Twenty years ago, audiences cheered as Truman Burbank opened a door painted like the sky, took a bow, and stepped into another life. It was a moment of triumph over his own fears, a physical prison, and the manipulations of almost everyone he’d ever known. Today, though, it is worth asking: would we still want Truman to leave?
Truman, played by an endearingly wacky, sometimes grim Jim Carrey, was the quintessential “famous for being famous” celebrity, well before the Kardashian juggernaut was launched. Unbeknownst to him, Truman had been adopted by a corporation as an infant and raised on an enormous film set that resembled a peculiarly dream-like American town. His parents, friends, and neighbors were all actors, and he was the star of a globally broadcast live soap opera for which his every move was recorded. Eventually, though, he began to suspect the truth and attempted to escape.
At the time of the movie’s release in 1998, some critics doubted the film’s premise: that people would actually watch an ordinary man’s banal daily existence—much less millions of people, for decades. These doubts have since been put to rest. We certainly would want to watch Truman, and are increasingly unashamed to admit it. Not only that, we long to be Truman. Limited by circumstances and nature, we are nonetheless bent on inventing ourselves and managing how we are perceived. In watching the film, one may still wish for Truman to leave and live freely. Yet, in our own lives, we have willingly taken on many of his constraints.
A Real-Life Version of The Truman Show
We are fixated on a kind of authenticity, the pursuit of unfiltered glimpses into the lives of others. This emphasis on “being real” has taken different forms—Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, social media, and the never-ending parade of reality shows—but it is clear that banality alone poses no obstacle to popularity. In the movie, the show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris), a distant yet controlling director, noted, “We’re tired of actors giving us phony emotions … [The Truman Show] is not always Shakespeare, but it is real.”
One (real-life) reviewer described the series Teen Mom 2 similarly, writing “The show doesn’t resemble a show. It’s more like boring old life, strenuous and unyielding.” The Teen Mom franchise, which follows very young women raising children with limited support, has millions of viewers. It has even been granted qualified praise by some scholars for possibly reducing teen pregnancy rates. Several of the Kardashians—famously described by Kim to Barbara Walters as “famous for being ourselves”—have also given birth and raised children on their shows. And of course, there is our president, a former reality star who sets himself against “fake news” and whom no one seems to be able to stop watching. In a number of ways, including our desire to watch “real people” and our willingness to see the lives of infants and young children unfold on camera, we have accepted the morality of The Truman Show.
This is not to say we are entirely happy about it. Indeed, our pursuit of reality often makes it seem as if we are being carried farther away from it. Reality shows are routinely mocked, and our national addiction to social media, or screens in general, is lamented. We talk about “online life” and “real life” as though they are two completely different spheres. Real life is understood to be superior, yet we cannot let go of these other, artificial lives. And of course, that raises questions: how much do we want to let go? And what do the alternative versions of ourselves offer?
There are other provocative questions embedded in The Truman Show: What is the relationship between creator and creation? How much agency do we really have in constructing our own identities? Considering our proven appetite for Truman Show-like entertainment, though, it is particularly worth asking why Truman’s life would have been appealing to watch, whether and how it was actually a bad life, and to what extent the audience was complicit in the evil The Truman Show represented. And, of course, we can ask ourselves why we seek to star in our own small-scale versions of reality shows.
Watching Others is No Longer Enough
Like the young women in Teen Mom 2, Truman’s limited, well-defined struggles and triumphs may have been part of what drew people to him. His ordinariness seemed to affirm the value of the mundane. Truman’s world revolved around a tedious insurance job, a predictably smiling wife (played with marvelously unnerving cheeriness by Laura Linney), and a risk-averse mother (Holland Taylor). Indeed, his unflinching, suffocating routine was key to the show’s successful operation. Christof once defended his project by insisting that he had given Truman “the chance for a normal life.” In much the same way that politicians praise “everyday Americans,” Christof imbued a mostly unremarkable life—Truman’s—with particular worth.
Moreover, Truman’s life appeared in many ways to be “healthy”: he was raised in a two-parent home (though his father’s character was killed off the show), had earned a college degree of sorts, and had an actual white picket fence. Though he clearly despised his wife and was pining after another woman (a Truman Show actress he had met in college who had tried to reveal the truth about the show), he often seemed cheerful, albeit in a pained or angry sort of way. By many measures his life was successful. The Truman Show’s worldwide audience clearly agreed. They were eager to watch the perfect specimen of a normal man—someone they could truly get to know well, and from a safe distance.
But we do not only want to watch the lives of others. As much as people seek authenticity through observation, the ubiquity of Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook Live videos makes it clear that we also want to be seen. This is nothing new; people have always wanted to be recognized. But we have increasingly come to seek online recognition as an end in itself. It appears to matter less and less what we are known for and more that we are known widely.
Of course, we are encouraged to do so by any number of addictive algorithms and monetary incentives. Facebook explains that we are “connecting” and “sharing.” By forgoing a level of privacy, we are “letting people in.” We are taught to vie for a kind of validation that consists of “likes,” often mere seconds of the time and attention of others. Facebook suggests new friends for us, asks what’s on our mind, and nudges us when we haven’t logged in or posted in a while. But algorithms alone do not explain a decades-long cultural trend, championed by Oprah and continued by the Kardashians and others: the more we reveal about ourselves, the more real and brave we are proclaimed to be.
Becoming Truman Burbank
And so we create our own versions of Truman’s life, posting photos of our dogs, meals, and daily exercise routines. We might be self-conscious about our Twitter use or concerned about Facebook’s privacy rules, but we continue to check and post on those sites and mutually acknowledge one another’s days. Truman’s television wife, Meryl, explained that there was no difference between her public and private identities, and that her all-encompassing role provided the chance for “a noble [and] truly blessed life.” Like Truman, she was revealing herself, and thus proving her worth. Because his entire existence was recorded and broadcast to the world without any artifice, “the true man” of the film was the ultimate exemplar of this ideal.
This is an ideal that we seem to have embraced, even as we recoil from it; we see and feel the problems with social media and reality television—its distractions and distance from the “real world,” its curated and insincere quality, and the ubiquitous, manufactured arguments that rage across our screens. But we still trumpet “authenticity,” and we still look for it in digital form.
So what it is that we object to when we object to Truman’s world? He was revealing all, and could deceive no one. One answer is that he was being deceived, deprived of a life in which he could make decisions and connections that were not artificially constructed for him. Truman was living in an exaggerated version of Plato’s cave, puppets and all, and he ought to have had the chance to see the light. At one point in the film, Christof argued that Truman could “leave at any time ... if he really wanted to.” Yet when Truman was on the verge of escaping, Christof nearly killed him.
So perhaps it is solely the deception and lack of agency that bother us. Because, in many ways, we emulate The Truman Show; we wish both to observe and to portray something honest. But in our pursuit of a particular kind of openness and authenticity, we are confronted by aggressively competing presentations of reality—in politics, entertainment, and elsewhere. Christof noted at the start of the film that “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Yet each of us has increasing control over how our reality looks to others. If Truman were to leave his artificial, recorded life today, he would be met with a plethora of other artificial, recorded lives. The world outside of his film set would closely resemble the world within.
Devorah Goldman is an assistant editor at National Affairs.