Friday 23 August 2019

Generation confession: Why are modern women obsessed with oversharing?

Girls creator Lena Dunham has just published a seemingly honest memoir and RTE's Connected has six women oversharing every week but what ever happed to discretion and privacy?

The girls taking part in RTE Two reality show Connected
The girls taking part in RTE Two reality show Connected
Lena Dunham

Tanya Sweeney

Have you ever wondered what a six-month selfie looks like? Thanks to the power of TV, we need wonder no more.

Enlisting six female participants aged 20-40 who filmed their lives video-diary style, RTE's Connected allows viewers a rare insight into womanhood in Ireland. Though it's doubtless a compelling watch, there's something slightly voyeuristic about Connected. Between watching 20-year-old model Nicole film herself crying about her boyfriend troubles, or getting a ringside seat to 35-year-old Kate's family confession that she's an escort, or seeing radio producer Venetia (40) struggle with the leccy bill, the viewer is caught in a badlands between discomfort and fascination. Either way, Connected has proved to be a televisual coup for RTE. It's a Facebook feed come to life, and Ireland's millennials are properly hooked.

Says the show's producer Cleona Ni Chrualaoi: "I guess people are surprised by their openness and raw honesty. I think we're inspired by these women being as open as they are."

Much as the age-old adage goes, the camera never lies. "The women knew there was no point in self-editing and censoring their lives," says Ni Chrualaoi. "You can't have a camera in your life for that long and not be yourself. But for many of them, there was something cathartic about externalising that inner monologue. It was easier to tell the camera their problems".

Times once were that a certain type of person would willingly sign up to a project like this: attention-seeking, little-girl-lost types that would stand in line for days at Big Brother or X Factor auditions. But that was then, and this is now. Even without RTE's help, several Irish people elect to live their lives - all of it - on social media. Gym selfies. Break-ups. Photos of dinner. By now, we're used to curating our lives online… but a growing number of people are doing away with the creamy Instagram filters and letting their friends and followers have it in technicolor (gory) glory.

So to paraphrase that eminent philosopher David Byrne, how did we get here? When did oversharing become okay, and how? A recent wave of female writers have taken the art of personal confession to new, dizzying levels. Caitlin Moran's feminist manifesto-cum-memoir How To Be A Woman was replete with recollections of teenage masturbation, pubic hair shaving, abortion, weight struggles, grooming, unrequited crushes. Add in a healthy dash of humour, and it's turned Moran from a columnist into a literary rockstar.

Elsewhere, Girls director Lena Dunham (right) signed a reported $3.7m book deal to write her own personal memoirs… and on the raw honesty front, she didn't disappoint. Friendships, therapists, relationships, body issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder: all present, correct and in eye-watering detail. Now, women writers, from Sylvia Plath to Nora Ephron, have always mined personal experiences… but never like this. "It's a challenging thing when you're a person who has a desire, or let's say a compulsion, to share facts about your personal life," Dunham said recently. "If that's the way you process the world - is to make creative content based on your personal life - then you have to be really careful about making yourself too exposed."

All fine and well when it comes with a $3.7m pay cheque… but what's in it for the rest of us?

The reasons some of us live out much of our lives online are manifold. Some of us are taking a lead from Kardashian celebrity culture, where the minutiae and triviality of daily life is never off-limits. Oftentimes, there's an ego-boost involved in making oneself vulnerable by opening up and revealing personal information. Such is the nature of social media and Facebook that the more honest and raw the status update, the more heartily encouraging and cathartic the feedback. We've seen the likes of Dunham and Moran get kudos for revealing their foibles, follies and pratfalls. And in this new world order, showing vulnerability often means being applauded.. and liked. Society has also largely done away with religion; perhaps we are seeking personal meaning in other ways. Or perhaps it's even simpler than that. In a world that pits women against each other on so many levels, a growing number of women are simply saying, 'we're all in this together, so let's talk honestly and frankly about it'.

"People have a fundamental desire to relate to each other, and for people to know and accept us as we are," says psychologist Maeve Halpin. "Now that culture is more atomised, there's no real sense of belonging to any one tribe. The internet has become a cultural space where people can feel safe and secure."

"There is something liberating about being that honest," adds Ni Chrualaoi. "It's about saying 'this is who I am, and you don't have to accept me, but this is me at my most honest'".

But is this oversharing a generational thing… or a gender thing? Dunham seems to think it's the latter: "The term 'oversharing' is so complicated because I do think that it's really gendered," she has said. "I think when men share their experiences, it's bravery and when women share their experiences, it's some sort of - people are like, TMI. I feel as though there's some sense that society trivialises female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren't considered as vital as their male counterparts' (experiences)."

It's one thing for a professional writer such as Dunham to be preoccupied with voice and visibility, but what about everyone else?

"Irish women are definitely more comfortable with sharing and venting their problems," says Ni Chrualaoi. "There's a culture among Irish men that they're expected to put a front on."

Yet there are psychological ramifications of being so candid online, and not all of them are positive.

"The sense of being connected through online relationships is superficial," asserts Halpin. "There's something in social media that brings out a childish part in us, that wants the 'likes' and the approval. That level of connection doesn't meet our true need to be known, and that's why some people want to be seen or recognised, perhaps in inappropriate ways. We think that everything online is transient, but we leave our digital footprint all the time and everything can be traced and found. Oftentimes it's an emotion expressed in a moment of anger or depression, one that we might not have learned to mediate."

What the fates have in store for the candid participants of Connected remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure: they'll always find an audience willing to lend them their ears. And, in some cases, their hearts.

'Connected' is on RTE 2 every Tuesday and Thursday at 10.30pm. See page 21 for Alice Jones' review of Lena Dunham's book 'Not That Kind Of Girl', which is out now.

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