Passing in Contemporary America

By , Newton, MA

Performers thrive in the art of acting. The show must go on. We celebrate the performers’ ability to awe the audience with their vivid imaginations. Performers put on masks of emotions. When they succeed, they hide the real people behind the masks. People have many selves, and they can choose to demonstrate whatever side of themselves that fits the situation. By hiding the real self behind the ideal self, one can conceal one’s deepest, darkest secrets that need to be hidden. All throughout human history, people have been constantly altering themselves, hiding and showing certain aspects to fit an desirable identity. From ancient China Mulan to the 20th century genocides, people have hid their beliefs and covered up their affiliations to avoid alienation or death. The Red Scare in the 40’s demonstrated that Americans held back their background to avoid association with communism. During presidential elections, many Americans have lied about their vote to avoid social exclusion.
As one transforms oneself according to a desirable identity, passing has been a way for inferior groups to cope with discrimination in the past. Particularly in the 20’s, Americans of an inferior social class rejected their social backgrounds to “pass” as a member of a superior class, sometimes for convenience and sometimes for a lifestyle. 


In the modern day, the threshold of “passing” is more vague than what it used to be. Historically, exposure in both World Wars broadened Americans’ notions of diversity and what it meant to be American, away from a strict Anglo-Saxon view of the world. Although Baz Dreisinger comments in Passing and the American Dream, that “passing is passe,” contemporary society still judges people who are different, so a handful of Americans still pass to increase social acceptance. Through the creation of a desirable self, whether in person or online, contemporary Americans pass to fit the circumstance at hand, suggesting that reinvention is a timeless theme.


The deaths of the performers such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Amy Winehouse reinforce the notion of the desire to present a certain kind of self to the public. On the surface they seemed like bright, talented people, yet, they were all hiding significant depression and mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental health makes it socially unacceptable to talk about anxiety or depression. Pop singer Lady Gaga revealed that after five years of hiding her PTSD, she finally felt able to open up about it. In an interview, she acknowledges that “there is a lot of shame attached to mental illness, but it’s important that you know that there is hope and a chance for recovery” (Huffington Post). Similarly, in an interview regarding her new TV show, Kylie Jenner addressed celebrities’ constant need to present a perfect public image: "I feel like a lot of people have misconceptions of who I am. There's two sides of me. There's an image that I feel constantly pressured to keep up with, and who I really am around my friends” (E News). In the world of sports, athletes may be embarrassed to address their mental health and may view mental illness as a weakness. In addition, Prince Harry recently acknowledged he had significant mental health issues surrounding his mother’s death after hiding it for twenty years.


Admittedly, one may find an emphasis on frankness and empowerment in recent pop culture. Pop songs like “Issues” and “Brave Honest Beautiful” inspire listeners to talk about their problems and to realize that everyone is perfect regardless. Although increasing in number, these songs of empowerment only constitute a small component of today’s pop music. Most of popular culture enforces the need to present a perfect image, resulting in the failure to address mental health problems.


Contemporary American society does not encourage those with mental illnesses to speak out or to seek help, resulting in people wanting to hide their problems to be accepted. Because celebrities have not been actively voicing their mental state, their followers feel as if it is “wrong” to talk about them. In The Mighty, a blog about raising awareness for mental illness and health issues, blogger Kat Jayne writes that she hides her social anxiety. She comments that hiding: “protects me, it keeps me safe. Staying home and only associating with those I trust to see me vulnerable: my husband and to a degree, my children. I am too tired to keep holding this heavy mask, but I am so terrified of it falling and cracking, horrified others might see the needy person who has perfected her smile. It is safer and easier to stay alone.” People often hide their raw feelings under a facade. The facade gives the person control over what sides to show others. Another online blogger writes that she pretends to be sociable while hiding her social anxiety: “I actually find myself talking a lot… I get so anxious when I’m out with friends and there is an awkward silence or no one is talking. So I feel the need to talk more even though I’m dying of panic and anxiety inside” (The Mighty). Our films and movies have shamed mental illness as violent and sometimes even deadly. People resort to suppressing mental illness and other undesirable aspects of their lives because popular culture does not them as “right”. As a result, mental health issues do not get rightful attention.
While mental health issues have existed for a long time, the birth of social media more than ever encouraged people to disguise their vulnerability behind an online persona. Many people have turned to social media platforms such as instagram and snapchat to express a perfected version of themselves, and have posted selectively, leaving the panic attacks, bad hair days, and general unpleasantness out of the picture. An online blogger Diane comments on the benefits of an online persona: “When I joined Twitter in 2009, my username wasn’t under my real name, and it was the first time I felt I could be myself on social media... it was easy to fit in and not over think any of the interactions I had with people. I grew a large following and thought it was fun, but when I switched the account to my real name, my following only caused me anxiety. I couldn’t deal with ‘performing’ in front of thousands of people as Diane. So I just stopped.” Increasingly, people resort to inventing idealized online personas, so much so that articles such as “How to Invent a Persona Online” have flooded the internet. But real life interactions aren’t exactly “relationship goals” or “picture perfect,” as one cannot use any amount of filters to conceal the amount of anxiety they have.


