The word “me” has suffered mightily since Tom Wolfe’s rollicking indictment in the pages of New York magazine over 40 years ago. He deemed the 1970s the Me Decade, and the idea stuck and steeped like an indelible stain well into the 21st century.
Once preoccupied by family and community — by simple survival — Americans, in the full flush of post-World War II prosperity, now felt liberated to self-actualize through EST (Erhard Seminars Training), HPM (the human potential movement) and other important-sounding acronyms. “The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold,” Mr. Wolfe wrote. “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self … and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)”
In service of this project many spouses were “shucked,” as Mr. Wolfe put it, like corn husks — “overripe” wives, but fusty husbands too. “It’s My Turn,” Diana Ross sang in 1980 for a movie of the same title (one of many then about restive adults seeking new lives after the dissolution of a partnership): lifting arms encased in white silky sleeves like an angel poised to take wing. “It’s just me myself and I” rapped De La Soul a decade later, and “Me me me me me me I I I,” intoned the folk singer Patty Larkin, strumming a guitar as her audience chuckled in rueful recognition.
Then the big new canvas of the internet loomed into view. On this vast plain, “me” became just a dot, a data point, a tree top in a forest. You, the plurality, became more important, according to the new Masters and now some Mistresses of the Universe, trying to figure out how to capitalize. You got mail. You were lingering in chat rooms, lurking behind avatars, editing Wikipedia entries. Posting videos on YouTube. You were what Time Magazine anointed, to retrospectively unfair ridicule, Person of the Year in 2006. You were monetizable information that could be sliced and diced, as the Veg-O-Matics did on the old late-night commercials that the new generation would TiVo right past.
Products that too flagrantly advertised an actual individual at the expense of this digital collective — like Myspace or Mac’s MobileMe software, its little-favored me.com email address that quickly disappeared behind the Cloud — proved a resounding flop. Cultivation of the self was getting upstaged by the proliferation of the selfie. Indeed the selfie was chewing all the scenery, with her sticks and soft-focus filters — everyone a Norma Desmond.
After the profoundly divisive and unsettling presidential election of 2016, the term “self-care,” wrung from the writings of Roland Barthes and Audre Lorde, began trending on Twitter, now sometimes affixed to Sunday. If Monday was for motivation, Thursday for nostalgia and Saturday for snuggling with cats, a day once devoted to church might now legitimately be spent alone in the bathtub coated in mud, a green smoothie by one’s side. A few minutes of cheapie “Calgon, take me away” no longer quite cut it: “Me time,” suggesting people so overstretched they have to schedule a slot of relaxation into their Google calendars, has become a phenomenon of such refinement — and potential expense — that this very news organization now devotes a column to exposing its myths and excesses.
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