Show Hide image

The reputation game: how to control the way we appear in the eyes of others

From Harvey Weinstein to Taylor Swift, celebrities have become their own PR agents – and we are following their lead.

In Reputation, translated into English by Stephen Holmes and Noga Arikha, the Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi writes that we all have “two egos, two selves”. There is the physical and mental sensation of being you. Then there is the version of you that exists in the social world – a hazy, shifting, warped image of the real thing.

This is your reputation. It is you, because it derives from your actions, and also not you, because it is composed of other people’s opinions. It is a portrait of you that you didn’t commission and don’t own. Origgi is interested in the power that this second self exerts over the first. A person’s reputation can push him towards certain decisions instead of others. It can make him feel pride or shame. It can open doors or slam them shut.

“We think we know someone, but the truth is that we only know the version of them that they have chosen to show us,” writes Taylor Swift in the essay that accompanies her new album, Reputation. In reality, we know the version that other people have shown us. As Swift knows only too well, a person’s image is never wholly under her control. Our reputations are always filtered through the sentiments, prejudices and interests of others, which in turn influences how we see ourselves. In 1902, the American sociologist Charles Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how we regard ourselves through the eyes of others. The looking glass is a distorting mirror.

Today, everyone’s second self is encoded in contrails of data: pictures, ratings, clicks, tweets, searches and purchases. Corporations and governments rake over this information and fix us in it: we are subjected to the scrutiny applied to celebrities but without the fame or the free stuff. In one possible future, everyone will be ranked like hotels on TripAdvisor. In one possible present, in fact: the Chinese government is implementing a scheme that will give each of its 1.4 billion citizens a score for trustworthiness, with the stated aim of building a culture of “sincerity”.

In the West, even without the intervention of the state, we have created a system in which everyone can be held accountable to their public image. As Swift writes, hers is the first generation with the responsibility of “[curating] what strangers think of us”.

Since nobody can opt out of having a reputation, we have to learn how to manage it. In other words, we need to become our own PR agents. The Reputation Game is written by two people from the PR business, David Waller and Rupert Younger. They introduce a useful distinction between two types of reputation: capability and character. The first refers to competence in a specific task, such as cooking a meal, providing mortgages, or making aircraft engines. The second refers to moral or social qualities. Someone can have a great reputation for competence, while at the same time being regarded as slippery or unpleasant. Uber is good at what it does, but you wouldn’t invite it home to meet your mother.

Capability reputations are sticky: they take a long time to wash away. An author who writes great novels early in his career can produce many mediocre ones before people start to question if he is any good (naming no names, Salman Rushdie). Character reputations are more flammable, especially in a world where social media can instantly detonate bad news. A strong reputation for competence defends you against character problems, but only for so long, as Uber is finding out. When your character reputation is destroyed, competence becomes immaterial.


I’m Harvey Weinstein,” he used to tell people. “You know what I can do.” The news about Weinstein broke after these books went to print, but both have something to say about it. Weinstein had a powerful capability reputation that protected a sullied but serviceable character reputation. Actually, he had two capability reputations. As well as being someone able to get artistically ambitious movies made, he was perceived, in Hollywood, to be capable of destroying anyone who crossed him. This latter reputation stopped women talking and journalists publishing. It acted as his flood barrier. Only when his reputation as a successful movie maker went into decline did the dam break.

Reputation is a second-order phenomenon. It is not constituted merely by what people know about the person or entity concerned but by what people know about what other people know. As Origgi puts it, “Reputations are maintained by a circulation of true or false opinions about opinions.” Before his defences collapsed, Weinstein’s monstrosity was hinted at in magazine profiles, joked about in the comedy series 30 Rock and flagged up by Courtney Love. In the aftermath of his fall, Hollywood insiders spoke about how his behaviour was an open secret. “Every­body knew” became the new “Nobody knows anything” (the screenwriter William Goldman’s often-quoted axiom about the movie industry). But until everybody knew that everybody knew, Weinstein was safe.

