· The Century of Self REVIEW ·


There are things we have never wondered ourselves about. For instance, why are women who smoke linked to the concepts of femme fatal? Where is the origin of this widespread belief? The answer to the mystery is the penis. Yes, you read it right! According to the father of the psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the cigarettes subconsciously meant penis to women. In other words, women that would smoke were actually challenging the power of men, as a century ago women could not be seen smoking in public. Edward Bernays, nephew of the Austrian neurologist mentioned above, was the man who changed that and renamed cigarettes as “the torches of freedom” linking the idea of females smoking to powerful and independent women. Since then, the sales of cigarettes increased abruptly.

artworks-000012883436-lsjj2g-originalPhotograph of a woman smoking for the cover of the magazine ‘Life’.


Frame of the documentary “The century of self” – the debutants smoking in front of the press for the first time.

This is probably the most meaningful example (and my favourite one) of how easy is to manipulate the mass using the knowledge and studies about human behaviour from Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). This first part of four BBC documentaries begins introducing the audience the key idea that Bernays used to link mass produced goods to people’s desires: “there are primitive, sexual and aggressive forces hidden inside the minds of all human beings” and that “those forces that are not controlled lead individuals and society to chaos and destruction.”

The documentary strongly emphasises with live witnesses from those years fact that before that “social live experiment” started, no one was able to show in public their inner feelings and how people was keeping under control their desires by painfully suppressing them. Thus, the viewers can assume that beginning to talk about their own desires meant a liberation during the last years of the 19th century.

Moreover, it chronologically explains the start and establishment of consumerism in our society and the beginning of the mass democracy, which is the participation of the entire population of a country in the presidential elections instead of just the ‘privileged’ ones. For instance, when USA decided to take part in the IWW in 1914 “to bring the democracy to all Europe”. In this particular case, Bernays was required to portrait president Woodrow Wilson as “the man that made this world free” and made him become a hero of masses. After that, Bernays wondered himself whether he could produce the same effect on people in “peaceful times” as well.

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 08.52.17.png

A frame of the documentary “The century of self” – the crowd.

And, indeed, he did it. Every company that required his services was only increasing their sales, doesn’t matter if it was the American Tobbaco Company or any retail company or even banks, all of them were indirectly taking advantage of Freud’s studies. Products were no longer presented as needs nor as desires, but just as goods that might talk by yourself. The way you dressed like was telling who you were, the car you were driving was telling which kind of driver you were, if you smoke… if you don’t…

In the other side of the coin, Freud began to write about human behaviours. He realised he had underestimated human instincts and that human beings were easily controllable in groups. That’s how he came up with the idea that democracy was probably not as factual as everyone thought, – like the philosopher Plató and many others discussed  hundreds of years ago, or as would claim Adolf Hitler years later.- and therefore dismissed the idea of trusting people despite their rational state, as their subconscious could still be manipulated.


Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) 

And that’s the story of how his nephew made Freud lose all faith in human beings and become a pessimist while creating the bases of a new empire, that not even the Market Crash in 1929 nor the IIWW could pull down. This documentary sums up with an accurate flow all the mark spots that led our society to be considered the “century of self” at the same time that narrates how the shadow of Freud was following all the changes that were taking place meanwhile Bernays was using the crowd for his puppet show.





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