YouTuber Colleen Ballinger’s malaprop-mad persona, Miranda Sings, has a lot of “suscribers” pretty “essited” by her cat sweaters, garish lips and blaring songs. As Miranda, Ballinger burpily parodies everybody from illiterate online commenters to basic girls to inspirational speakers to do-it-yourselfers to inept webcammers. Next month, Miranda will be sharing her wisdom in a book appropriately titled Selp-Helf.
Most of the time, Miranda’s parody misses me by a long shot. As a middle-aged dad trying to keep up with middle-school Miranda fans, I am clearly neither the object of Ballinger’s critique nor a member of her target audience. Still, she does have one message that, in a roundabout way, applies to me: Haters, back off! This particular video makes me cringe, although not for the reasons Miranda intends. Instead, it diagnoses a contempt I am loath to own up to - a contempt I have for myself, born of my own online habits. To back off that hating would require backing off the digital Narcissus I have become.
Narcissus, of course, was the lad who, in the old tale, fell in love with his own image in a pool of water. The weird result of such self-love, though - as any good psychotherapist will tell you - is self-contempt. Further, as Christopher Lasch’s classic account of narcissism explains, the world’s Mirandas cannot distinguish between the self and the other. Hence, the competitive obsequiousness contorting her face as she fills her webcam to the exclusion of her guests. Hence, her ambivalence about online comments, the worst of which she attributes to jealousy. (What else could they be, given her sheer wonderfulness?) Hence, too, her quick oscillation between a sideways cheerfulness and agonized crying. Ballinger’s videos are selfie sticks, capturing Miranda’s narcissism, and ours.
Ballinger’s videos are selfie sticks, capturing Miranda’s narcissism, and ours.
I usually start to feel implicated in Miranda’s messaging when it goes on too long, when I’m staring at her huge, distended lips, thinking, “OK, OK, OK.” She is the queen of the painfully elongated gag. Take the moment in this cooking video when her crudely painted self-portraits fall off the counter onto her. It’s funny at first, because the canvases look too light to immobilize her. But as she continues sobbingly pressed down by her own images, my laughter slows, my discomfort mounts. Self-adoration has turned on the self-adored. Staring at her grimacing, her eyebrows all a-waggle, I gradually experience it as a pathetic stand-in for my own face - wriggling, contorting, trying for composure, finding only artifice.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued that the face of the other confronts us with infinite ethical obligation. Even though Miranda would garble that phrase as “ifinit ogiblation,” she evokes that responsibility nonetheless by making our selfie-loving, self-hating faces strange to us. What could be more basic - in the traditional, non-Starbucksy sense of that word - than the ethical obligation to see, to actually see, the strangers our very selves have become? Doesn’t Miranda compel us to look, and then look again, on the face of what Jesus called "the least of these” awash in Narcissus’ pool?
Still, Ballinger’s parody raises the question of whether self-care is enough to propel us into neighbor care. For that propulsion, we need an ethics of the face informed not by YouTube, but by the New Testament, which is another way of saying that we need more than a startled recognition of the self as the other. We also need a shared renovation of the self and the other as “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”