In the January 2013 issue of Esquire magazine, Stephen Marche has gotten to the heart of what is quite possibly, in my opinion, the root problem facing…if not our country, then certainly our culture. It is not the problem of government or politics, though the problems of those institutions certainly stem from it. It is the ingrained, pervasive, and persistent narcissism attributable to the Gen Y “millennial” demographic cohort, and on which the ongoing infotainment deluge intended to placate the masses – our so-called dumbed-down society – is predicated. It is the grease that keeps the gears turning – without being driven by narcissism to participate in our own placation, the system would not work.
To begin with Marche’s premise:
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.
The current generation of college-aged people thinks unprecedentedly highly of themselves, and with no good reason to do so. In an ongoing study by the American Freshman Survey, college students have been asked to “rate themselves as compared to their peers” every year since 1966. The Survey has compiled the responses of about 9 million students, and a new analysis of the results reported here says: