Narcissism isn’t what it used to be

Innumerable commenters have suggested that society – in particular, the tech-obsessed youth – has become more narcissistic as a consequence of social media. The fact that ‘You’ were named person of the year in 2006 may appear to attest to this. Psychologists Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell certainly agree, writing that we’re in the middle of a ‘narcissism epidemic’ in their 2009 book of the same name. Since then, the assumption has gained traction.

But narcissism is not what it used to be. Moreover, the word ‘narcissism’ does not adequately describe the particular set of features characteristic of the kind of self-documentation and self-interest common today. While it is a popular assumption that millennials have developed an over-inflated sense of ego thanks to their digital technologies, today’s brand of narcissism is radically different and detached from that of the 1980s yuppie narcissism familiar in books such as Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and films such as Wall Street, which turned 30 in December.

Tom Wolfe called the 70s ‘The Me Decade’, while Christopher Lasch bemoaned what he saw as an increasingly narcissistic era in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. But if narcissism soared in the 70s, it reached peak cultural acceptance in the 80s. In Wall Street, when Gordon Gekko – a character described as the ‘quintessential’ narcissist – proclaimed ‘greed is good’, his narcissism was linked to assertiveness. For many, his excessive self-confidence was more an admirable indicator of his ruthless productivity.

Gekko’s self-interest was evidence of a fierce, unapologetic ambition, not of a need to be accepted. For Gekko, being loved by others was not his concern. His narcissism was not felled by a corresponding anxiety. And this, I would argue, is the crucial difference between twentieth-century narcissism and contemporary self-interest. Other well-known narcissists, from Norman Mailer to Muhammad Ali (who famously proclaimed ‘I am the greatest’) earned their narcissism through personal achievement and self-belief, and their self-aggrandisement was at least partially justifiable due to their drive to succeed.

Psychologist Manfred Kets de Vries separates the pathological narcissist from the constructive one, the latter of whom can ‘engender initiative and spur creative endeavours’ (for example, the influence Ali had as a sporting and political icon). This distinction is useful in mapping certain types of personalities in the public eye, especially in the cultural climate of a Trump presidency, where self-worth tends to be equated with bigotry. Back in 1996, Theodore Millon identified four subtypes of narcissist – the unprincipled, the amorous, the compensatory and the elitist. In 1998 he added the ‘fanatic narcissist’ and the ‘normal narcissist’, one who is characterised by boldness, ambition and self-confidence, and who also expect others to acknowledge their talents.

Such shifts in attitudes regarding narcissism have even had an effect in the clinical field; in 2011, it was reported that Narcissistic Personality Disorder would no longer make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it no longer seemed to constitute a disorder in and of itself, opening a dialogue on new ideas of human behaviour.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan had his own interpretation on the narcissus myth; the narcissus tale does not tell the story of a man who falls in love with his own image, McLuhan argued. Rather, narcissus is so numbed by the image that he does not understand that the man in the reflection is actually himself. McLuhan emphasised that the word narcissus is actually derived from narcosis, meaning ‘numbness’. So rather than gaining a sense of self-importance through the hundreds of selfies people take, perhaps McLuhan would argue that our over-abundance of photos it due to an inability to recognise our sense of self through the numbness that technologies engender.

In 2018, the assumption is that we’re more narcissistic than ever. Yet social media use is defined more by insecurity than by ego. The majority of social media users have no reason to be narcissists, in the traditional sense, since most have done nothing through their posts to achieve or earn an over-indulgent sense of self-importance. The problem is that almost everyone has their own social media profile, and they are used more or less in the same capacity, leaving little room for actual creativity. When Gekko holds the floor in his infamous speech, he is one speaking to many; he is earning his narcissism through his controversial yet creative take on greed. In the social media landscape, we lack such stalwart individuality because the platform hardly caters to eccentricity. It is a narcissism without action, narcissism without achievement.

