Fly on the Wall—Lipstick on a Pig

Unmasking The Performances of Society

Developing a nose for the inane is a vital tool for neophyte social theorists.  Each sniff of trite entertainment leads to an understanding of the social cause of the sensation; few things in culture are quite what they seem, after all.  Take the phrase “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” This tongue twister of a term, if you’ve not heard it, connotes also a song that breaks out in the midst of a musical play called My Fair Lady (Pygmalion).  In it, a cockney working class street vendor is scooped up by a pedantic aristocrat linguist who seeks to train her in the ways and wiles of the well-off.  He precedes to, as the saying goes, make a woman out of her by teaching her to talk classy.  By doing so, the audience comes to see the ridiculous contortions culture leads us to adopt that we may better adapt to the demands of politeness and respectability.

That phrase about rain and Spain rings ridiculous bells, not only because of its inherent idiocy especially out of the mouths of much-drenched British folks, but at a deeper level whereupon we find our consciousness forever gated and ground down within the cultured realm of, well, acting cultured.

If this seems to be laying it on a bit thick just consider how often our peers speak about ideas, or coursework, and how very frequently discourse turns to the tawdry affairs of other people.  Like chimpanzees in a zoo, we often find ourselves and others more keen a topic than the reality of our enclosure.  Or, to mix metaphors (it’s just “not done” in good writing, you know), we’re like homemade yogurt stewing and fermenting due to the live action of edible bacteria.  Anyway, the manner in which our best selves are conveyed contains an attenuation rigour by which our original ingredients are metastasized into a new, induced, form.  The purpose of the Pygmalion gamut is to have the young woman come to pass as a lady denizen of the British upper crust; thematically, a few annoying chords of social desirability are struck along the way.

Enter a Canadian Small Town

As Erving Goffman, rare Jewish boy in rural Mannville, Alberta in the mid Twentieth Century, found: in our society those who believe they’re acting authentically tend not to accept that their act is just that.  To those on the outside looking in the charade is all too clear; the facade as obvious as a tutu around a doggie’s hips or lipstick on a prize pig.  Just as anthropologists often stifled a chortle when visiting cultures for whom assorted bows and kow-tows and doglike affections accompanied the presence of a social superior, it takes stepping away from the bounds of our norms to see just how ridiculous we really are at times.

Difference, whether cultural or class-based, is one thing, but the reality of our human act is quite universal.  To wit, Goffman invented a key term to describe the act of paying at adulting or, put another way, the show of showing ourselves to be respectable: impression management.  Being ourselves, regrettably, is thus rarely enough as we circumnavigate the circus of social life.  Body language, verbiage, and physical motions (often merely going through the motions) all go into making the woman or man fit the part they seek to present.  Goffman’s classic text The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life speaks as an inquiry into “the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before him.”

Central to this keeping up of appearances is the use of accents and lingo; traditionally each generation’s youth would deploy phrases like “groovy, man” or “far out” to differentiate themselves from their elders.  In terms of the rain in Spain the general pain of having to use an accent acceptable to those in power is on display: in Cockney English rain sounds more like “royine” etc.

When we wonder if we are really not just being ourselves in a given situation we need only recall first dates and job interviews where we quite conspicuously put our best self forward.  Thus, each moment of our life’s performance abides somewhere along a spectrum between quivering, neurotic, perfectionism of self to fully unrolled, unfiltered, unhinged barrel of fun.  Presumably, the latter is more desirable, which is why anytime we have to ask ourselves if we’re having a good time, we get an inkling that we’re being restrained by unconscious cultural pressures.

Meanwhile, the more manipulative among us (or more honest, depending on how we look at it) adeptly prestidigitate the emotional performance of others by in turn putting on a show of care and compassion, or fun and frivolity.  The old narrative that actions are the best indicator of a person’s character here comes into question because, just as a firm handshake or hearty guffaw or affectionate hug can be a conscious choice, so too can any other body language or persona portrayal.  Goffman seemed cynical in his time and he still does today; the question remains, how can we overcome this tendency to be ourselves in ways that aren’t really ourselves.  Or maybe we always are ourselves, selves that change for each occasion.  If you’ve ever been told, basically, to “be yourself but not like that”, you know full well that the struggle is real!

Now, in My Fair Lady the temerity of the young street peddler shines through and is identifiable precisely because we in the audience are fully aware, or perhaps only dimly cognizant where it matters most, of the extent to which we’re constantly being forced to play the role of polite customers, pleasant friends, or affable audience.  While an infant receives accolades for even the tiniest gesture or sound, a slow turning away from attentiveness on the part of the neophyte human’s adult handlers leads the young person to slowly but surely enter a realm of trained responses and rote mannerisms.

Gender is heavily implicated too; studies show that little girls and little boys receive quite different training and responses as their behavior is mapped onto discordant life expectations.  So it is in the play, where the made-fair lady – realizing that her virtue is only in question when she contravenes aristocratic expectations, even while she’s lost her sense of self respect in the process of culturing, exclaims “I sold flowers.  I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else!”

Just as social media teaches people ostensibly to express themselves it fences ever further the realms of respectable behaviour and reinforces ever tighter circumspection on what acts, mannerisms, and opinions are beyond the pale of decency.  Nothing gaslights one’s outlier tendencies quicker than an awareness of possible negative audience reaction.  So the risk we run by becoming well-adjusted is not only that we may feel ourselves hamstrung by the life roles we play but also, as a look back at the ebb and play of entertainment spectacles over the decades reveals, the very role we assume may become as tired and ossified as our mortal coils themselves.  Nowadays, the way to be (an ontological predilection carefully crafted with countless photo filters, poses, highlights, and piece of digital flair) involves an unprecedented amount of acting and acting-out.  Yet it just might be, as each of us ages into and out of the prime of our life (not to mention marital years, a key topic for My Fair Lady’s trainers) that we discover that, as we were working so hard at presenting ourselves, we forget to actually look inward and discover ourselves.

Happily, an AU education can only aid in the discovery of who we are besides the person who acts respectable.  Unlike in countless therapist offices, where methods of acting attentive, acting respectful, and adjoining narcissistic impulses are ground (or perhaps stomped) into the client’s being, the time we spend alone with our textbook delights may teach us to rise above the melee of cultural expectations and see that biology, not society, is the only certainty as we unfold the dramatic show that is our life.  We ourselves are our own audience of one, in the last instance, who in our elderly years will likely be our sternest critics of all – so let’s remember who the show is really for.

Lerner & Shaw.  (1964).  My Fair Lady.  Retrieved from
Shaw,, G.B.  (1913/20110).  Pygmalion.  Retrieved from and
Goffman, E.  (1956).  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.  Retrieved from
Unicef.  ‘What is Gender-Responsive Parenting?’.  Retrieved from