In a psychology experiment conducted in 1968, people were asked to fill out a questionnaire while waiting for the experimenter to return. As they did so, smoke was pumped into the room. When participants were working alone, they reacted or reported the smoke almost immediately. When they were in groups, they were slower to act, waiting even to the point at which they were choking, because nobody wanted to be the one seen to be panicking unnecessarily. They took surreptitious glances at the others, and when they saw them not reacting, they didn’t react either. The function of a fire alarm, then, is not just to let everyone know there is a fire – it is to let everyone know that everyone knows.

In the case of Weinstein, the New York Times and the New Yorker sounded the alarm – or rather, they amplified an alarm sounded by the women who agreed to go on the record. Suddenly, everyone acknowledged the fire. But there was already plenty of smoke, circulated by his many victims in preceding years. Waller and Younger note the role that gossip plays in keeping reputations in check. It “helps flush out the boss who is lazy, the head teacher who is a bully or the colleague who is untrustworthy”. This is true, but bullies, idlers and cheats don’t get flushed out until the gossip is publicly validated.

Reputations are made up of opinions, but some opinions count more than others. As Origgi writes, reputation has formal and informal ingredients. The first category includes official qualifications, institutional imprimaturs and endorsements from the powerful. In any system, there are gatekeepers with the power to raise up or pull down reputations; to admit or exclude individuals from the circles of the capable or good. Weinstein’s iron grip on the machine of validation was what enabled him to get away with his behaviour for so long. He was assisted by the heads of Hollywood studios and talent agencies, who are mostly male. The word “valid” is rooted in power: it derives from the Latin word validus, which means potency. Men are the validators.

Then there are the informal ingredients of reputation: rumour, innuendo and gossip, all of them are disreputable. As Origgi puts it, “Informal reputations have a terrible reputation.” When Theresa May launched her leadership campaign in 2016, she said, “I don’t gossip about people over lunch,” and we all understood. Gossiping is a sign of low character. To refrain from it indicates probity, to ignore it is good judgement.

But I don’t trust people who don’t gossip. There is something cold and bloodless about them, and I have always felt as if they are hiding something, from others or from themselves. I think Origgi is probably right when she suggests that the disdain for rumour and gossip conceals “a drive for authoritarian control”. Formal reputations can be established by a few individuals at the top of a hierarchy. Gossip is egalitarian and subversive.

While Weinstein maintained his power over the media, what kept the story of his abuses alive was women talking to women, in whisper networks, text messages and WhatsApp groups. Gossip is conventionally characterised as feminine. While this is partly a result of the male horror of intimate conversation, it’s also because, for centuries, it has been a weapon deployed by women in an asymmetrical battle with adversaries in possession of all the heavy artillery. Gossip is dangerous because it is unaccountable, but it is what you resort to when you do not have a seat at the tribunals at which reputations are made or broken. It is the smoke you pump into a room when nobody will let you in.


Of the two books, Reputation is the funnier and the more serious. Origgi is ravenous for insights whatever their provenance, and her book is a giddy blend of cross-disciplinary perspectives. Reputation can be recondite – it includes sentences such as: “Thus, just as ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny, so ontology does not recapitulate philology.” (I mean, duh.) But it mixes crunchy intellectual provocations with literary allusions, catty takes on academic life and some juicy riffs, including one on why Origgi’s highly educated friends invest magical powers in certain doctors. There is even an author selfie, taken with a slightly uneasy looking Tim Berners-Lee.

The Reputation Game, which is aimed at a business audience, is a more sober affair.
David Waller was a journalist for the Financial Times and is now a management consultant. Rupert Younger was the co-founder of Finsbury, a successful PR firm, expensively acquired by the advertising group WPP in 2001, and he went on to found the University of Oxford’s Centre for Corporate Reputation. Younger is described in the book as a “leading academic” who is “a member of the senior common rooms” at two Oxford Colleges. I confess I don’t know what that means – free biscuits? – but it sounds impressive, which tells us something about the reputation game.

