After navigating the difficulty of the past four years, many people report feeling a renewed sense of hope, possibility, and something else—nostalgia for the days when, like President Biden noted in his Inaugural Address, we can take pride in honesty, directness, and expressing our true selves, even if it’s out of fashion. I’m talking about authenticity.
I personally believe that the United States elected President Biden because authenticity is having a renaissance. We may be waking up to the fact that authenticity makes us stronger. Tuning into authentic feelings and experiences, even when (especially when) we’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety is among our best ways to use anxiety to our advantage, rather than be used by it. In other words, authenticity helps us tune in to what really matters during fraught, anxiety-provoking times - and affords us strength and motivation to keep going.
21st-century authenticity, however, is a tricky mix because it is intertwined with the social-media-driven idea that our identities amount to brands - that if we carefully craft and curate the "brand of me" we will get into that college, or get that next job, or be the envy of our friends. Branding is the 21st century version of conformity.
I don’t intend to regurgitate the perennial trope, kids today are so …. fill in the blank, or, in the old days, we weren't brands ….while shaking my tiny fist. But the world today throws up unique roadblocks that can keep all of us—not just "kids today"—from tuning into authentic and messy feelings, thoughts, and dreams. One of the major roadblocks is how we conceive of the balance between authenticity and conformity.
When I was coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s, being authentic meant the polar opposite of conforming or being a brand. Being a fake to get ahead meant you were a poser. And poser was among the worst insults that could be levied against you.
Let me put it in terms that every Gen-Xer like me will understand—think of it like The Breakfast Club, that quintessential John Hughes '80s coming-of-age film. Using the plot engine of a group of disparate teens stuck in a day of detention together, assistant principal Richard Vernon commands them to stay in the library and each complete a 1,000-word essay on the question, “who you think you are.” Next, we learn that there are stereotypes and cliques - in other words, brands - that they have the option to choose among—they could be a snob, a geek, a jock, a punk, or an angsty "kook." For example, the "kook" was Allison, played by Ally Sheedy, and the snobby, pretty-in-pink perfect Claire was played by Molly Ringwald.
Drama ensues, and incredibly, Allison and Claire sorta become friends. Claire even does a makeover on Allison by restyling her hair and replacing Allison’s signature dark eyeliner with pastel eye shadow. As a kook-leaning teen myself, I remember being deeply disappointed when the movie showed Allison’s life getting so much better after the makeover. Even the jock, played by Emilio Estevez, got a bit weak in the knees when he saw her post-makeover. Blech. Don’t be a poser, Allison.
The real take-home message of The Breakfast Club, however, was that Allison should be free to be pretty in pink and a kook because, in the end, no one—not teachers, adults, or other kids—can tell them who they are. As we hear in voiceover in the final scene, as the assistant principal reads the single essay left on his desk, "Each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?" And who can forget that last freezeframe shot of Judd Nelson, playing the misunderstood punk of the crew, John Bender, raising his fist in the air as he walks away, and the movie fades out to the rock anthem, "Don't you forget about me..." Ah, the '80s.
Growing up with movies like The Breakfast Club helped set the tone for my generation’s story of identity by showing us that we can think outside of stereotypes to authentically ask “who I think I am.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we were all pure souls in parachute pants and shoulder pads, boldly breaking stereotypes as we moon-walked around, and refusing to conform or sell out to The Man.
But as I stand here in a world the pandemic blew apart, where struggling with uncertainty and anxiety has become the rule rather than the exception, I believe we are craving authenticity because we know it will help us pursue a fresh start. Along with our terrible losses, there are new possibilities. Authenticity hones our ability to focus on what we truly care about, and on what gives us meaning and purpose, giving us strength in these anxious times. The "brand of me" has much less to offer.