26 Feb, 2010
When I was a child, I wore many hats – in precisely the way the clichéd expression means. Early photographs show me sitting on my father’s lap, arms outstretched, driving a pretend fire truck with the red, oversized backward cap of a fireman digging into my dad’s chest with each imaginary bump that my truck encountered.
Other days I was a policeman, my grandfather’s old Massachusetts Registry police cap balancing precariously on my tiny head. As I grew older, the hats became more creative. Gone were the days of occupations that I could actually grow to become; the hats turned to masks of Spiderman, Optimus Prime, Batman, and so on. And there were costumes as well, for those characters that didn’t don a hat or mask. I was Luke Skywalker, Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an officer on board the Enterprise, Peter from the Ghostbusters, and at one point I even brought back the hat as Dick Tracy.
I wore these hats, sometimes several within the same day, but there was one rule that I never broke. When I was wearing my Batman mask, I couldn’t also be Spiderman. When dressed like Luke Skywalker I would never encounter Captain Picard. The Ninja Turtles and the Ghostbusters, though both inhabitants of New York City, would never meet. This is all to say that I was only ever able to understand my identity as one character at a time.
If you ask Steph, my wife, not much has changed from this little hat-wearing boy to the present day me. I still wear many hats, and as was the case then, often all on the same day. At any given time I can be a writer, professor, web developer, scholar, or tutor. But just as two characters from different stories could never meet when I was playing dress up as a child, so is it near impossible for me to join my many identities today, an awkward situation since they all are, obviously, linked. With the exception, perhaps, of web developer, there is a direct correlation between each of these hats, and yet I still struggle to self-identify.
I constantly ask myself that familiar question: What do I want to be when I grow up? Which of these hats will win the day and define me throughout life? I actively ignore what I know to be true every time Steph insists that how I live now, with all my various identities, is probably how it’s going to be.
I fall victim to a situation that plagues many more of my generation. In his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman explores this problem in light of what probably is its actual cause: popular culture. For Klosterman and his generation the source of this desire to typecast oneself is the long-running MTV series The Real World.
His essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” explores the way in which people he knows have become more and more like characters on that hit television show as the years went on. He gives some leeway to the first season as perhaps the only time when the characters didn’t start out as a certain type, but acknowledges that it is precisely those first cast members who, by the end of the season, set up the archetype that the would define future casts, and, eventually a generation.
Klosterman rightly identifies the heritage for the “Real World” brand typecasting as the films of the recently deceased screenwriter and director John Hughes. Certainly the teenagers that shared a Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club were written not so much as fully realized, complicated people, but as specific character types which, through a strange intermingling of their continued use in movies, television shows, and books, and the easy adoption of these stereotypes by actual people, have come to represent the sum of personality types for Americans under 35 years old.
The advent of these character types (and arguably they have been around in some form or another long before Hughes or MTV crystallized them and made them fixtures of the 20th century) has created a reality in which genuine, living, breathing people do not need to ever go through the life-long process of discovering who we actually are.
Rather, I can simply choose: “I’m the rebel.” Presto! All I need is a new wardrobe, which, fortunately, costume designers have already created and a certain demeanor, which can be adopted, and suddenly I am the Rebel. And, just as I was only ever one character as a child, so too, need I only ever model one archetype.
Since the 1980s, we can probably identify successful media by the extent to which they introduced a “new” character type to the popular consciousness. Certainly we have come a long way since those five Hughesian character types. The Real World created variations on them, as have many other popular books, movies, musicians, and television series. Now, if everyone around you fits into some variation on the “jock” model, by following the “artist” model, you can actually feel like an individual.
Though in America it is perhaps easiest to illustrate this identity crisis in light of popular culture, I am particularly interested in the way that it manifests itself in other parts of the world. I am currently immersed in the long process of writing a paper to be presented at an academic conference (that’s my scholar hat you’re seeing) about the various “new” cultures that are emerging among contemporary African youth as seen in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of, most famously, Purple Hibiscus.
Very generally speaking, for post-post colonial Africans, this struggle to self identify is certainly tinged with influences from American popular culture, as it is throughout the rest of the world, but more seriously it involves the reconciling of long-held traditional cultures with the imposed culture of whatever colonial power occupied a particular African country until, in most cases, the 1960s. In many ways, this tumultuous struggle is also embodied in the lives of immigrants who must work out the way in which their former selves can coexist with their adopted country and new identity. But it is particularly interesting to see this play out in African countries, as the new identity was not chosen, but thrust upon people. And the implications of this continue to be dealt with almost half a century later.
In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the way in which her characters interact with Catholicism, the religion of their former occupiers, is particularly fascinating. Throughout the novel, it is clear that those characters that can more fully connect Catholicism with their cultural heritage live more balanced and fulfilled lives then those who cannot find a point of reconciliation. These characters recognize that they are never just one thing. At any given moment they embody the traditional culture that is their inheritance as well as the imposed Western culture that is slowly taking over. Rather than struggle to resist and allowing several selves to occupy one body, these characters and the generation of Africans for whom they are avatars adapt and in the process create a new, hybridized culture and, often, language. A fantastic example of this is Kenya’s “shang,” which mixes Swahili with a kind of street-English.
So it must be, albeit less dramatically, with us, with me. Despite the fact that it is easier to adopt one archetype or another as the starting point of my identity, I am not just one thing or another. I, too, am made up of several selves.