Instead of narcissism, we have a kind of insecure narcissist; an individual who craves acceptance and validation through the public ritual of friends, likes and followers. This relates more to the aforementioned subtype of narcissism known as the ‘compensatory narcissist’, who, according to Millon, derive their feelings of self-importance from ‘underlying insecurities and weaknesses rather than from self-confidence and self-esteem’. In this sense, such narcissists fill the void by creating an illusion of superiority. As my media students often tell me, they post pictures of themselves on Instagram not as a narcissistic gesture, but as a form of garnering approval. This is where this period differs from previous incarnations of narcissism – because narcissism wasn’t inherently or historically linked to a need for approval.

Contemporary strains of narcissism ironically circulate around a lack of self-esteem, whereas the 80s narcissist was seen to be comfortable in their self-image. The paradoxical emphasis on individualism and self-esteem flies in the face of the unabated message of conformity that Instagram ‘influencers’ perpetuate. Thus individuality is both celebrated and industrialised. Leo Braudy discussed such a concept in his study on fame, The Frenzy of Renown, published in 1986. For Braudy, ‘in part [fame] celebrates uniqueness, and in part it requires that uniqueness be exemplary and reproducible. What special individuals pioneered, many can imitate.’

In place of any sort of radical individual, the likes of which Friedrich Nietzsche frequently celebrated, there is a kind of benign individuality that is carefully monitored and constructed, in which certain ‘trends’ of individuality are marketed and replicated; it’s a move away from any kind of genuine individual and toward collective approval. It’s safety in numbers on a global scale. This might help explain why group-themed shows like ‘The Wisdom of the Crowd’ are being released. As Michael Foley put it in ‘Is The Age Of Individualism Coming To An End?’, this can even be seen in popular superhero franchises. For Foley, the lone hero has been replaced with the buddy pair or team: ‘even those ultimate individuals, the superheroes, now prefer to fight evil in groups,’ which explains the popularity of The Avengers and The Justice League.

Perhaps, it could be argued, this period’s emphasis on the individual, which has shaped much politics and culture of the last few decades, is shifting to an individuality perpetuated through entitlement and insecurity simultaneously. The recent film La La Land could be evidence of such a shift. Various critics and philosophers, including Slavoj Žižek, have analysed the specific lyric: ‘City of stars, are you shining just for me?’ As Žižek argues: ‘I find it hard to resist the temptation to hum back the most stupid orthodox Marxist reply imaginable: “No, I am not shining just for the petit-bourgeois ambitious individual that you are.”’

La La Land reasserts a fundamentally white middle-class ambition for individuality alongside a corresponding lack of self-belief, with Mia despairing, ‘maybe I’m not good enough’. The film asks us to sympathise with Mia and Sebastian, but it gives no reason why we ought to applaud them on their journey to success – that is, other than the fact that they want it. As Ruth Quibell writes in Meanjin, Mia and Sebastian’s desire for mainstream success ‘is not particularly unusual, radical or threatening’. She notes how Mia’s one-woman play hardly inspires sympathy when she herself refuses to give roles to her friends. And Sebastien’s desire to ‘save’ jazz by turning it into a mainstream, white-dominated music style was widely criticised following the film’s release.

Reversing Karl Marx’s famous quote about changing the world, rather than interpreting it, Quibell argues that Mia and Sebastian ‘do not want to transform this world but [want to] secure the place in it they have been led to believe (through the praise of teachers, parents and awards) naturally exists for them.’ So the individual no longer seeks to create their own identity, but assumes one provided for them, one which will grant them approval, rather than accusation.

As Nietzsche famously proclaimed in Beyond Good and Evil, the genuine individual was one who found themselves ‘in contradiction’ to their day, for the individual’s enemy ‘has always been the ideal of today’. But residing as we do in what futurists David C Thompson and Michael Fertik call the ‘reputation economy’, Nietzsche’s proclamation lamentably no longer holds true, for collective approval is the order of the day, not individuality.

Instead of witnessing a rise in classic narcissism, we are seeing a regression of narcissism in which superiority originates from insecurity, and where our self-worth must first be validated by the crowd.


Image: Still from Wall Street.

Siobhan Lyons

Siobhan Lyons is a writer and media scholar in media and cultural studies, having earned by PhD from Macquarie University in 2017. Her My work has appeared in Overland, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, The Conversation and New Philosopher, among others.

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