The age of ostentatiously self-aware celebrity reached a new zenith this week. In a 24-hour period, James Franco published a short story about a fictional “James Franco” not having sex with “Lindsay Lohan”; Nicolas Cage wore a T-shirt with his own face on it; and Brad Pitt wore a T-shirt with an apparent doodle of him and Angelina on it. Franco, too, has worn his share of T-shirts screen-printed with his own face. So have Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Paris Hilton, and Bill Cosby. Last month, after Ryan Gosling wore a T-shirt with Macaulay Culkin on it, Culkin wore a T-shirt printed with the picture of Gosling wearing the T-shirt printed with Culkin’s image. Then Culkin photographed himself and uploaded that picture to Instagram. It was the Inception of selfies.
In some cases, onlookers reacted with glee — it’s fun when celebrities are “in on the joke,” and when they make meta-jokes about memes normal people create, it’s like they’re winking right at us, sharing an inside joke. We hope they’re nodding at the fundamental ridiculousness of fame, the implied narcissism of their professions, and the widely accepted social fiction that entire individuals can be summarized and sold as “brands” — even when perhaps they’re just being narcissists. (It seems unlikely that Paris Hilton thought all this through when she threw on a T-shirt with a Warhol-style print of her face, but who knows?) Nevertheless, these are, I think, among the unspoken thoughts that flickered through the back of onlookers’ minds in the split second before they LOLed at Nicolas Cage’s T-shirt, or favorited Macaulay Culkin’s selfie.
But here’s another theory about celebrities in self-identifying T-shirts. Let us start with a premise I call the Theory of Ontology of T-Shirts (TOOOTS). TOOOTS holds that a T-shirt printed with words or images confers upon its wearers the essence of those words or images. When you wear a Batman logo T-shirt, and all day long everyone shouts “Batman!” at you, you cannot help but assimilate Batman into your self-concept for the duration of your time wearing that shirt. You have associated yourself with Batman. You may even begin to respond to “Batman!” as though it is your name, until you take the shirt off at the end of the day. Thus, graphic T-shirts subtly alter our identities. The self and its signifiers become one with the stupid shit printed on your overpriced T-shirt.
“I was in a weird mood, and I don’t know what came over me, but I bought this weird thing,” a college boyfriend I will call Thomas said to me. As he leaned into the closet to retrieve the mystery purchase, I steeled myself for the worst. (Matching hats? Depraved sex toy?) When he emerged, he was wearing a sweatshirt that said THOMAS in block letters. He was the visual equivalent of a newly verbal toddler who continually announces his own name, an effect I found hysterical. Every time Thomas wore the THOMAS sweatshirt, I would laugh nonstop until he took it off. But the THOMAS sweatshirt caused problems beyond girlfriend hysteria, too. When Thomas wore it to class, he discovered that there was absolutely no way to avoid getting called on when your name is printed in giant letters on your chest. To look at Thomas in that sweatshirt was to identify him, and to be invited to say his name.
Celebrities’ faces are the equivalent of Thomas’s THOMAS sweatshirt. Since strangers are constantly looking at their faces and then shouting their names, why not double down and wear their faces on their chests, too? It’s funny because it’s a recursion of fame. Fame, reflected in a thousand mirrors. Fame, broadcast in a Twitter picture, then shared hundreds of thousands of times, copied and pasted on dozens of news websites and blogs.
As Shakespeare surely would have noted, had screen-printing come to Stratford-upon-Avon a little sooner: All the world’s an Urban Outfitters, and the celebrities are merely ironic T-shirts.