Main Character Syndrome is the zeitgeist of the post-pandemic moment.
“You have to start romanticizing your life,” TikTok star Ashley Ward urges followers in a now viral video. “You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character, because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by.”
Although Ward posted her Main Character Syndrome musing last year, it gained interest in mainstream media over the past few weeks following coverage from the New Yorker and Newsweek. As American millennials and Gen Zers emerge from the pandemic’s isolation, they want to reclaim their stories: The best way to do so is by posturing themselves as leading actors in movies about their own lives.
The concept of seeing oneself as the central protagonist in a narrative told through media is engrained in the American psyche. From Citizen Kane to the Truman Show, American cinema has conditioned audiences around storylines of individualism wherein a leading actor faces challenges and overcomes them. Individualism is at the heart of American identity: Much of the inspiration for the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence stem from John Locke’s theories of property rights which present the individual’s search for material possessions (property) as freedom. When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson substituted Locke’s natural rights list of “Life, Liberty, and Estate” with “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” linking happiness with the pursuit of happiness (happiness itself serving as a stand-in for property). The framework for an entire government, global empire, and Western value system framed happiness as something not present in the moment, but an externality requiring a process to achieve. Jefferson and other architects of the American paradigm codified into law this ideology of individualism committed to the pursuit of something external not found in the present, while using media to glorify their respective journeys to do so; over 200 years since the founding of the Atlantic Federal Republic, these men’s stories still play out in editorial pages and on Broadway.
American individualism has historically expressed itself through Anglo-American heroes, and the “American frontiersman” archetype repackaged by Hollywood and ad agencies during the 20th century to fit different cultural aesthetics and political moments. The end of World War II and the establishment of the liberal international order turned the frontiersman narrative in itself: Consumerism became the vehicle allowing Americans to chase idealized versions of themselves. These fictional selves exist in abstract, within grasp but simultaneously out of reach, fueling an individual’s need to optimize every part of their existence within a prepackaged matrix of brands and simulated experiences. With the fall of the Soviet Union, American individualism further spread throughout every country as the corporations which rose from the ideology implanted themselves as mechanisms to a global monopoly system of totality lacking any ideological counterpart; a worldview coined “capitalist realism” by the British cultural theorist Mark Fisher, largely defined through the lens of late capitalism rather than the evolution of American individualism as an ideology spread through markets. The American Dream became an international one as corporations sold every human being fictitious versions of themselves, fantasies made possible via globalization. American individualism is the perpetual chase for a fantasy self, in which an individual perceives themselves through a main character worldview in their quest to reach ultimate form. It is not enough to live as oneself: one must reinvent and optimize to get closer to the hypothetical self, the better self. Happiness is linked to the pursuit of happiness rather than happiness itself, the distinction long ago predetermined by Jefferson.
The Nation, like many publications, predicted on December, 6 2010 that “Future historians are likely to identify the Bush administration’s rash invasion of Iraq… as the start of America’s downfall.” This narrative of an Empire in decline has been a counterargument against American hegemony since the United States’ emergence as a global superpower (“there is an Empire so hence it will fall”). It is an easy trap writers fall into, citing examples of military overexpansion and economic output. But traditional measuring tools like GDP and geopolitical strongholds are outdated as they relate to the spread of ideology, culture, and information. Six days after the Nation’s “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire” cliché came the Arab Spring; a hybrid of direct U.S. intervention that is easily quantifiable, and indirect U.S. intervention from the corporate mechanisms produced by ideology in service to ideology that is not as easily calculable.
The Arab Spring’s significance as a historic and cultural reference point comes from the role American social media companies like Facebook played. Like all private U.S. companies, Facebook is rooted in the American ideology of individualism: Mark Zuckerberg and the company’s cofounders were born into American culture, and their product inevitably reflects their lived experiences. Facebook provides users the vehicles to chase fantasy selves in the digital realm in accordance with the framework of American individualism; there is the you in the real world, there is the aspirational you produced by capitalist realism, and there is now the representation of you in the hyperreality of social media. Facebook was not the first company to turn individuals into digital avatars within hyperreality (philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s term referring to the abstract territory of reference produced within all types of media), but it was the most effective in quantifiable metrics such as total market capitalization and global user base, and in unquantifiable potential like its ability for weaponization against foreign powers. As a significant catalyst to the Arab Spring protests, Facebook framed the terms of revolution within the paradigm of American individualism; grassroots activists mobilized forces across a network architecture born from American ideology, their perspectives guided through the ideological pathways of the communications tools funneling into vortexes of hyperreality in which an individual exists as representation. It is no coincidence the ideological alternative to many of the autocratic regimes in the Middle East were democratic systems of governance, supported by direct U.S. military intervention in the cases of Libya and Syria.
