There was a recent WSJ article that I'm not going to bother locating on the recent disappearance of method acting in Hollywood. According to the writer, its greatness peaked in the mid-1970s and petered out until it was more or less gone in the 1990s. I'm not enough of a movie buff to know how true that is, but these days you certainly see a lot more Will Ferrell and Superbad than De Niro and Star Wars.
But that got me thinking about how widespread that trend may be, since I'd noticed a few similar cases before. Below are a few quick examples. Feel free to leave your own in the comments -- as well as counter-examples.
First, I should try to spell out what I mean about sincerity. It's portraying emotion in a genuine way, but particularly in a way that draws the audience in and gets them to sympathize with that emotion. There are two ways to keep people from sympathizing with you -- to put on a poker face, or to emote so over-the-top that it's too much for the audience. After all, the spectator is removed from the experiences of the performer, so the emotion they express had better be toned down a little bit in order for us to meet them halfway. (Think of when someone gets some great news and smiles ear-to-ear vs. jumps around the room screaming with joy. It's harder to sympathize in the latter case.) These ideas come from Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
I think it's also useful to contrast how attention-seeking vs. how retiring performers are. There's a potential confusion between attention-seeking and sincerity, as well as between self-consciousness and retiring. But there are people who are attention-seekers and yet aim to keep us from sympathizing with them, and there are those who are more retiring but still draw us into their emotional state. To help visualize this, here's a simple table that shows attention-seeking increasing from left to right, and sincerity increasing from bottom to top. I don't care if you quibble with my exact choice of pictures to fill each box, as long as you get the idea.
(If I were going to model this cultural change with differential equations, this would be the phase plane. It looks like there is a cycle of some kind that goes clockwise through the four types.)
So you've probably noticed the first example of the rise of self-consciousness -- the duckface. It is an exaggerated mask-like expression to keep people from seeing how you really feel, whether that's high, low, or anything in between. Just be really silly and consciously fake, and people will get the hint to stay away from your emotional state. I tried to find a good comparison from more sincere times and stumbled upon a representative group of pictures from high school seniors back in 1982 -- see here and here. There's the odd silly face, but the likelihood of seeing someone trying to keep you out of their emotional space is a lot lower than today. Look through any young person's Facebook pictures, Flickr account, or whatever. It's so rampant that the anti-duckface website gets about 10,000 hits a day.
Again it's important to distinguish between mask-like faces that are attention-seeking (like the duckface) and those that are retiring (like the stiff upper lip expression). Just because we are overrun with attention whores doesn't mean they want a true connection. The advantage of comparing facial expressions is that there are only so many that we can use, unlike words that can be coined or disappear. Interestingly, the recent popularity of the duckface is international -- when I was in Barcelona in the middle of the decade, it was called "haciendo morritos" (referring to a snout) -- and like all facial expressions is built into our genetic hardwiring, as shown by tiny tots making the face.
Obviously there are many other examples of distancing expressions that became widespread recently and were lacking before -- uber-angry poses like kabuki masks, the super-surprised look with eyebrows arching to meet the hairline and mouth agape, and so on. Just do a Google Image search for "yearbook 1987" or whatever and see how relatively lacking these phony faces were back then.
I recently showed that there was a great moderation of the ego from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. In particular, the sarcastic tone (another way put up a barrier around your emotional space) was dying for roughly 15 years, and there wasn't so much of a focus on "me." That's the upper-right box in the table above.
I think you see the same changes in the emotional appeal of popular music. During the 1940s and the early-mid 1950s, singers were more restrained in expression (as far as singers go) and also not very in-your-face (Frank Sinatra). From the late '50s through the mid-'70s, the trend was toward greater sincerity and more extraversion (The Beatles). The outgoingness continued through the 1980s and early '90s, with sincerity increasing even more (The Cure). From roughly the mid-1990s through today, they've returned to keeping people distant but now while thrusting themselves into the spotlight (John Mayer -- I consider anything that overly sappy to be just as distancing and fake as the stiff upper lip styles).
Let's not forget those Very Special Episodes of otherwise lighthearted TV sit-coms, which had a healthy run from the mid-'70s through the early '90s and have since died off. Given how high the crime rate was back then, they didn't come off as overly exaggerated (except the idea that a rapist would target that screechy-voiced old bag from All in the Family). It was pretty standard scary stuff -- suicide, running away, popping pills, etc. -- rather than the risibly overblown junk that became the mainstay of Law & Order in the mid-'90s, as well as on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit during the 2000s. A circle of wealthy doctors who get it on with their wives only after they've been put into an insulin-induced coma -- and where the wives go along with it? I mean hey, who never heard of someone who had that happen to them?
