Whether its blogging, reality shows, Facebook or botox injections — we’re all convinced that we’re not only interesting but darned attractive too. Sarfraz Manzoor looks at the worrying rise of the new narcissists
Britney Spears has done more self-destructive things in her life, but as performances go, the consensus is that her comeback appearance at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards was the most damaging four minutes to her career to date.
She had barely reached the wings before the critics were deconstructing her poorly rehearsed routine, and questioning the merits of her lip-synching and an outfit — a diamanté bra and pants two-piece — that gave the impression that her body went south with baby Jayden James and never quite returned.
Then, far away in America’s Deep South, Britney-obsessive Chris Crocker — an American Internet personality — lay on a bed in his grandparents’ house, distraught. “Leave Britney alone!” he howled into the ether, tears streaming down his mascara-smudged face. “Her song is called Gimme More for a reason! Because all you bastards want is more. Leave Britney alone!”
We were able to hear this lone voice in the wilderness because, despite his mental anguish, the 19-year-old had been composed enough to set up a camcorder to film himself — then vain enough to upload it onto YouTube.
Like Spears’s own life, the clip was horribly, gruesomely and shamefully compulsive viewing; one minute Crocker is pouring his heart out on a bed in Tennessee, the next he’s signed to a talent agency and on national television announcing that he is in talks to develop his own reality show.
“It’s crazy,” he said about his newfound celebrity. “I’m like, what, two weeks into this and I’m already seriously looking into hiring a bodyguard.”
Why did Crocker feel the need to share his thoughts on Britney Spears with the rest of the world? Why did he think his views mattered? And, perhaps most importantly, why did more than 12 million people agree? The answer can be summed up in just two words: new narcissism.
A recent study by psychologists at San Diego State University concluded that young people are more narcissistic than ever before. Asking students to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place”, Professor Jean Twenge found that two-thirds of the students scored above average on narcissism.
“Today’s college students,” says Twenge, “are more likely to have a feeling of self-importance, to be entitled and, in general, to be more narcissistic.”
There are several versions of the story of Narcissus, but they all have one thing in common: a handsome youth falls hopelessly in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.
Although Sigmund Freud was the first to employ the word “narcissism” in relation to psychiatry, and it was recognised as a medical condition soon afterwards, the term is more commonly associated with less extreme acts of vanity, conceit and egotism — in short, narcissists were the kind of men who, were they given the choice of taking one personal effect to a desert island, would choose a mirror.
In his late ’70s treatise on 20th-century American values, The Culture Of Narcissism, the social critic Christopher Lasch theorised that “every society reproduces its culture... in the individual, in the form of personality”.
With the rising levels of disposable income available to them, cosmopolitan straight guys, over the years, began adopting a queer eye for fashion and male grooming products. At its most extreme, ’90s narcissism led to the waiting rooms of cosmetic surgeons, such as doctors Maurizio and Roberto Viel, as those who couldn’t compete on the treadmill sought a quicker fix.
In 1990, the year the Viels opened their Harley Street clinic, the 48-year-old twins saw 250 men; last year they performed more than 700 surgical procedures, the most common of which was the penis extension.
“The typical profile of the sort of man who comes to see me is someone in their early forties,” Maurizio says. “He is likely to be middle class, with a good standard of living.” And vain? “Yes, and what’s wrong with that? A little bit of vanity means you take care of yourself. All that surgery does is help your self-esteem.”
Aside from the fact that putting your penis under the knife is more than “a little bit of vanity”, the expectations of even surgically enhanced metrosexuals pale when compared with those of the new narcissists. This new breed aren’t driven by their desire to rule the world, one Viagra-protracted, surgically swelled conquest at a time; they want to take out entire continents like cultural atom bombs.
Not that they consider the need to do something special — say, make a Nobel-worthy scientific breakthrough — to achieve their monumental ambitions. For the new narcissist, fame and fortune are simply a matter of entitlement.
If personality is a mirror of the culture, then you only have to switch on the TV to understand where the new narcissist gets his cues.
“Our culture is obsessed with celebrity,” says Simon Crompton, author of All About Me: Loving A Narcissist, “and because we are meant to care what a celebrity has for breakfast, it’s easy to start deluding yourself into thinking anyone cares what you had for breakfast.”
From Simon Cowell’s snide put-downs, to Gordon Ramsay’s four-letter outbursts, to Cristiano Ronaldo’s smug goal celebrations, self-love permeates the television schedules.
The ambition of viewers — and this club has an open-door policy to both sexes — to emulate the achievements of these alpha narcissists seems craven.
More than 150000 people, for instance, were prepared to suffer absolute humiliation to achieve instant stardom, or at least the tabloid version of it, for the current series of The X Factor. For the main part, those auditioning were classic narcissists: convinced that they deserve success despite their transparent lack of talent.
There are other ways to achieve notoriety, of course. Cast an eye over the shelves of your local bookshop and you’ll find it awash with intimate sex memoirs with titles such as Girl With A One-Track Mind and Sleeping Around — an expedient way to acquire fame only slightly more sophisticated than shagging a footballer and confessing all to the News Of The World. At least the authors have done their own typing.
Yet, as Chris Crocker demonstrated, for self-gratification on the scale of an armed sociopath walking onto a campus, only one medium guarantees the new narcissist an instant thrill: the Internet.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than at BeautifulPeople.net — started four years ago in Denmark, membership of this dating website is determined entirely by looks, with existing members of the opposite sex voting on new applicants.
According to Greg Hodge, the 32-year-old managing director of the site, they have 130000 members chosen from 7.5 million applicants. I ask him if he thinks the members are narcissists.