Pop culture encourages Americans to create desirable, idealized versions of themselves, in person or online, so that they appear “normal” enough for acceptance. As someone with social anxiety and AVPD, growing up in a social media era, I found that online identities have been a double edged sword. The same personas that allow me to cover up my anxiety has somehow triggered more anxiety. Several times, I have been invited to social gatherings or hangouts, but my social anxiety refused to let me leave the house. While I was initially convinced that I would feel most comfortable staying at home, I regretted after checking instagram and found pictures of my friends having fun. Social media drags me into a whirlpool of constantly questioning myself. If I went, would people accept me more? But then would I really feel comfortable at the event? In some ways, resorting to social media has increased my social anxiety, instead of helping me.


But as much as I realize the repercussions of passing, I continue to hide my vulnerability behind a smile, no matter how lonely I feel or how much I want to run out of the room, because I don’t want to draw negative attention to myself. Even if I was having a panic attack, I would always put on the brightest smile, greet the people, be excessively talkative, sometimes even overdoing it to make myself seem “normal”, because I’m fearful of exposing the real me and being judged. At nine years old I had a panic attack in the car on my way to camp, not because I was really scared of the tigers or the elephants as I said, but because I was fearful of having to talk to new people. I would never talk about the Thursday night hyperventilations or that one time that I was paralyzed due to social anxiety. Sometimes I would intentionally draw attention to my fun side; for a while I stuck an apple sticker on my chromebook just to make people crack up. My mask, therefore, allows me to appear congenial and enthusiastic, no matter what is really happening to me behind the mask. I thought my “hiding” was successful, because at the end, most people ended up accepting me and not so many would have guessed at my fear for social interactions.


Although American contemporary society has been slowly progressing towards acceptance, our culture still judges people who are different. People want to exhibit desirable behaviors (while avoiding others) to conform to the correct social standards. Contemporary culture shames those with a mental illness because mental illnesses are associated with violence and crime. No matter the repercussions, humans will always hide their unbecoming sides until the day society is more accepting towards our differences.


As for me, I’m taking one step at a time to defeat my social anxiety. I will attend social gatherings, small ones first and then the more scary ones. Hopefully one day I can go to a party without breaking into a sweat.



Works Cited
Brucculieri, Julia. "Lady Gaga Opens Up About Struggling With PTSD In Emotional Letter." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 16 May 2017.
Diana. "Dear Social Media, From, Someone with Social Anxiety." Blog post. Medium. Medium Corporation, 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.
Green, R. Kay. "The Social Media Effect: Are You Really Who You Portray Online?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 May 2017.
Ha, Thu-Huong. "How Should We Talk about Mental Health?" Blog post. Ideas.. Ted, 03 Jan. 2016. Web. 16 May 2017.
Malec, Brett. "Kylie Jenner Feels ''Constantly Pressured'' to Keep Up Her Public Persona in Life of Kylie Trailer: ''I Can't Do It Forever'' on Life of Kylie." E! Online. E! News, 15 May 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.
Schuster, Sarah. "24 Things People Don't Realize You're Doing Because of Your Social Anxiety." Blog post. The Mighty. The Mighty, 9 Jan. 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.






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