The two quintessential '90s sit-coms -- The Simpsons and Seinfeld -- never had a real Very Special Episode. All of Seinfeld is clearly in the lower-right box of the figure above -- very in-your-face but keeping you out emotionally. The same goes for Family Guy in the 2000s. The Simpsons had an occasional preachy episode, but it was never serious or genuine -- just Lisa being a bit more annoying than before. Indeed, the recent trend is to parody the Very Special Episode. I doubt that's because the writers have seen the data that crime, suicide, and drug-taking are all down -- they're just as pessimistic as everyone else is on that score. Rather, they're skewering the emotional approach to the topic -- a new group of cool kids has taken over, and they think sarcasm is hipper than all that sentimental bullshit from the '80s.
Horror movies show this too. There hasn't been a high concentration of scary movies that drew you in since about 1991. Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Scream did, but that's about it. After then they were generally too over-the-top for you to feel as though you were there. Torture porn is the duckface pose of horror movies. And just as with popular music, the trend toward greater sincerity started in the late '50s and 1960s with Psycho. During the '40s and '50s, they were too artificial to really spook the shit out of you. Although if you go even further back, say to M, they drew you in emotionally. Again, these things go in cycles.
Pornographic movies used to have plots, and the shots would draw you in just enough. Granted the plots were dumb, but porn wasn't self-aware and meta like it became in the '90s. (BTW, take a guess when "meta" became a standalone adjective.) It aims to be even more in-your-face than it used to be, although the gonzo or point-of-view style that became dominant is probably a bit too close for many viewers. It's like the emo band that screams and cries so much that you can no longer lose yourself in the music -- that level of intensity is off-putting to any listener who isn't actually cutting himself at the time. Having a camera trained close-up on a girl whose eyes are watering up as she gets her throat fucked creates the same effect. It's too self-conscious and exaggerated to draw you in (again, if you're the average person -- obviously there are niche audiences for anything).
As a final example, the way young people dance shows this pattern too. It's worth noting because, like the duckface, it shows that it's not only performers who show the change but the population as a whole. For one thing, there is no more slow dancing -- that would bring you too close emotionally to the other person. It's even stronger than that, though: teenage girls will come up and surround me, treating my legs like strip poles, rubbing their ass around in my lap, etc. Clearly it makes her feel good, but the second you spin her around to look her in the eyes and hold her hands, she gets momentarily nervous. All of a sudden, things have gotten serious. The ass is far, while the hands are near, as Robin Hanson might say. That's how you can tell that most of these girls dancing wildly aren't really sluts -- once you force them to ditch the mask, they get nervous, whereas the minority of true sluts will ratchet things up.
Guys put up a front too in the dance clubs. Like girls, they wear the duckface, but it's more typically an expression of... well, it looks like an exaggerated or fake version of having been insulted, or mock anger. Their hand and arm movements are so deliberately goofy -- usually with both arms stretched out in front and waving them widely from side to side -- but by making them so overblown they hope to pull off the "too cool to care" vibe. (It rarely succeeds, and they just look like a pack of stooges.) And yes, they even back it up into the girl's lap, some even bending over, just to show how meta-ironic they are. The girl might humor him for a moment and laugh along with the charade, but shockingly this move never moves her to follow after him.
Aside from whatever dance ability I have -- I've never thought it was anything special, but I can only rely on what the girls say -- I think the main reason that, compared to their male peers, I draw more attention from girls who are more than 10 years younger than I am is that I don't wear a stupid duckface and act like a third-rate class clown. You'd be surprised how far an honest smile or a genuine look of mischief will go, not to mention losing control of your body while dancing. It should be close to one of those "flow" activities where you aren't deliberating over every single movement, and free from self-consciousness you feel more possessed by the vibe. Girls prefer a guy who can get into the groove rather than flail about in an insecure attempt to hide what's going on. It's fine with them if you aren't a great dancer -- but just get into it. (The exception is if you're good at slapstick, which in a way is what breakdancing and popping is.)
Well, like all good theorizers, I haven't devoted any time to counter-examples, but that's only because I couldn't think of many when I tried. What other examples or counter-examples am I missing? And by counter-example, I mean something where there was a steady trend toward greater sincerity in the '90s through today, after a low during the '70s and '80s. Not just a single instance of self-consciousness during the '80s, for example.