Romanticism in the Digital Era

By Rhiannon McGovern.

Like almost everyone else, checking my phone is one of the first things I do in the morning. It’s a habit I want to break, but my social media algorithm delivers such a gorgeously curated feed that it’s hard to stay away at times. The accumulation of everything I am, love and aspire to be stares back at me as I’m delivered an endless stream of content that feels like it could’ve been plucked right out of my brain. These apps know what I want to see before I even know myself, feeding my lifelong interests and planting the seeds of new ones. I devour it every time.

Sometimes I wonder what my true identity is and what is just a by-product of this endless consumption of things parallel to it. I then wonder if it even really matters, because even if so much of this isn’t real, it’s perfect. Maybe that’s enough.

Today, I opened my phone to a scene from the 2019 adaptation of Little Women. Florence Pugh’s Amy March is feeling frustrated and unable to live up to her sister, Jo, who has left home to become a successful writer. “That’s quite a statement to make at twenty”, family friend Laurie says in response to Amy’s proclamations that she will amount to nothing. Her response sums up a whole generation of women, a way of thinking that has plagued even those of us most content with our lives: “I want to be great or nothing.”

This is a phenomenon that is all over the internet, and whilst it isn’t entirely new, the way it has weaved into our lives is becoming more profound. The need to romanticise our lives, to be the protagonist of our own stories, has become so common that it is inconceivable to think of ourselves in any other terms. The idea that we can make life feel more worthwhile by simply romanticising even the dull parts sounds liberating, but this way of thinking isn’t all it’s made out to be. This fear of being unremarkable, of being simply average, as described by Amy March, has become so paralysing that we can’t even sit at the bus stop anymore without desperately searching for some sort of backstory and meaning not really present in the moment at all.

This mindset has seeped into my own life in so many ways. I have an ensemble of characters in my hometown, each of whom I’ve assigned a corresponding character from a movie or TV show that is just similar enough to them (although usually more charismatic, and, let’s face it, more fun).  It’s not just the present that this way of thinking applies to; I find myself distorting past experiences as well. My reflections on Catholic school have become reminiscent, focusing on the incense and stained-glass windows during visits to Church as opposed to anything of real substance, anything that actually matters.

At first it seems harmless, and, in ways, it is – this desire for everything to be romantic can help us find meaning in the small things in our lives that we may have otherwise glossed over. Eventually, however, this need to repackage any experience that isn’t already perfect into something contextually different (yet still close enough to reality) has become so hard to escape that maybe we just don’t know what it means to just let ourselves live anymore. The constant conceptualisation of a narrative sequence makes me feel like my brain is trapped in a writer’s room pitching ideas to an imaginary audience, trying to find out which false portrayal of my truth lands best.

I feel the need to emphasise the fact that my life isn’t bad at all, and the same can probably be said for most people who romanticise their lives in a similar way. I am grateful for so many things – my friends, getting to go to university, being nineteen – but as a society, we’ve become so obsessed with how our lives are being consumed that it’s unpalatable to think about them in a way that couldn’t fit into a 90-minute biopic. There’s nothing wrong with not every part of our lives being Instagram-worthy; the very fact that we have these slower, quieter moments is so important and contributes to our well-being and development in more complex ways than many of us likely realise. If anything, we’re taking the true meaning out of these episodes by thinking of them (by thinking of us) as products to be sold.

The increasing prevalence of dense, character-driven narratives in the media hasn’t dissuaded us from thinking of our lives along these lines, either. The rise of writers like Sally Rooney – who portray the inner workings of ordinary people in such an intricate way – means we’re seeing a piece of ourselves previously reserved for behind closed doors being broadcast to millions of people around the world. With even the most mundane and traditionally ‘boring’ parts of life finding a home in literature and cinema, it’s easy to see how we’ve become obsessed with finding a way to showcase our lives and convince other people that we’re worth consuming, too. It’s teaching us that our lives aren’t really the problem – anything can be worth people’s attention if you frame it just right.

Rayne Fisher-Quann talks about a similar phenomenon in her essay Standing on the Shoulders of Complex Female Characters, exploring the idea that we’ve reached a point where it’s hard to live without commodifying our identities and living for imaginary audiences. She writes: “The desire to editorialize our own experiences (to romanticize the unseen, to live for our biographies) has become an autonomic facet of womanhood as unavoidable as breathing”. And she’s right. By latching ourselves on to these fictional identities, regardless of whether they represent us or not, we’re able to convey not only who we think we are, but more importantly, who we want people to think we are. The dreamy, whimsical persona you’re going for isn’t so far out of reach anymore when there’s someone out there doing the same thing, and everyone loves it.

In thinking of a way to finish this piece, I found myself romanticising the process of composing this, too. God, these late nights and strained eyes are so difficult, but at least I get to be a writer. I pull myself out of this chain of thought and worry that perhaps there is no end. I don’t know that there is. For now, all that’s left is to try and resist the urge to decipher and reconstruct every moment, to make something out of nothing. To try and learn how to just be again.