Slinger longingly out of a window watching the sunset over the New York skyline, or sitting on a balcony while Summertime Sadness by Lana Del Rey plays softly in the background. These are just a few examples of a TikTok trend that sees young people perform scenarios and imagine themselves as a protagonist or “protagonist”
With more than 5.2 billion views of the app’s #maincharacter hashtag, psychologists say the trend has increased because lockdown and the feelings of isolation that come with it have created a loophole once connected by social connection.
Social media users now even claim to be inflicted with what they call “protagonists’ syndrome” (not an official medical term), where the symptoms are that a person’s every action “fits into a narrative” as if it were written.
For Eddie Brummelman, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in child development, the recent prominent role in the protagonist’s trend can be seen as a natural consequence of the past year. “We know that the pandemic has made people feel nostalgic, lonely and helpless, especially young people, because they have been deprived of so many important parts of their lives, especially social parts,” he says.
“Creating a story around you can be a way to fill this gap or remove the lonely feeling. Imagining yourself as a main character gives you not only a sense of freedom taken away due to the pandemic, but also this sense of other people watching you or caring about what happens to your story . ”
Olivia Yallop, author of the book Break the Internet and director of the youth-focused marketing agency Digital Fairy, says the trend is a “means to reposition and recontextualize your identity to feel more empowered and become the center of your own story.”
She says, “Becoming your own protagonist speaks to the way younger generations self-narrate, especially given the tools at their disposal: a front-facing camera.”
She adds that the intertwining of the concept with the protagonist is “eternal self-monitoring – ‘everyone always looks at me and I always look at myself to look at myself’. Protagonists cannot exist without an audience.” Yallop observing social tendencies such as part of his work, does not think that the timing of this trend that occurs is random. “It is interesting that the main character bursts into a moment where so many are isolated and want social connection,” she says.
The idea that young people feel that they are performing or creating a narrative about their lives in front of an audience is not a new concept or one inextricably linked to social media. David Elkind, a child psychologist, coined the term “imaginary audience” in the 1960s, which he used to claim that young people who experience the concept feel as if their actions are the primary focus of others’ attention.
Seeing yourself as a protagonist may at first glance be dismissed as a product of unhealthy individualism, but some have argued that there are benefits. According to Michael Karson, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, it’s something positive to see yourself as the protagonist of your life, as it can result in being “more likely to place energy in actions that can make your life go well”.
“While you think of yourself as unimportant, even in your own life, you are more likely to take a passive approach to what you can do to make things better,” he says. But central to Karson’s view is that the goal is to be “the protagonist of your own life, but not the protagonist of everyone else’s life.” “The other extreme is when you think you’re the only person who matters,” Karson says.
Although the trend has become popular recently, Yallop says she is wary of suggesting that #maincharacter is anything new. “It’s a development of past internet iterations of self-confidence through digital documentation,” she says. “Like any viral tendency, the protagonist mythology has since collapsed in itself: it went viral, then became a meme, and was then recovered from that meme. I’m sure the feeling will quickly develop into something else. ”