and the “dignity” of his profession only to have his boss recommend he take Natalie on the road for a quick tutorial in the art of letting people go. The film examines Bingham’s emotional detachment and isolation as well as Natalie’s naive expectations about what life looks like after the comforting structure of college is stripped away.

The most interesting portions for me were those that dealt with the emotional toll of unemployment. In a society when the first thing people ask is “What do you do?,” it is absolutely gut-wrenching to have to work around the issue of underemployment or unemployment. If the latest job stats are any indication, there are a lot of wrenched guts out there.

According to the latest press release from the US Labor Department, unemployment is still hovering around 10% in the US.  According to NPR, this number doesn’t include another 17.3% of Americans who are underemployed, working part time instead of full time or working below their education and experience level to stay afloat financially.

Although Up in the Air does touch upon the financial troubles faced by fired employees, its true accomplishment is the poignant portrayal of the identity crisis people go through when they lose their jobs. What do you do when you have no answer to “what do you do”? Who are you in our society when you are not a contractor or administrative assistant or farmer or any other do-er?

At one point in the movie, Bingham says, “When we stop moving, we die.” Taken another way, this could be read as when we stop doing, we die. An unemployed person is drastically de-verbed. They are no longer a do-er. It’s not hard to see how many people can feel a piece of themselves has died when they lose their job. You weren’t let go. You were terminated.

Though I am lucky enough to not be unemployed, I can speak to the awful feelings of underemployment – something felt by zillions of recent grads.

I busted my ass in college. So did a lot of people. I didn’t graduate high school, so I may have endowed graduation with a little more epic significance than is strictly the norm, but on campus people act as though that little piece of paper will be your ticket to the good life. Invest, they tell you. You have to invest your time and effort and (especially) money into your future.

After graduation, I filled out over 200 applications for any and every job I could find. Despite my fairly substantial work experience, near-perfect GPA, and glowing references, I only got called in for one interview. With a temp agency. They didn’t hire me. I got a decent contract position through a friend of a friend of a friend, doing approximately the same thing that I did 5 years ago as a freshman in college. It took me over a year to pick up my diploma.

To quote Tyler Durden in Fight Club:

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

The difference between my generation and the Fight Club generation is that we aren’t living in a world of corporate plenty and we aren’t “working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” Many of us are working precarious and dead end jobs and still can’t buy shit we actually do need. Many of us are working no job and find that not only can’t we afford shit, we can’t participate in the world of American personhood.

“What do you do?”

“I do nothing.” The subtext being, “I am no one.”

It doesn’t matter how many times we’re told “a lot of people are going through this too” or “it’s not you, it’s just the recession” or “something will come up – jobs are a lagging indicator”. It feels like it’s you. Just you. You are a failure and you are alone and the life you were promised would be there if you just worked hard enough is gone forever. And you are very, very pissed off.

The corporate downsizers in Up in the Air are full of cloying doublespeak to soothe the newly terminated. “We’re here to talk about your future” and “it’s important to look at this as an opportunity” and even “if not for you, do it for your family.” Clips of the terminated employees are spliced in, depicting fear, grief, anger, and confusion. According to Imdb, these are real people expressing how they felt after they were fired from their real jobs. The juxtaposition of actors playing terminators spouting insincere corporate blather and the honest feelings of the terminated straight from the source is a truly masterful touch.

It is these same people who provide a light at the end of the tunnel – and the movie. Though still struggling to get by, their tone is more hopeful as they talk about how their families and friends rallied around them after they were fired. While the “do it for your family” line has a hollow ring rolling off of Bingham’s silver tongue, family becomes the cornerstone of these real people’s salvation. You take each day one at a time, using your loved ones to stay on course. We are not just our jobs. We are not alone.

So… I guess this is a really long way of saying thanks, 7abibi, for taking me to see Up in the Air.