The impulse to see oneself as the focal point of the action is all the more powerful as we emerge from the dull isolation of the past year and a half.
The impulse to see oneself as the focal point of the action is all the more powerful as we emerge from the dull isolation of the past year and a half.Photograph by Kathrin Ziegler / Getty
Last winter, Britta Grace Thorpe was in bed at her parents’ home, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in the depths of a late-night TikTok binge, when one video broke the reverie. Soft harp sounds played, and then a female voice began a gentle but insistent monologue: “You have to start romanticizing your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. ’Cause if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by.” Onscreen, an overhead shot showed a young blond woman sprawled on a blanket on the beach, looking up at the camera, surrounded by friends who are oblivious to the lens. Sparkles from a TikTok filter bedazzle the footage. The woman gazes serenely skyward, as if wholly satisfied with her life.
The ethereal video played the same role for Thorpe that an antique sculpture did for Rainer Maria Rilke in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: It instructed, “You must change your life.” “It was a wake-up call,” Thorpe, who is twenty-three, said, adding, “Everything made sense in that moment, and I was, like, Wow, I’m doing it wrong, I’m living my life incorrectly.” In the midst of the pandemic, she decided to move out of her parents’ house and quit her full-time job at a marketing agency. Now living in Philadelphia, in a stylish pastel-colored loft, she works part time as a social-media manager for a sunglasses company and the rest of the time as an influencer. On Instagram, where her bio is “CEO of #maincharacterenergy,” her account is primarily self-portraits: on the beach at sunset, shopping downtown, posing in front of a mirror. A trim figure with long, blond-highlighted hair who is often clad in athleisurewear, she is almost always in the center of the frame. “I make a pretty great main character,” Thorpe told me.
Over the past year, on the strength of that one TikTok video, which has more than three million views, the “main character” archetype has become part of Internet vocabulary, a sort of social-media update to the “Type A” personality. It describes any situation in which a person is making herself the center of attention, the crux of a particular narrative, as if cameras were trained on her and her alone. The term can be used appreciatively, acknowledging a form of self-care—putting yourself first—or as an accusation, a calling out of narcissism: a person dressing too extravagantly for a casual event, for example, is trying to be the main character. Main-character moments are those in which you feel ineffably in charge, as if the world were there for your personal satisfaction. As a TikToker put it recently, “Why does only buying the groceries I need for 2-3 days make me feel like the main character in an Italian summer memoir[?]” In the video, a woman carries a tote bag full of basil down a sunlit sidewalk, to a soundtrack from the lambent Italian-summer film “Call Me By Your Name.” “TikTok and social media has made it more attainable for you to write your own story,” Yasmine Sahid, a twenty-four-year-old actor and TikTok creator who began making her own main-character videos last August, told me. “You can kind of cast yourself in these mini-movies.”
The impulse to see oneself as the focal point of the action is all the more powerful as we emerge from the dull isolation of the pandemic, when activities were limited to the likes of re-growing scallions and feeding bulbous sourdough starters. Post-COVID, we want to reclaim control of our stories, exert ourselves upon the world, take our places as protagonists once more—and then post about it. During quarantine, the Internet was one of the few tethers to public connection. But publishing evidence of any social engagements, even C.D.C.-compliant ones, came with the risk of being shamed as reckless or self-indulgent. Now, suddenly, much of that fear of critique is gone. The “return of FOMO,” as a recent New York cover described it, means the return of jealousy-inducing Instagram stories and glamorous TikToks.
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“People are finally posting that they’re on vacation,” Kaitlin Phillips, a Manhattan publicist who was unshy about her own active pandemic social life, told me. “They’re going back to being a bit more honest, less self-consciously paranoid.” In recent weeks, the mood on my social-media feeds has indeed been manic, a barrage of parties, picnics, excursions, and other tableaux that resemble stills from summer-themed romantic comedies. The sense of freedom is dizzying. We are all cultivating main-character energy now. “Social media has never been better,” Thorpe said. “Everything’s so up in the air, why not just try it all? It’s helping everyone find their own main-character moment.”
Main-character moments are composed with an audience in mind; they’re vicarious spectacles. Thorpe offered examples like “listening to music and just dancing and not caring what people think” and “running down the street in the city and everyone’s looking at you,” a little bit like the protagonist in “Frances Ha.” (If not everyone is looking, then how can you be the main character?) But Thorpe insists that making oneself the center of the scene doesn’t mean discounting the experiences of everyone else. “You can coexist with other people who are also having their main-character moments,” she said. Newly thrown back together in public, we can assist one another as mutual supporting characters in our fantasies of being the leads.
The monologue that inspired Thorpe last winter was the work of Ashley Ward, a twenty-six-year-old associate director working in television. Only one video of hers had previously been popular with TikTok’s algorithmic feed, and it showed her accidentally getting hit in the face with a football (an unfortunate form of main-character energy). Ward told me that she made her beach video, in May of 2020, seeking “inspiration for myself,” a private quarantine morale boost. “Main character” already had a small footprint as a meme: in one popular satirical video posted two weeks before Ward’s, a user whose handle is @lexapro_lesbian declared herself the main character of her neighborhood. But Ward’s earnest take brought the phrase a new level of attention. Her reference point was “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” she said: “In that movie, he took advantage of living his life to the fullest. That’s what I had in mind.” Ward composed the voice-over from optimistic aphorisms she’d been writing in the Notes app of her phone. Then she brought a new drone camera to a COVID-safe gathering with friends at a chilly, rock-strewn beach on the Long Island Sound. She did multiple takes; the rest of the group, chattering away around Ward, had to pretend not to notice the device flying overhead.
Since she posted it, a year ago, tens of thousands of other TikTok users borrowed Ward’s monologue for their own main-character videos. In 2021, her voice has soundtracked nostalgic montages of raucous drinks with friends, a spin on a hotel luggage cart, mermaid cosplay. Out of Ward’s main-character moment, countless others were born. But Ward came to feel disconnected from her own mantra. For a few months after her viral hit, she tried to ride the momentum and become a successful creator on the platform, making new videos constantly—influencers have to be main characters around the clock. Then her posts tapered off. After getting vaccinated, Ward travelled to a friend’s wedding in North Carolina; she’s now on vacation in Miami. But those episodes aren’t well documented on her TikTok or Instagram. “It just wasn’t fun anymore; there was a lot of pressure,” Ward said. “I don’t want the need for content to overshadow the actual experience.” Post-pandemic revellers, take note: capturing a main-character moment might be antithetical to living it.