A Side View of Our Pandemic Lives
With the pandemic, our personal and professional lives often find themselves merging in the lens of a laptop camera. What we share is determined in part by what we let these cameras see. But the full picture may tell a different story about who we really are. Reflections by Rosa Riera
A recent New Yorker cover hit a nerve. It depicts a woman on a video call who, to her conversation partners, must look glamorous. She has perfect make-up, an expensive white top and big creole earrings. The lighting is good, her video background tasteful. She is holding a martini glass. On her lips is a wry smile. She seems to be having a good time.
But we viewers looking into the scene see something else. We see that her perfect makeup is paired with unshaven legs, her smart top with running shorts, her beautiful earrings with fluffy pink slippers. While she sits under a bright light, dirty dishes lie stacked in the gloom of a kitchenette to her right. The tidy background presented to her video viewers appears to us as a thin veil hiding an unmade bed and surrounded by discarded masks, gloves, socks and sanitizer bottles. A disposable hot drinks cup sits on the floor. Her controlled expression belies the chaos on her desk. One of her cats stares out of a litter box, the other sleeps at her feet.
The cover, drawn by the cartoonist Adrian Tomine, captures what 2020 has been like for many of us in our social lives and careers. But it also depicts something else, something that precedes the lockdowns, namely the difference between the version of ourselves that we present in public on the one side and the version of ourselves that we present in private on the other. Only, in this depiction the difference is stretched to stark absurdity by the circumstances of the pandemic.
The cover captures the difference between the version of ourselves that we present in public on the one side and the version of ourselves that we present in private on the other.
It says something also that it is a woman who is depicted. A man with his necktie tucked into his boxers would have worked too. But it would not have worked as well. For at least when it comes to our lives in society, the premium standards expected of women just do not apply to men. When it comes to their social selves, men can get away with cruising on regular in most if not all situations. If it was a man who was depicted on the cover, the difference between reality as captured by the laptop camera and reality as depicted by the illustrator—between the reality framing the cocktail glass and the reality framing the cat loo— would not be so apparent, because for men the different standards between how to present and how to be is rarely a thing in their lives.
The New Yorker cover depicts not merely a difference, but a wide chasm between these two realities. This makes the situation seem more problematic, as if some line has been crossed. And this suggests that the woman may be doing more than merely presenting her best face. It suggests that she may be faking it. And if she is faking it, then this suggests that we may have been faking it, too.
Back in September a woman called Gretchen Goldman appeared as a guest on CNN. She looked businesslike in a yellow blazer with tidy hair, her head framed by two sets of pictures in the background. The patterned quilt on the sofa behind her suggested a domestic setting, but otherwise everything about her appearance was professional, as if she had maybe been working at her desk all day and was now taking some time out to fire up Zoom and participate as a talking head on a current affairs program.
Her makeshift home television studio consisted of a laptop on a chair on a coffee table. Her blazer was paired with short shorts.
But during the interview she must have had a sense of the chasm between presentation and reality in her own situation. For after her appearance she tweeted an image that juxtaposed a screen grab of her interview with a side-on, full view of the room she was in, which was a real-life version of the New Yorker cover. Now we could see that her makeshift home television studio consisted of a laptop on a chair on a coffee table. Her blazer was paired with short shorts. On her feet were sandals. And children’s toys were strewn all over the floor.
So, was she faking it? Dr. Goldman has degrees in environmental engineering and atmospheric science. She is a research director at the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists. She has testified before Congress.
So, no, she was not faking it. Nor is the woman on the cover of the New Yorker. Nor are we.
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