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3rd Person

December 06, 2012


(Movie stars and muppets are guilty of the same psychotic tic)

© David Astle

Julius Caesar and George Costanza regularly indulged in the habit. So too Sandra Bullock and Dame Joan Sutherland. Jamie Oliver is incurable, Tom Cruise is manic and Cathy Freeman suffered the syndrome before a big race. Even Hannah, my two-year-old niece is getting in on the act but there I blame Elmo.

No, not bed-wetting but a trend no less alarming. I’m speaking of the trend among celebs and Muppets of referring to themselves in the third person. “Donald Trump doesn’t tolerate quitters,” says Donald Trump. Or “Elmo likes Jell-o,” sings Elmo. Perhaps, like bed-wetting, this verbal tic is designed to give the culprit an enveloping sense of warmth. Or maybe there’s something more sinister – and more egocentric – at play.

“If you live in the public domain,” says Melbourne psychologist Joe Bolza, “you are a virtual brand name, a marketing focus. This makes you already larger than your own life. You will read about yourself constantly in the third person, see endless reflections of your own image. Add a certain amount of your own grandiosity and how could you be a mere ‘I’ or ‘me’?”

David Astle tends to agree. And so does Chubby Checker. The King of Twist waltzed into Sydney last year, pushing a line of snack food with his name and image on the box. (Just like the George Foreman Grill or Ian Thorpe’s boxers.) But Chubby went one step further, declaring, “Before Chubby Checker there was no dancing apart to the beat.”

Hubris? No doubt. Delusion? More than likely. Yet the key piece of evidence for the defence, arguing against their client’s rampant ego, is the fact that Chubby Checker isn’t actually Chubby Checker. The performer’s real name is Ernest Evans, which doesn’t pack half the mojo.

So who’s citing whom in this twisted example? Is Chubby the brand and Ernest the CEO? Or has Mr Checker, the original twister, got Mr Evans by the short and curlies?

The further you wander down the red carpet, antennae tuned to the speech patterns of the rich and watched, the loopier the picture gets. Poised by one mike is Will Smith talking about the “Big Willy Style” or what he describes as “the Will-Smith-way”. Teeth radiant by microphone two, Sandra Bullock gushes about the fun “Sandy” had as Miss Congeniality. Sandy, wake up. Will! You’re in public now – speaking aloud. People are listening to you.

In 2001 Kylie Minogue did a spot on British telly for the high-speed train service, Eurostar. During the ad the girl-next-door speaks of vanishing regularly to Paris until such time as “it’s time to be Kylie again”. So who’s doing the vanishing here? Is it Kylie – or Kylie – speaking? Are we listening to the person or the personality?

“Society,” says Professor Kate Burridge from the Monash School of Languages, “is more and more centred on the individual. Lots of words – such as personality – reflect that trend by shifting their meaning. Once personality meant pertaining to the person and now means a media star.” In the same vein celebrity, once defined as a solemn religious ceremony, is now a glamourpuss in serious need of a grammar lesson.

“He’s non-stop,” says director Baz Luhrmann, referring to a certain director named Baz Luhrmann. “I like to know that Barrie Kosky is permeating the work,” says an opera director by the same name. Hostage, says Bruce Willis, “is out of the realm of a typical Bruce Willis film.”

Before committing all three men to cognitive therapy, let’s examine these last quotes. True, each sound-grab resounds with third-person mania, yet they also seem to register a separate intent.

Baz (real name Mark) falls comfortably into the Chubby basket. Here we have a man, born on a petrol station inland from Taree, who isn’t Mark anymore – though inside he is and always will be. When Baz Luhrmann describes Baz Luhrmann as non-stop, he’s highlighting the sequined hat he wears – the Baz hat – just as Checker signals his own phenomenon and the name linked to it.

Clinical psychologist Kaye Frankcom, a specialist in anxiety disorders, deems the habit not unhealthy. “The tendency to talk about yourself in the third person is a distancing technique. It also allows you to separate your sense of self from a role you may take on.” The trend, she believes, may well be a means of keeping so many famous feet on the ground.

“The persona of Halle Berry, say, is bigger than the reality of the person,” says Frankcom. “Her persona has been constructed by a whole lot of ideas about her – through fans, through media. Stage names and [third-person tactics] are ways to say, ‘This is not the real me.’ The real me gets up in the middle of the night to change nappies or worries about their fat bum. That’s the real me. The other me is a constructed identity.”