The 2010 timeline of the Arab Spring uprising coincided with the founding of another private U.S. social media giant: Instagram (which Facebook acquired in 2012). Like Twitter and other predecessors, Instagram transformed the American ideology of individualism into its own social currency wherein account followers reflected quantifiable social influence. The French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu in 1979 outlined a theory exploring different forms of capital separate from the economic value production emphasized by Karl Marx: Mainly cultural capital. When Bourdieu wrote his landmark “Distinction,” cultural capital existed mostly in the abstract and was difficult to visualize as a network of smaller concentrated nodes of high cultural capital funneling off into ecosystems of higher volumes of nodes of lower cultural capital. Instagram gave this theory an aesthetic in hyperreality. While there still remain the unseen forces exercising all forms of capital, American individualism spread through social media produced a reality in which cultural capital became tethered to the economy as significantly as economic capital. The creator economy visualizes cultural influence in the same terms as economic value representation: the number represented on a screen representing a total sum of cultural capital on the representation of a social media platform like Instagram, is itself the same framework as a representation of a total sum of economic capital on the representation of a financial institution like Fidelity. An individual’s pursuit of followers and cultural capital guides their behavior in hyperreality, just as an individual’s pursuit of externalities like property served as the guiding framework for American individualism.
TikTok is not a private U.S. social media company: It is a Chinese social media company. But Tik Tok’s business model is based on those of private U.S. companies like Facebook and Instagram, in which individuals exist as representations in their pursuit of happiness (both the pursuit of happiness and happiness itself likewise register as representations in hyperreality). Like Instagram, TikTok is based on an individual’s pursuit of cultural capital which expresses itself through cult-like individual representations vying for the mass accumulation of followers and influence in hyperreality. Unlike Instagram, however, TikTok is a vehicle for the government of China and its own ideology. Whereas American individualism previously spread through the ideological pathways of the communications tools birthed from its own ideology (destabilizing regimes hostile to the ideology), it now runs through the ideological pathways of its global rival. TikTok’s ideological pathways may be based on business models based on American individualism, but they are deployed with the intent of subverting American individualism for the needs of China, turning American individualism into aesthetic, a binary choice within global capitalism’s system of totality.
Main Character Syndrome as a cultural reference point is significant because it encourages individuals to adopt hyper-realistic frameworks for viewing themselves in the real world. Reality is governed by the terms observing hyperreality: An individual becomes their representation through an ideological worldview gamifying basic interactions. Monotonous daily activities become pursuits, challenges to be overcome, reframed adventures fed back into hyperreality through communications tools like Facebook and TikTok (each platform serving as a vehicle for spreading either American individualism or the American individualism Made in China version). When Ashley Ward tells her TikTok followers, “You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character, because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by,” what she offers is a zero-sum choice between a reality of happiness in which an individual becomes their representation through Main Character Syndrome (the “romanticizing” is happiness, rather than happiness existing as happiness itself), and a reality of unhappiness in which “life will continue to pass” by an individual who does not accept to live in total representation. Without the process of “romanticizing,” life exists just as how it is without the process: unhappiness.
Main Character Syndrome blurs further the distinction between an individual and the representation of an individual. An individual now perceives themselves as a third person video game character, operating within a capitalist realist matrix of brands and simulated experiences and its hyperreality of simulacra. The individual is left alienated from their peers, easier controlled by concentrated capital, no longer even owning one’s cognitive senses as their self-perspective only sees their representation. Main Character Syndrome is not a unique phenomenon in contemporary American culture, but it does follow four years of social activism predicated on group solidarity. Protests like the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter painted this multicultural mosaic of collectivism within the broader American culture, yet the post-Trump culture is one of total individualism: The culture which birthed Trump in the first place.
Spread through TikTok, Main Character Syndrome presents a variant of American individualism in which an individual is further removed from society. The American individualism Made in China variant represents the natural progression of a global capitalist system of totality predicated on the ideology of American individualism. The ideological encampments vying for control over the individual remain the same: Concentrated capital and the state. Representations of binary choices within a representation of a binary system of totality in which every individual exists as representation.