Ghost World: Why Teenage Search for “Authenticity” is Stupid

I think people hyped up Ghost World way too much: I’ve been told time and again that I should check out the movie, since it features characters and plot that seem to follow my disposition. At first glance, I would have agreed with them, since the movie is about a smart teenager who feels alienated from the world and uses sarcasm and irony to make sense of it. I though, hey, sounds kinda like me, so I figured, why not check it out?

And I did: rented the movie on iTunes, and came away more disappointed than anything else. I felt the movie was way too overrated. This is not to say that the movie sucks, because I really liked certain aspects of the movie. First, the acting is superb, especially the acting of Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi. Second, I like the tone of the movie, and its refusal to have a nice “Hollywood” ending. The movie really did a very excellent job of portraying the inner lives of its characters.

But that’s the problem with the movie: its central character, Enid, is not a very sympathetic or appealing character. In fact, she’s quite superficial, and to me, she demonstrates pretty much everything that is wrong with the American teenager.

First, the relentless use of irony. Look, I get irony, because I am a smart-ass who likes to cut people down with irony and sarcasm, but the kind of irony and sarcasm that Enid uses borders on malice. It is really a way for her to disguise her own insecurities, which she refuses to admit, even to herself. I just feel like this kind of personal dishonesty is problematic.

Second, I am bothered by Enid’s petty contempt for other people, especially people whose lives are not interesting or creative. Sure, some targets of her sarcasm and takedowns are more than well deserved, but she refuses to acknowledge the possibility that people can lead dignified, content lives even if they are working in ordinary, blue-collar jobs and shop at cheap malls and eat at generic diners. For most of the movie, I felt Enid’s air of superiority is not really warranted. Again, it’s not as if I am that much better, but even I recognize that I’m being unfair when I mock people, but Enid refuses to even acknowledge this.

Third, Enid is just an immature person, and this can be seen in her reaction to her friend Rebecca’s maturation. Rebecca gets a steady job and becomes an adult, which Enid feels is a betrayal of some kind of “punk” or “indie” credibility. This is further seen in Enid’s own attempts to find a job, which she of course fails. I find this attitude highly problematic, because it is founded on a vague, ill-defined notion of “authenticity” which is itself inauthentic. Enid expresses her so-called non-conformity by dressing a certain way and buying certain things. And this is the irony: that we must purchase authenticity, and I’d thought that a smart person like Enid would have recognized the inherent paradox of searching for authenticity.

In summary, I just find Enid, the main character, to be exemplifying the character flaws of most “alienated” suburban teenagers: they might be smart, but their view of the world is so immature and so narrow that they can’t see outside of their perspectives. They don’t seem to realize that part of growing up and being authentic is to find a way to live in the world, instead of constantly striking a pose of disdain and eccentricity. My problem isn’t with disdain and eccentricity as such, it’s rather that these people mistake them for personal integrity.

But then again, I might not be the person to judge, since it was not that long ago when I would have thought exactly the way Enid did. But part of growing up is realizing that life isn’t so simple as to be rejected out of hand, that one needs to give people more credit, that a concern for “not selling out” is not some kind of personal honor, but rather the fear of confronting a reality that is far more complicated than one’s personal morality and perspective.

Which is exactly the reason why I liked the last fifteen minutes of the movie the best: because Enid finally figures this out.

Yet in the end, I still can’t wholeheartedly endorse this movie, because I feel like it’s mostly trapped in this search for “authenticity” that plagues most teenagers. Yes, anyone who has ever felt alienated from his world will inevitably go through the disillusionment process and become cynical and ironic, but that phase can’t and shouldn’t last forever. The real interesting, and the more richly complex phase is the phase in which after everything that one has ever known is destroyed, a person can once again begin to make something for himself.

Here, I’m merely repeating the distinction that Nietzsche makes between passive and active nihilism: passive nihilism is stuck in meaningless, but active nihilism is the more life-affirming approach. I guess my problem with Ghost World is that for the first hour and forty-five minutes of the movie, it is trapped in passive nihilism.

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