On Persona

Or, how much do we really know—and show—one another?

In the latest installment of Unresearched Musings—yes I am accepting sponsors to keep the series running—I’m mulling over the performance of personality, both large-scale (celebrity) and small-scale (everyday ‘ordinary’ interaction).

We are not consistent, immutable beings. Even armed with the list of attributes (voluntary and involuntary, self-styled and hereditary) that make us each ‘who we are,’ we pick and choose which of these to display at any given moment. We have subsets of our personalities that suit us best in certain situations and thus only reveal themselves when they feel called for. Not all of these subsets are intentional or conscious; they can surprise us by showing up at unexpected times or by even showing up at all, causing us to believe that we have acted somehow out of character. Kind of like Billy Joel’s thesis in “The Stranger.”

The reality is that a vast array of seemingly contradictory traits can exist inside us simultaneously. And they can all be ‘real,’ for lack of a better term: legitimate, valid parts of our image, whether visible to ourselves alone or to others. As we get older and continue to test the limits of who we can be in the world, we get more familiar with the nuances and perceived inconsistencies of our sub-personalities. (For instance, I’ve discovered I can get quite protective of my friends when it comes to the people they date, irrespective of whether I get along with those people.)

Given how complex we understand ourselves to be, I find it amazing how infrequently, or in what a limited capacity, we extend the same understanding to others, particularly to high-profile people—public personalities, if you will. Their front-facing personality traits are, as a default, what we take to represent their entire selves. This does neither them nor us any good, and in fact usually does harm.

I’ll give an example. A friend of mine has been listening deeply to Harry Styles, to my delight. I’ve been a conscious fan of his since his 2017 solo debut but become even more aware of the person behind the music since joining Twitter and Instagram and finding myself adjacent to the worldwide stan community’s discussions and photos. Suffice it to say his recent resumed Love On Tour has really bolstered the content. I wouldn’t call myself a stan, although I like his musical sensibility and him; and I will allow for the fact that he is one of those musicians (because they’re always musicians, for me) with whom I could picture falling suddenly and dizzyingly in love were I ever to meet him IRL. Never say never.

My friend and I have remarked on what a nice person Harry appears to be. Not the toxic ‘nice guy’ of modern media who masks his entitlement with a harmless-looking façade: we mean a genuinely decent person who treats everyone he encounters with respect and would probably be very pleasant to hang out with—someone who would make us, two young women, feel safe in his company. I think this is what draws a lot of women and girls to him. His whole brand since 2019’s Fine Line has been “Treat People With Kindness,” as one of the songs is titled. He tries to empower his fans to speak their truths and claim their identities, and to lead by example. He just seems good.

One thing we haven’t said but that wouldn’t be out of place in such an exchange is that he seems to have a head on his shoulders, that he’s down-to-earth despite having been in the public eye since he was a teenager in One Direction and having only risen to greater prominence since. ‘Down-to-earth’ is a blanket quality ascribed to celebrities who don’t give the immediate impression of their worldview having been irreparably skewed by the demands and standards of celebrity life. But can anyone escape that concentrated exposure unscathed? And if they do appear a little (or a lot) out of touch with a more ordinary level of reality, does it make them bad or negate the high points of their personality?

Essentially we have no idea how ‘good’ Harry actually is. His image pretty much radiates positivity, but he’s as complicated as anybody and the positivity he communicates to us is surely the tip of the iceberg. He is a man, and so enjoys a leeway that many celebrity women are denied; he’s also been attacked for his fair share of attitudes and actions, such as his Vogue cover. It will be interesting to see how his front-facing persona evolves—if, for instance. we ever see him get angry. I have reason to suspect that an angry Harry Styles would turn a lot of people on, so it can’t be all bad.

Then we have someone like Lorde, whose persona and message have changed significantly since the goth-girl look that defined her first album Pure Heroine. Upon the release of her new LP Solar Power, which explores themes of forgiveness and choosing happiness and features a sunny color scheme to match, there was buzz on Twitter over how the scowling, black-lipsticked Lorde of 2014 would never be seen with the smiling Lorde of 2021. But would we want to be seen with the 2014 versions of ourselves? People change. Lorde’s evolution has happened in such a way that some traits of hers that were more pronounced then have made room for other traits that were once more dormant. They’re all still there, though, because they’re all part of her and they’ve all helped to shape who she is. We too go through holding patterns and revolutions, and we too perform them for our world.

Countless versions of ourselves coexist, ready to rear their heads when we least expect it. We can work on ourselves and aspire to certain images, but we don’t have to reject anything. In fact, we would do well to be compassionate toward our own inconsistencies—as well as to the inconsistencies of others, no matter how large their social-media followings—because to reject those inconsistencies is to reject our own human natures, and we can’t get along in this world if we don’t stand by ourselves.

Anyway. To paraphrase Harry, treat yourself with the kindness you’d like others to treat you with.

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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