Last week, my seventeen-year-old daughter insisted I watch Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, The Politician. She wanted to educate me about the tribulations of being a high school senior in the era of Instagram, mass shootings, and college admissions scandals. The first two opening scenes of the pilot exposed a yawning chasm between the analogue emotional world of my Generation X and the strategic, digital deployment of feelings demanded of today’s teenagers.
In the first scene, an older Harvard alumnus questions the aspiring matriculant, Payton (Ben Platt). The interviewer asks when Payton last cried. Flustered, Payton responds that he last cried at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. The interviewer dismisses his answer: “Everyone cries at the end of that movie. Did you cry because you were moved or because you felt like you were supposed to?”
Payton replies, “Does it matter?”
The camera cuts to two teenagers finishing a tryst. The boy suspects that his girlfriend fakes her pleasure. She admits she does this to boost his self-confidence, and he protests that he wants her to be authentic with him in bed.
She says, “I will do better at appearing more authentic from now on.”
He pleads. “I don’t want you to appear authentic. I want you to be authentic.”
“I don’t understand,” she says. “What’s the difference?”
Ryan Murphy’s genius lies in his ability to capture the zeitgeist of youth culture and camp it up into slick nuggets of television content. The Politician provides an extended rumination on what it means to be authentic in a world overflowing with fakes and how genuine feeling becomes a valuable commodity traded for money, power, and fame. Because young people today learn that realness has economic value, they spend so much time perfecting their performances of authenticity that we may be on the cusp of producing a generation of Americans that can’t distinguish a faked emotion from a real one.
Of course, Holden Caulfield worried about phonies long ago, and questions of sincerity overflow in the plot lines of American literature, but the privatization of everything that began under Ronald Reagan and accelerated after the fall of the Berlin Wall exacerbated the commodification of our intimate lives. With no competing economic system to tame capitalism, corporations continue to create new ways to monetize our emotions, affections, and attentions, rewarding the production of high-quality fakes.
Sociologists such as Eva Illouz, Laurie Essig, and Arlie Hochschild have explored the intersections of capitalism and feelings. But their models often implicitly bifurcate affect into two distinct categories: those emotions we feel for ourselves or freely share with our loved ones and those that we exchange with colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers to make a living or get ahead.
My daughter and her friends are taught to fake it until they make it, which means curating a salable version of who they are and what they feel before our society gives them the opportunity to figure these things out. Faking it once provided an avenue to learning a new habit or emotion until it became real. But if the performed emotion always precedes their experience of the authentic one – and both are equally rewarded on the market – there is no incentive to seek out the real.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Emotional work is work, and as more physical and intellectual jobs succumb to automation, humans will maintain a comparative advantage in the realm of affect. Maybe Payton and his peers prepare themselves for the coming preponderance of robots and algorithms by cultivating their ability to perform emotional authenticity, something machines can’t yet do well.
And even when Silicon Valley perfects robots programmed to accurately reproduce the whole range of emotions upon voice command, the market price for human emotions will remain higher because of the perception that they are more authentic. The continued ability of individuals to actually feel real emotions underpins this perception. Even if you know that someone has married you for your money, you hope that after five years she might grow to truly love you. Even though you pay a monthly retainer for the attentions of a college student through Seeking.com, you believe that he is still capable of genuinely enjoying your company.
But what if people lose the ability to feel authentic emotions? Ukrainian psychologists have discovered a disturbing phenomenon among East European migrant women doing elder care work in the West. They call it “Italy Syndrome” because the Italians are the largest importers of paid affection in Europe. Since the collapse of state socialism, many Ukrainian and Romanian women work as live-in caretakers for the aged and infirm, jobs requiring exhausting emotional labor. The women leave Italy as empty husks. Once home, they sit apathetic while their own children demand love and attention from them, because they’ve lost the ability to emote. An April 2019 article in Corriere della Serra reported that East European caregivers in Italy “become mere shadows of people when they go back to where they came from.”
Without the ability to feel, these shadows of people are no different than robots. If youth never learn to distinguish between real and simulated affect, humans lose their comparative advantage over machines. No one will pay a premium for human reenactments of affection if the possibility of real affection no longer exists.
Ryan Murphy puts his finger on this anxiety when Payton shares a conversation with his adoptive mother (Gwyneth Paltrow) after a tragic event. “I should be crying,” he tells her. “Why aren’t I crying?” Payton’s mother tries to soothe him with platitudes, but he persists. “I mean, what if I can’t feel for anyone else? They say that sociopaths can’t do that. What if all I’ll ever be able to do is pretend to feel?”
To which his mother, a glamorous woman married to a man she only pretends to love, replies, “Does it matter if you can’t tell the difference?”
I think it matters. And my daughter thinks it matters, too. Or at least she believes she thinks it matters. She isn’t sure if she really thinks it matters or if she just feels that she’s supposed to.