Donald Glover’s recent posting of a series pictures on Instagram that chronicled some of his worries about his life, written on hotel stationary, has sparked a conversation about the state of his mental health. But what’s struck me most about the messages that he posted isn’t anything Glover is feeling in particular. It’s how confusing it is to watch a star act like an actual person in public.
Worrying about “the future,” or that “my parents won’t live long enough to see my kids,” or that “my girl will get pregnant at not the exact time we want,” or that “I’ll never reach my potential,” seems like a completely normal thing to do at 30, whether you’re an extremely famous and promising young artist, or a regular human. If you’re a guy, being “scared I’ll never grow out of Bro Rape,” or being honest about the fact that “I’m afraid people think I hate women,” is an interesting and extremely rare public meditation on trying to balance the performance of masculinity and a legitimate fear of doing harm. And if you’re an artist, admitting that “I didn’t leave Community to rap. I don’t wanna rap. I wanted to be on my own,” or conceding that “I’m scared I’ll be Tyrese,” and “I’m afraid Dan Harmon hates me” seem like fairly natural anxieties to have if you’ve got a nascent music career and are most famous for your role on a show masterminded by a mercurial and particular genius.
We’ve become so used to unnaturalness, or to a studied facade of naturalness, that when we encounter the real thing in all of its contradictory insecurity, we mistake it for evidence of serious problems, rather than a healthy processing of legitimately complex emotions. There are times when, and forms in which, we see it as natural for famous people to admit to being less than happy in public. If you’re an actress, you can acknowledge struggling with postpartum depression, though not with losing the baby weight. If you’re an actor, the loss of a parent gives you permission to be introspective. And if you’re following a now-familiar cycle of either substance abuse and recovery, or the public emergence of mental illness and reemergence after diagnosis and treatment, there are plenty of established markets ready and eager to circulate your narrative at every stage.
But what about everyday anxieties? And in particular, what happens when men express them? A staple of the profile or Q&A with the star is some expression of insecurity or confession of extremely hard work that will humanize the star in question, even as the confession itself is brushed aside as modesty or self-deprecation. But the idea that Donald Glover, of all people, suffers from what seems to be a dysmorphia not of the body but of the self-image, it’s confusing, and almost insulting. The idea that he has a hard time seeing his talents through the mists of his own mind, or that he worries about his romantic and sexual relationships even as he turns them into fodder on Childish Gambino tracks is difficult for audiences to process, almost an insult to our own regard for his talent. And for men men who live public lives, the expectation that their self-perception falls within a standard deviation of our image of them is particularly strong. Insecurity shades into weakness, while arrogance is at minimum tolerated, at most, rewarded.
No wonder Glover’s openness is so confusing. But as he put it to People, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.” The real difference is that most of us don’t have so many people to tell, and so little expectation of being rationally understood.