“The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” Erving Goffmann

 “The Presentation of self in Everyday Life”
Erving Goffmann

I picked up this book from the library in relation to my final assignment – The Constructed Image. I read with interest the way Goffmann uses the metaphor of theatrical performance to explain how people present themselves in society. He claims that if we really want to understand people, we would need to ‘get backstage’ with them, because we only get to see others true feelings when they stop performing ‘front stage’. This implies that as ‘performers’ in society we can choose our stage (our social setting and surroundings) and our props (clothing, possessions, pastimes, etc) to give the performance that we want. Goffmann compares backstage as being the place where we choose our props, think how we want to be perceived by others and plan our performance to suit the situation. The front stage is where we carry out our performance.

If we put on these performances to give off impressions about ourselves and perhaps control what other people think of us, therefore we must judge others by where and how they carry their performances and the props they use. Mostly we plot our ‘act’ although there are times when we have to act on the spur of the moment – to impress, declare our status or to defend our role maybe. Is this improvisation also a performance? In Camera Lucida Barthes offers this; ‘In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares).’  What Barthes is suggesting here is that, in his experience, photographic portraits often lack authenticity and become a play act,  a masquerade.

This made me think more deeply about what I am really conveying in my assignment with the cut-out doll clothes. Children and teens observe, follow and copy others from an early age. They are often uncertain of the kind of person they want to be, but (teens in particular) also are keen to be part of the ‘play’, they want to fit in and be accepted. Do they put on an act in the hope that the audience will react favourably? Depending on what they want to be, or who they think they are, it is easy to fall into stereotype or be driven by social media/advertising, peer pressure etc. That said, we all have a choice in adulthood and if we wish, we can choose to stand out from the crowd.

Barthes, R. (2000). Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography. Vintage Classics. Penguin, Random House. London.
Goffmann, E. (1990). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New Ed. Penguin. England.