(by Amelia Gantt and illustrated by Vaneeza Jawad)
The aesthetic ethos of Gen Z seems to be characterised by the thin line separating cool and cliché, authentic and performative. By emphasising this, some of us are forced to engage in rigorous self-analysis, perhaps counteracting the very spirit of the suave authenticity we seek. I struggle with fondling this line, constantly feeling others’ perceptions of me and wanting to leave the right impression.
Our personality is proved to ourselves and to others, in part, by what we present externally – a most obvious example being personal style. On social media (the newest method of curation), we formulate a persona for others to digest but simultaneously create an essence of ourselves, for ourselves. Identity, in these forms and through these mechanisms, is something that both distinguishes you from others and attaches you as similar to some. But, the question is: is an identity characterised by an aesthetic, a genuine identity?
In a society that characterises individuals as consumers, our special identity made up of our personality, values and interests, is forced to be most fully realised, or at least shown, through consumption. To draw upon Hannah Ardent’s idea of the ‘economic man’, we can see how individuality and authenticity outside of what we consume has become increasingly precarious. Our life is centred around, and our identity is encapsulated within what we produce – our job – and what we consume – equated to our interests. We are now inclined to believe that both mean, and function to show, everything – or enough – about our internal self.
Social media doesn’t just highlight the formulaic essentialization of our personalities, it also intensifies the phenomenon. In the social arena, people who may be looking for themselves in others (and I could include at least a part of myself in that), don’t just like to read, for example. They buy specific books and post those books on social media to prove they were read and to portray a specific intellectual aesthetic: their ‘persona’. We buy merch because we hold an experience or artist close, but also to show that we are the type of person who would take part in this experience. It may seem ingenuine to hinge your identity on an aesthetic that so many others may be holding as well, but there is some validity in it: a study done in 2015 shows that people classified as “biased towards empathising” had a music preference described as “depressing”, “thoughtful”, and “gentle”, while people “biased towards systemizing” were found to prefer “thrilling”, “tense” and “complex” music. There are cognitive similarities in people who share interests, and this is somewhat intuitive. The issue is extrapolating things we see and consume to always mean genuine similarity, while forgetting that someone “biased towards empathising” doesn’t have to show it to be it.
We often don’t buy things we wouldn’t show. This may be because our consumption can represent (at least a part of) us, and to show it may quickly place us adjacent to feeling authentic: it can bring us closer to people who we would enjoy, who are similar, and makes us feel more ‘ourselves’.
I believe that the confusion we may feel about the aforementioned line shows that we are subconsciously clamouring to find and show symbols of identity in a world that feels lacklustre and full of “economic men”. In such a world, these symbols mean much more than their natural form. You may assume a lot about someone who is a fan of Phoebe Bridgers (‘biased towards empathising’) because it does mean something about them to choose to show it. We have produced meaning in the mundane.
If the Millennial goal of accessing and becoming “cool” was discovering something obscure, then Gen Z’s version of this is to find a true connection with an interest and accrue this as a substantial part of their personality. You may feel most accomplished not only to know yourself but to show others your essence correctly. Authenticity, such a devious thing for our generation, is social capital, but so is being defined. Although it’s nearly impossible to fully portray ‘yourself’ through what we can physically show others, GenZ’s desire to do so is a genuine attempt at introspection and connection.