The Truman Show (1998) is perhaps one of the most interpretable films ever made. In just 103-minutes it presents and teases apart a wide range of themes: our relationship with television and media, the way large companies control and curate our lives through representation, the way we filter real life through the narrative structures of popular storytelling, and many more.
In the mix is a theme often neglected when discussing the The Truman Show because, unlike the ones listed above, the film doesn’t examine it through the fictional audience’s experience of watching “The Truman Show”, but instead through Truman Burbank’s experience of it. It’s a theme that seemed less important in the late-1990s, but one that has risen in relevance in our Instagram-filtered world: the public vs. private self.
The Truman Show (directed by Peter Weir, written by Andrew Niccol) follows Truman Burbank’s (Jim Carrey) slow realisation that his life is, and always has been, broadcast live around the world for people’s entertainment. His hometown of Seahaven is nothing but a huge set, and its residents, including his wife and best friend, are all actors playing their part.
Television is all-consuming in the world of The Truman Show, and social media doesn’t exist. This is because the film was released 20 years ago, before the invention of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or even MySpace. Before we would start broadcasting our lives by choice rather than deception.
But despite it predating social media, viewing the film from a 2018 perspective lends it even deeper layers of meaning. If one imagines Truman’s town of Seahaven as an online space, we see that by examining the public v. private self, the film warned us about three particularly modern dangers.
It’s the actors in Truman’s life that most obviously represent the dissonance between the public and private self. In the world of the film, Louis Coltrane (Noah Emmerich) plays Marlon, Truman’s best friend since childhood. He’s the person Truman confides in most closely and shares his hopes and fears with. But the Marlon he thinks he knows doesn’t exist. As demonstrated painfully when Christof (Ed Harris), the creator, producer, and director of “The Truman Show”, feeds Louis (as Marlon) the line:
“The last thing I would ever do is lie to you.”
Truman’s been “catfished” by everyone in his life; tricked into relationships by people presenting false personas. This has been achieved in the most classical fashion by Truman’s wife Meryl (actually an actor named Hannah Gill, played by Laura Linney).
Meryl/Hannah didn’t really fall in love with Truman, she was just playing a part, as represented comically when Truman notices she crossed her fingers in their wedding photo. Ultimately she was doing it for money, or whatever else she gains from being on “The Truman Show”.
In 1998, this was unique to the world of The Truman Show, and those unfortunate enough to be fooled in a romance or friendship scam. In 2018’s online world, it is so common we have a new word, a documentary, and television series about it.
Everyone in Truman’s life has a public persona as curated and false as the average Instagram feed, but the similarities don’t end there: both Marlon and Meryl push products that they pretend to enjoy at the behest of the producers. They become living, breathing adverts for products.
In 1998 this was a joke about product placement (and still is), but in 2018 this behaviour is indistinguishable from that of a social media influencer. People paid by companies to use their products and share positive posts and videos about them. Living, breathing adverts, using their audience’s affection and trust to profit from their performed authenticity.
Marlon and Meryl are not only catfish, but also influencers: Meryl extolling the wonders of kitchen utensils and hot chocolate drinks; Marlon of beer.
However, in this case Truman isn’t the intended audience, the audience watching “The Truman Show” are. With social media influencers this distinction isn’t as clear. We aren’t just their audience, we are their “friends” and “followers”, encouraged to connect with them. It’s as if the Marlons and Meryls of our lives were pushing those products on us, Truman, not the audience.
Hannah’s, Louis’s, and other influencer’s real feelings are irrelevant because their public and private selves are separate (they’re just actors), even as that distinction is deliberately blurred. Many of us are now aware of that, but still it is just as painful to discover we have been lied to.
The third malevolent element of social media that The Truman Show warned us about was profiling, achieved in the digital age through constant surveillance and the retention and analysis of data.
Truman is watched and recorded everywhere he goes, and this is used to build up information about his patterns and behaviour, which are then used to provide him with a version of things he wants. But this is only a way to keep him content in Seahaven, not to truly make him happy. The producers give him Meryl, when really he wants Lauren (really Sylvia, played by Natasha McElhone). They give him the return of his father, when really he wants to escape.
This is no different to how digital companies give us another post/video/feature to keep us satisfied but still inside the system, when what we really want is to turn off our phone or delete our account completely. It’s nothing but temporary placation to distract from underlying unease. In 2018, we’ve all become Truman, contained in our digital Seahaven.
By presenting a false world, designed to give the illusion of genuine human connection, but really designed to make a profit for those in charge, The Truman Show warned us about the dangers of social media before it was even invented. So what does the film say we should do about these malevolent forces?
At the end of the film, as Truman is on the verge of leaving, Christof offers him a deal: stay in the safe world of Seahaven where he will be a star and he will always be content, and in return all he will have to consent to is being watched every moment of his life. These are Christof’s terms and conditions, if you will.
He tells Truman that he already knows he will accept them because he knows him better than anyone else. Why does he make this claim? Because he has been watching him his entire life. Profiling him. To which Truman replies,
“You never had a camera in my head.”
The same way we reject Facebook’s claims to understand our emotions when it chooses to remind us of a tragic event from seven years ago; Google’s claims to understand our interests when it recommends a restaurant we have already tried and hated; and Amazon’s claims to understand what we want left in our neighbours’ bin.
And this is because Truman also has a private self that is distinct from his public self. Like us all he presents one version of himself through his social interaction, in his case a carefully performed cheerfulness, whilst masking his private self, in his case a pervading unhappiness. This is perhaps the element of real-world social interaction that has been most magnified by transferring it online.
Separation of the public and private self is not just something that is done to us by catfish and influencers, it is also something we, like Truman, do ourselves. Just as my profile here on Medium describes me as an independent author (which I am) but ignores the other job I do to pay my rent.
But there is a key difference between Truman and us: Truman didn’t know he was being filmed, didn’t know his friends and family were lying, didn’t know his entire world was built and controlled by powerful men whose interests may start as altruistic or simply naive, but are ultimately egotistical.
But we know.
Unlike Truman, we’ve chosen to broadcast our lives. There’s a cynical part of me that wonders if most of us wouldn’t be thrilled to discover we were the star of our own reality TV show. Keeping Up With the Burbanks.
Unlike Truman we’ve heard Christof’s offer and accepted it. We’ve become adept at presenting a public self that is distinct from our private self, and yet many of us still fail to recognise that distinction in others.
We still get fooled, betrayed, and hurt online.
The Truman Show tried to warn us 20 years ago.
We didn’t listen.