An explainer about Philosophy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 5, Ariana Grande exhibits Erich Fromm’s version of Self-Love.
When Nicki Minaj said, “Ariana run pop,” I think she was probably predicting the future. With public endorsements from Jennifer Gardner to Reese Witherspoon (and cameos from Jennifer Coolidge and Kris Jenner to Troye Sivan and Colleen Ballinger), it is no wonder that her latest song “thank u, next” broke records, and is a fan-favourite. The music video simultaneously pays homage to, and rectifies the narrative of four massive movies from the 2000s: Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, Bring It On, and 13 Going On 30.
All four movies have strong (not necessarily positive) female leads, who eventually, however, end up with a man. For example, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde goes to Harvard to pursue not the law degree, but a man who has broken off a relationship with her. She does end up valedictorian and gains public recognition by solving a high profile case, but however, ends up with another man. In Mean Girls, Cady ends up in a clique of popular but spiteful girls, and ends up going to prom with the boyfriend of the ‘queen bee.’ While the movie is satirical, it further propagates harmful ideas about how a group of girls is cruel and vindictive. What “thank u, next” does, on the other hand, is focus on the friendships and growth in these movies; it flips the narrative, and in each of the story arcs, Grande ends up alone, which somehow, is a revolutionary idea.
The song lists out her high-profile relationships, and how she is not wistful about any of them. Instead, she talks about how each of them has helped her grow, and expresses her gratitude. But more importantly, she focuses on her love for herself — how she has love, patience, and has learnt from the pain. This idea of learning to love oneself has (somehow) been touted as revolutionary.
Historically, various philosophers from Kierkegaard to Freud have argued that self-love is akin to selfishness and narcissism. French theologian, John Calvin has called it a “pest,” “a sinister affliction,” and a “disease,” while Freud, in a classic Freudian manner, thought of it as libido turned inwards, and a form of narcissism. According to many, love for self and love for others is a zero-sum game, and are mutually exclusive. Since selflessness is a virtue, self-love has been thought as sinful. That love for oneself is identical to selfishness, has been a pervasive thought in philosophy, theology, and in everyday life.
Humanistic psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm questions this and stresses that, “Love, in principle, is indivisible as far as the connection between “objects” and one’s own self is concerned,” and that love for oneself and for others are not mutually exclusive. He further stresses that it is not a zero-sum game, and if one feels love for one’s family, but does not feel it for somebody else is reflective of one’s basic inability to love. “If an individual is able to love productively, he loves himself too; if he can love only others, he cannot love at all,” he adds. Our capacity to self-love, according to him, is the root of our own life, happiness, growth, and freedom. Selfishness, on the other hand, he says, stems not from loving oneself too much, but too little.
The song, then, is reflective of Grande’s ability to love, not just herself, but also others who have been in her life, including her family. She also sings about the hope that she feels towards her future, “One day I’ll walk down the aisle/ Holding hands with my mama.” It is evident that this hope stems from her love she has cultivated for herself. She is hopeful and sure of herself: “I turned out amazing.” While the movies she refers to in the music video have the arc of women finding themselves after break-ups, that is not necessarily representative of her life.
This sort of self-love has evidently not stemmed out of her break-ups — as she sings in the song “successful” released barely two months before,“It feels so good to be so young/And have this fun and be successful/ I’m so successful.” It is plain that her love for herself has also helped her appreciate others. For example, in “successful” she sings how she has found recognition at a young age and provides herself as an example to other young women to aim high — “Girl, you too, you are so young/And beautiful and so successful,” goes the rest of the chorus.
That young, influential people like Ariana Grande espouse ideas of self-love in a way that exudes positivity and self-respect is rather refreshing. This is a time when social media makes everything irrelevant and transient, young people often try to find ways to push themselves and consequently find themselves dissatisfied. It is refreshing to see celebrities endorse positive concepts like self-respect and self-love (without exhibiting narcissism-like tendencies). “The most widespread expression of the lack of fondness for oneself, however, is the way in which people treat themselves,” writes Fromm. Eerily echoing how many of us behave, especially on social media that focuses on and glorifies objective measures of achievements, Fromm says our harsh internal ‘master’ who enslaves us “forbids… the enjoyment of any pleasure… If we do so, we do it furtively and at the expense of a guilty conscience. Even the pursuit of pleasure is as compulsory as is work.”
When Grande, on the other hand, calls herself “baller”, and is grateful to others for letting her continue to focus on herself, and has “better discussions” with herself, it is, indeed, revolutionary. In ways that are distinctly dissimilar to John Lennon’s ideas of universal love and peace (too idealistic, some would say), Grande’s idea is more bottom-up, making it all the more accessible. This promotes Fromm’s version of self-love — “a deep sense of affirmation for his individual self, with all his intellectual, emotional, and sensual potentialities,” in which love for humanity stems from our ability to love ourselves. Even if this bottom-up approach doesn’t work, we can, after all, be complacent in the idea that “Least this song is a smash.”