A sub-category of this big-talking fad is attaching oneself to a distinctive style (see the Barrie Kosky grab) or brand (Bruce Willis). Rappers sprinkle songs with their own street-names like graffiti artsts squiggle tags – a watermark to own the art, a signature. Bathed in limelight your name becomes a label.

Elle Macpherson is not just a model but a lingerie line. Hoop star Shaquille O’Neal is a shoe. Richard Gere movies (silver-haired romances) contrast to the Ben Stiller genre (geek comedies) and so on. On the A-list, it’s not just who you are but what your name represents.

And not just A-, but B- down to Z-list. All of God’s people (God being the original He-hath-spoken offender, as cited in Genesis 18:19 and onwards through the Red Sea) can lapse into third-person. These days, even more so, with our names the keys to fire up search engines. We speak them on voicemail. We suffix them with com or net or org, and put them forward as domains.

Should I tap your name on the corporate profile, your own mini-bio (possibly written by you – in third person) will pop up. When you go on holiday, your name becomes an auto-reply. Rife among our own kind, the mania can be safely raised to the power of 10 among the glitterati, those whose names are calling cards, passwords, endorsements and autographs.

Before Adam was christened, names have long exerted magic. As soon as Isis, the principal goddess of Egypt, scammed the sun-god Ra into revealing his name, the sun’s powers became hers to wield. The fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin revolves around the idea of a name laying claim to the dwarf’s inner being. Several languages among ancient cultures grammatically distinguish between that which is transferable (spears, bags) and that which is absolutely yours (hand, shadow, name).

In our own idiom, if you’re a name, you’ve made it. Likewise, if your integrity is put into doubt, it’s your name that’s dragged through mud. In 1993, when Lorena Bobbitt performed vengeful surgery on her hubby, their name became a verb. We all know if the mud sticks, your name is mud. In pre-school politics, the earliest forms of insults are often variations of the target’s name. In adult conversation, should a speaker duff your name – misremembering or mispronouncing – the slight feels more than slight.

Camcorders and digicams must carry a share of the psychic burden. Replays and memory sticks are giving us scope to stand beyond ourselves, just as genuine movie stars are hyper-aware of what figure they cut on-screen. On Big Brother 5, an inmate named Simon has branded himself “Hotdogs”, and refers to himself by the same naff tag as though he’s already left the house.

Such “splitting” lies at the heart of George Costanza’s spiel in a late-season episode of Seinfeld. “Right now I have Relationship George,” says George, speaking to Jerry, “but there is also Independent George. That’s the George you grew up with – Movie George, Coffeeshop George, Liar George, Bawdy George”¦”

In clinical-ese, the rave is known as “externalisation”, a method favoured in narrative therapy. “In the past,” explains Kaye Frankcom, “we tended to see that the problem lies within the person and we need to perform some kind of psychic surgery to extract the depression, or anxiety, and everything will be well.

“Now we tend to talk to people in a way that’s more empowering. We see them as being able to separate themselves from some of these labels and experiences and decide what sense of self they want to have.”

Dealing with his own anxiety in 1997, batsman Mark Taylor frequently avoided the upright pronoun, or I. “Mark Taylor was one our best batsmen last summer,” he said to the press hordes mid-slump. “If this season is Mark Taylor’s turn to miss out, so be it.” The irony here boils down to ownership: in order to “duck” responsibility, the survivalist will invoke his own name, an alternative form of self one smidgen removed from the damning “me”. Politicians plump for “one”, another weasel-word for I. Employees of pathological bosses – you’ve been warned.

Yet none of this accounts for Hannah last weekend. My niece fell from a jungle gym, one of those plastic castles that clutter a garden. She wasn’t hurt too badly, at least no bone was showing, but the tears were magnificent. She ran into the house saying “Hannah falled down, Hannah falled down.” Ever a pedant I resisted the urge to correct her irregular verb, not to mention the third-person booboo, when Kaye knelt down, my sister-in-law, and cooed. “Aw sweetie, there, there. Come here to Mummy.”

[Sunday Life, July 2005]

This Month's Winner

Well done to Sam for his Emmy makeover in our latest Storm, turning Best Actresses into the best wordplay, and winning a copy of Superstar Crosswords.



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Bendigo Blathering


Rug up, roll up. This week I’m chatting at two Bendigo sessions – crosswords on Sat (9/8) & grammar on Sun (10/8). Go here for passes and more info. Breeze by.

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