February 21, 2020 | Feature
tell me how you really feel
the importance of being earnest in an age of irony
Merriam-Webster’s English Dictionary defines “earnest” as “characterized by or proceeding from an intense and serious state of mind.” The Cambridge English Dictionary definition is similar: To be “earnest” is to be “sincere and serious.” To be earnest is to believe in what you say, and to say it. To be earnest is to be the exact opposite of what this world—a world in which truth itself is up for debate—wants you to be. To be earnest is to not worry about starting sentences with the same phrase three times in a row because you want to get your point across. I want to get my point across.
In contrast to earnestness, irony is generally defined as the use of words to convey a message that contradicts their literal meaning. Irony is at play, for example, when we joke about the thrilling weekend of essay writing we have in store. But there is another definition especially present in contemporary culture, both artistic and lived. This definition involves the deliberate construction of an attitude—written, performed, what have you—in order to signal your detachment from the subject or emotion at play. This “I watch The Bachelor, but only as a commentary on the vapidity of the American cultural imagination” type of irony is often used, consciously or otherwise, to signal superiority. You, a Brown student, don’t watch reality television because you like it; you’ve read too much critical theory to simply like things.
I don’t mean to attack any of my fellow students. I mean for us all to reflect on the tastes we’ve adopted during our time in college, to reconsider the way we treat each other, and to start moving beyond our brains and into our hearts. I am writing this essay because I am trying to figure out how I want to live, and I don’t think living ironically is it. In a 2012 op-ed for The New York Times, professor Christy Wampole argued that irony “is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public.” To live guided by irony is to believe that directness is antithetical to true meaning—that saying, simply and honestly, what I feel will open me up to criticism that I’m not sure I can take.
There is a gray area, of course. Some of us may start to like something ironically before realizing we actually just…like it. We may legitimately think irony is the highest form of humor and embrace it as a cornerstone of our attitudes in a completely forthright way. But I think most of us, consciously or not, adopt a kind of ironic posturing that allows us to shield ourselves from judgment. Wampole argues that if irony is “a function of fear and pre-emptive shame,” then “ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation, and defeat.” This fear of showing the world who you really are is a real and valid concern to have. Still, it is one I am trying to overcome.
I am trying to overcome this anxiety because I do not want to live as if my life is already over. I do not want to construct my life around the pursuit of “cool.” I want to be fine with the way I am. I want others to be able to see that.
It is easier for me to write this down than it is for me to say it out loud. It is easier to hide behind a computer screen than it is to look you in the eye and tell you I am baring something of my soul to you. Easier, and still hard.
In 1993, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about television and the American public. It was also an essay challenging irony. “The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying,” he writes, “is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.” Irony, Wallace claims, is predicated on the assumption that we don’t really mean what we are saying, which then makes it difficult to figure out exactly who we are. “Most likely,” Wallace writes, “today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How very banal to ask what I mean.’ Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig.” I am asking you to tell me what you really mean. I am asking you to lean into banality because, sometimes, to risk sounding boring is the bravest thing of all.
I watched the Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana on Netflix last week. I was a huge Swiftie growing up; I have listened obsessively to each of her albums and started wearing red lipstick—now a staple of my makeup routine—in large part because of her. But, for the sake of honesty, I have interpreted every new release of Swift’s through a carefully hung veil of irony. I still like her, I will hastily admit! And yet I’m uncomfortable leaving it at that. I feel like I need to levy some sort of critique. She has to be a problematic fave. This critical eye proves—to others, but really to myself—that I have grown up and can view Swift affectionately as a relic of my middle and high school years, that I listen for nostalgia and nothing more.
This critical eye also obscures how deep some of her songs still cut, and how much I still want them to. “We’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way,” Swift croons on “22.” I am about to turn 22, and can think of no better sentiment to blast from my laptop speakers at midnight.
