I didn’t catch much of the People’s Choice Awards on Tuesday, but I did see Vince Vaughn’s acceptance speech. Unless my ears deceived me, I believe he actually called Jennifer Aniston "genuine." I believe he said, "Jennifer Aniston [is] one of the funniest, most genuine people I know."
Wow, I goggled, when was the last time I called anyone "genuine?" Well? When was the last time you called someone "genuine?" If I were Malcolm Gladwell, and I curse the Gods each day that I am not, I would have several weeks to do the linguistic detective work: where is this term from, how has its meaning changed, where is it headed? But no. I am obliged to do what every blogger does, google the heck out of the term, and see where that takes me. (What we really need is a Bletchley Park, a place dedicated to breaking the codes of popular culture.)
Genuine is still big in the red states. I think that’s because God and country still mean something, and sincerity, like one’s bond, is a measure of character and one of the most fungible of the capitals of social life. This could be what Vince means, but I’d be very surprised if it were. The guy is Hollywood through and through and Hollywood is a placed filled with actors who regard any manifestation of the genuine as a failure of talent. More important, Vaughn’s on-screen persona makes fun of genuine through his special brand of faux sincerity. (See for instance the Wedding Crashers.) Furthermore, Vince came up on that coastal revival of the lounge guy with rat pack attitude. (See for instance, Swingers.) When Vince calls Jen genuine, this is not the red states talking.
Genuine is a term people use in personals, as in, "I am looking for genuine man with a college education, an interest in the arts, and who does not mind that I share my Upper West side one-bedroom apartment with 9 cats, and a dog called Rickey." When you are looking for love in this very public way you expose yourself to people who may treat you lightly or badly. Genuine, in this case, is a code word. It sends a warning: do not trifle with my affections. Is genuine a tell tale that Vince uses the personals? Er, no.
The reason that genuine was strange to my ears, I think, is that it is losing ground to a new competitor, authenticity.
Listen to this passage from the internet. Genuine gets a bit part here, and no more.
I have a good friend who is the most authentic person I know. People love being around her because she is so real, with no pretence. She makes everyone feel special, not in a phoney way; she makes them feel special because she is genuinely interested in them. She values people. She values relationships, knowing that even the most causal relationship, a moment with a stranger, has the potential to gift them and us in some way. And so she lives her life day-by-day, moment-by-moment, open, honest and receptive to others. It sounds simple but it’s actually revolutionary, given that most of us approach others with an agenda of our own. The question you must ask yourself is do you value relationships? Are you willing to be authentic yourself in order to have authentic relationships?
We can see why authentic is overtaking genuine in these circles. Genuine is too often merely nice. When we apply the term to something more than nice, we are usually giving praise for the extent to which the person so called has performed the social emotion in question in precisely the right way. (He told me he was sorry my dog Rickey had died. He seemed so genuine!) Genuine is about being true to your responsibility to saying and doing and of course feeling the right thing. Being genuine is distinctly not about being interesting, unexpected, spontaneous or unorthodox. That’s authenticity’s job.
Now we’re getting somewhere. This notion of genuine does seem to correspond nicely with Jennifer Aniston’s public persona. She plays characters who are good and true and kind and solicitous, and yes, sincere, and most of all, genuine. We could call her authentic. But there is no evidence that Jen is giving us the essential self, the real her. It’s as if even her characters are playing a role. This is the path to becoming America’s sweetheart. (And the road away from same, the one taken by Julia Roberts for instance, is always roles that forsake nice for something stranger, darker, more complex, or less rule bound.) But the costs are high. Signal clarity comes at the price of a certain narrowness and predictability.
I do understand that Vaughn was laboring to find just the right word to acknowledge a person with whom he has been linked and then delinked in the public mind. Perhaps "genuine" seemed a way of giving praise without signally affection. But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it? When Vince calls Jen calls genuine, he is giving us a teleology and the very arch of the relationship?
Well, that’s it from everyone here at Bletcheley Park. Good night, every one. Drive safely!
References and acknowledgments
The quote on authenticity is from the website here.
YouTube: Vince Vaughn accepting his People’s Choice Award here.
Trilling, Lionel. 1972. Sincerity and Authenticity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. here.
(I could hear myself reproducing Trilling’s distinction between sincerity and authenticity in some of this, and thought I had better give him this acknowledgment.)