“You could say that,” he laughs. “Everyone wants validation, and our site provides it. Let’s be honest, it might not be politically correct, but chemistry is important. And anyway, studies show that men who look good do better and make more money, and are better in social situations.”
In 2006, Time magazine announced that its Person Of The Year was “You”. “You control the Information Age,” gushed the magazine. “Welcome to your world.”
What Time neglected to mention was that most of the Internet content comprising the “Information Age” is bollocks: 200 million MySpace members attempting to interest people in their badly recorded demos; 10 million Second Lifers trying to get their digital rocks off — presumably because they can’t do so in the real world; 40 million Facebook users showing off their holiday snaps; and 70 million blogging monkeys attempting to type the Bible. Apparently, of the 120000 new blogs created every day, 50 percent focus on exactly the same subject: the blogger him or herself.
One day, Internet users will be asked to contribute to “ego offsetting” initiatives in an attempt to avert the online equivalent of apocalyptic global warming.
“Imagine going to work or heading down to the pub,” says author Crompton, “and telling everyone what you think about everything, all the time. Pretty soon people will tell you to shut up. But on the Internet there is no one to tell you to shut up, so you can just keep talking about yourself.”
Or singing. At the time of writing, there were 98500 acoustic cover versions on YouTube, including 1000 attempts at Wonderwall and over 250 versions of James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful. In cyberspace, everyone can hear you Primal Scream.
In 1979, when the Internet was in gestation, Christopher Lasch concluded in The Culture Of Narcissism that “the best defences against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work and family life, which connect us to a world that is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs”. Ironically, with those homely comforts retreating in modern society, Internet sites such as MySpace and Second Life offer a sense of community and even a surrogate family.
Yet Andrew Keen, the British-born, San Francisco-based author of The Cult Of The Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, believes that rather than filling the void, the Internet actually threatens social cohesion. As for all the relentless self-expression, Keen says it is not only uninteresting but damaging, too. “On a Web where everyone has an equal voice,” he says, “the words of a wise man count for no more than the mutterings of a fool.”
Which brings us back to Chris Crocker in his Tennessee bedroom, bawling about Britney Spears: attention-seeking, Internet-enabled and celebrity-crazed. In the past he might have been dismissed as a dysfunctional freak, but today Crocker is celebrated, indulged and even parodied (“Leave OJ alone”, “Leave Israel alone”) because he is, after all, just reflecting back the culture that produced him.
We stay online and watch because secretly we know that, like the surface into which Narcissus gazed, he’s holding up a mirror to ourselves. — © 2008 Esquire Magazine
Taking A Vain Check - The new narcissist trailblazers1. Kanye West
The MC Hammer fan whose USP is his ego calls himself “the Louis Vuitton don”. An excerpt from his third album, Graduation, tells you all you need to know: “I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go, and I’m doing pretty hood in my pink Polo.”
2. Gordon Ramsay
The man who reinvented culinary integrity, then boiled, baked and burned it to death with relentless Business Telecom and Gordon’s ads, and the F-word.
3. Christine Dolce
Pneumatic 26-year-old whose meteoric rise to fame is based largely on her ability to attract “friends” via online networking sites. A TV career, Playboy shoot and clothing line followed, plus the dubious title of “Queen of MySpace” in vanity publication Vanity Fair.
4. Charley Uchea
Big Brother contestant encapsulating the vapidity of modern British youth: that success and riches can be assured by the TV show — besides making herself a public enemy, she was to be evicted twice.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo
Man United star Ronaldo might have spaghetti hair, a Posh pout and an Adam’s apple the size of a baseball, but after an elbow in the face in a game against Roma required stitches, the Portuguese winker remarked: “I don’t like to look like this, but in four or five days I will be beautiful once again.”
6. Paris Hilton
Fortune has never been as important as fame for the 26-year-old heiress. It seems that a TV series, autobiography, perfume, pop album, criminal record and homemade porn aren’t enough — she now plans to adopt four blonde orphans. “I want a brood of mini-me’s,” she says. “I’ll raise them to be the most famous women in the world.”
Quiz : Are You A New Narcissist? - Do it! What are you waiting for?Have you ever Googled yourself?
No 0 / Yes 1. Have you ever typed your own name into Google alerts?
No 0 / Yes 5. Ever edited an entry on Wikipedia?
No 0 / Yes 1. If yes, was it about yourself?
No 0 / Yes 5. How many friends do you have on Facebook?
Divide number by 10 (round up to nearest 1). Have you ever kissed your own upper arms/reflection in a mirror?
No 0 / Yes 5. Do you have a tattoo of a) your date of birth, b) your own face, or c) the personification of God?
10 points for each Are you writing a novel/screenplay/one-man play (subject: the unique and terrifying experience of being you)?
10 points for each. If you were a woman, would you fancy Cristiano Ronaldo?
Not at all 0 / A bit 1 / A lot 5. How often do you update your blog?
Never 0 / Monthly 1 / Weekly 5 / Daily 10 / Hourly 20. Do you seriously believe that you could win The X Factor?
No 0 / Yes 5. Do you refer to yourself in the third person?
No 0 / Yes 5. Have you ever recorded yourself having sex?
No 0 / Yes 5. Did you upload it onto the Internet?
Add 25. Are you destined to be famous?
No 0 / Yes 20 Have you completed this quiz?
Yes 5. Scores:
0 points — you’re a well-balanced human being.
1-20 points — like most of us, you’re occasionally vain.
21 points or more — yes, the world revolves around you, you and you.