Waller and Younger are nothing if not well connected, and they interviewed a vast array of eminences, including Reid Hoffman (the co-founder of LinkedIn), the novelist Hilary Mantel, the rapper Jay-Z
and, rather inexplicably, the disgraced stockbroker Bernie Madoff. These conversations yield almost no memorable quotations whatsoever – but then, successful or prominent people do not automatically make good interviewees. Quite the opposite: their reputation, or their institution’s reputation, imposes tight constraints on what they can or cannot say, and they are usually too well practised in public speech to say anything interesting.

The story of how the authors secured an interview with Madoff is at least amusing. They write to him, care of the Butner Federal Correctional Institution in North Carolina, asking if he will correspond via email. He agrees on the condition that they send $200 to cover some mysterious “costs of correspondence”. The authors agree. Madoff asks them to wire the money to a PO box in Des Moines, Iowa. They do so, but don’t hear anything back, so they write asking if he received the funds. He tells them that he hasn’t, gives them a new address and asks them to try again. They send another $200 and wait. Again, nothing. They chase it up. “I am at a complete loss,” Madoff replies. So they send more money, this time by a different route. Only then does Madoff confirm that he has received the funds.

He then proceeds to relate, in his emails, what he calls “my tragic history”: a version of events in which he emerges, miraculously, as the wronged party, beset by aggressive investors and trapped by the vagaries of financial markets. Bewilderingly, the authors appear to take Madoff at his word and invite the reader to feel sympathy for him. Their naivety is hard to explain, except, perhaps, by the deep-rooted instinct of PR professionals to paint clients in the best possible light. The Madoff chapter closes with the words, “After many years of success, he has lost the reputation game.” Isn’t life cruel?

Maybe there is a contrarian reading of the Madoff story that accords with his version of it, but to make that case, one would need, at the very least, to interview the victims of his former reputation: the many investors, not all of them rich, whom he first deceived and then deprived of their money in order to enrich himself. Waller and Younger interview only one other person on the subject. He does confirm Madoff’s account – but then, he is Madoff’s attorney. A reluctance to make character judgements is also evident in Waller’s and Younger’s discussion of Russian oligarchs, who are admiringly portrayed as “tough, smart and uncompromising” entrepreneurs, rather than as, say, unscrupulous and exploitative chancers.

Waller and Younger reserve some of their warmest words for people in their own profession. PR entrepreneurs “display an unstinting appetite for bringing people together. Night after night, their homes are open to editors, ministers, ambassadors, EU commissioners and CEOs… who are invited with the promise of fine wines and electrifying conversation.” How enchanting! That crinkling noise you can hear is the sound of chocolate spheres being unwrapped from gold foil.

I wonder if crooks, oligarchs and dictators are invited, too. If you recuse yourself from character judgement, presumably anyone is welcome as long as they are powerful. Yet – as Tim Bell recently discovered – even PR titans are vulnerable to the perception of amorality. (Bell Pottinger, the company Bell co-founded, imploded after accusations that it had helped stir up racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of a client.)

Waller and Younger describe the role of a PR executive as a network broker: a “junction box” through which people from different spheres of influence can connect. It’s an oddly passive self-conception, and perhaps it explains why The Reputation Game is such an oddly passive book. Waller and Younger assemble abundant material – interviews, case studies, summaries of academic research – but they don’t impose themselves on it, which is good practice for hosts but not authors.

Fresh insights or provocative opinions are altogether rare in these pages. In their place, we learn, “Timing is an inestimably important factor in politics”; that reputation “is not always fair”; and, “Authenticity is important in today’s complex and uncertain world.” A discussion of the post-power reputations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair – an interesting question – weaves and wanders without so much as stubbing its toe on an interesting answer. When everyone is a potential guest, judgement cannot be risked. I only hope they never interview Harvey Weinstein. 

Reputation: What It Is and Why It Matters
Gloria Origgi
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £24.95

The Reputation Game: The Art of Changing How People See You
David Waller and Rupert Younger
Oneworld, 304pp, £18.99

Ian Leslie is the author of “Born Liars” and “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

Show Hide image

“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief