NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The New Perfectionism: Why Can't We Just Be Ourselves?

My kids and I like to watch TV together before bedtime. Baseball, if I get to decide; The Big Bang Theory, or Star Trek: The Next Generation if it it's up to them. Our favorite commercial is this one for Applebees. I can't see it without smiling. Just check out the way the men dance! It's very good.

Like millions of others, another TV moment I enjoyed was Mrs. Obama's star-turn dancing with Jimmy Fallon.

What these two spots have in common is that they put "the dancing common person" on display. And the thing about the dancing common person when she dances: she's beautiful!

But that's not all they have in common. The Applebee's ad is directed at selling a low-calorie special. And the first lady went on TV in order to promote the importance of mothers moving with their kids in order to stave off obesity.

Applebee's has every right to hawk its wares, and I certainly don't want to criticize Michelle Obama's efforts.

But there is something else going on and we need to notice it.

How sad to link dancing to self-improvement! Dancing isn't for weight loss. It's for ecstasy, or play, or display, or romance and courtship. Dancing is for pleasure.

It's actually awkward to watch television with the boys, because almost every commercial presupposes the imperfection, inadequacy and misery of adult human being. We are targeted as overweight, as lonely, as unable to perform sexually, as depressed, as unable to stop smoking. We are displayed to ourselves as unhappy.

What is going on here?

It has a lot to do, I think, with the New Perfectionism that holds sway in our culture, something I wrote about a few weeks ago. Somehow it is not enough to be. We need to be perfect. Perfectly lean and muscular. Perfectly healthy. We need perfect sex lives with our perfect partners. And we need perfect kids too. And we need to figure it all out and do it by ourselves, in the setting of our private little start-ups we call families.

The New Perfectionism, probably, is a perverse extension of a trend that goes back to the Enlightenment, with its unbridled individualism and rejection of tradition and religion as a source of value. We carry the burdens not only of living, but of deciding for ourselves how we ought to live, what sort of life counts as good.

In 21st-century America this finds expression in the quest for "Abs of Steel" and the urges of the "Tiger Mom."

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.