I started watching the documentary in a voyeuristic way, ready to shore up my belief that I no longer need a pop star to articulate my feelings. For instance, I know now, having read it, that Romeo and Juliet is not the pinnacle of romance as Swift croons in “Love Story,” but a tale in which teenage hormones run amok and everyone dies. But, at the end of the documentary, Swift says something that made me change my mind about her. “I just want to have a sharp pen, a thin skin, and an open heart,” she says in the final scene as the camera jump-cuts between triumphant shots of her on the tours of the past decade. While watching the documentary, I started to recognize the hoops Swift has had to jump through in order to speak her mind as the adult she has become, and to appreciate the very real emotional truths that, however mediated by the celebrity machine, she still manages to sneak into her songs. That last line hit home because, sincerely, it’s what I want, too.
I am not trying to assert my authenticity by positioning my fandom as a quirk, a chink in the armor of detachment, a way to prove that I don’t care about being cool because I can embrace something uncool. I like Taylor Swift, always have, even when I was trying my best to only like her ironically. If not the exact turning point, Miss Americana solidified my conviction that I, too, am built with a thin skin and an open heart, and that I care—so, so deeply—about keeping it that way.
I have started telling my friends that I love them. I dance awkwardly in front of them, tell them about my dreams, and make stew for my whole apartment. I am corny as hell, and this is something I don’t care about changing—it makes what I say feel more true. I am saying thank you every day, scribbling a sentence of gratitude in my planner next to the date. I am opening my heart up and praying that it does not hurt as much as I fear it will. I am reminding myself that, even if it does, it will be worth it. It is worth it not to hedge my bets or dance around my meaning because, when I’m 80, it won’t matter whether or not that kid in my poetry seminar thought I was smart. What will matter is that I spoke up for what I believed, at the risk of looking stupid, and said it anyway.
As I write this essay, I am listening to a live concert by my favorite musical artist, Julien Baker. Toward the end, she pauses to thank the audience. One of her favorite things about performing, she says, is the “inevitability of mistakes.” She says she has been fortunate in her life to make mistakes while performing “and daily be reminded how important it is to practice mercy with yourself, and use your mistakes as opportunities for growth, and opportunities to display graciousness.” Such vulnerability is an integral component of earnestness. Baker does not brush off her mistakes or shroud them in calculated humor; she owns them and, in so doing, facilitates a uniquely intimate connection with her audience that would not be the same otherwise. As she strums the intro of her next song, cheers erupt from the crowd before the whole theater submits to rapturous silence, secure in the understanding that Baker’s earnestness has brought them all closer together.
Earnestness means approaching our lives with the fullness of our bodies. Earnestness means not thinking that using the heart to represent emotion is a cliche, because I really do feel my emotions in my chest. Leslie Jamison, in the last essay of her collection The Empathy Exams, writes, “I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open.”
“Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right. Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is,” Baker sings in her song “Appointments.” I know that, objectively, bad things will happen—that is a part of being alive. Writing in Jezebel earlier this year, Megan Reynolds discusses her own initial hesitancy toward earnestness. “In my mind,” Reynolds says, earnestness “is a relentless positivity, a near-delusional Pollyanna who really, really believes that everything will come out in the wash when all signs indicate that it will not.” But regardless of how terrible things may get, I also know that I cannot live my life trying to detach myself from sincerity. I know that climate change will drastically alter the landscape I’ve grown up in; I know that I cannot trust the political process to accurately represent my vote, not when elections can be hacked. But I also know that it will do me no good—it will make me feel more hopeless—if I shroud myself in irony. Irony, to me, represents a way to pretend that I don’t care about much of anything at all, to live defensively and cynically even as I pretend to be living humorously. I think irony has a place in art, but I don’t think I can live my life like I’m the protagonist of a novel. Life is far messier than that. Reynolds revises her definition in this light, writing that “earnestness is about the conviction and not the message.” I can be earnest without abandoning the knowledge that not everything is sunshine and roses all the time. Maybe earnestness is about faith: believing that it is worth it to be sincere and fail rather than relentlessly dodging hurt through ironic living. I have to believe in things. I want to believe in them. That is my point.