As unsettled and chaotic as 2016 has felt, it makes sense that stillness would seem like a means of resilience. As the election approached, the Mannequin Challenge — in which people freeze in place while someone captures the resulting spectacle on their phone — swept through social media, with everyone from teens to presidential nominees participating. The first Mannequin Challenge video was reportedly created by a group of high schoolers in Jacksonville, Florida, who posed atop desks while Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” played. Sooner than you could yell “Freeze,” the craze had caught fire, and suddenly even Paul McCartney was participating. It’s like the opposite of a flash mob: Instead of strangers showing up somewhere and doing something, people who know each other stand where they are and do nothing. But where flash mobs were often prankish and confrontational, the mannequin challenge seems contemplative, a poignant moment of collective vulnerability. It is pointedly deliberate, inverting never-resting phones into an unlikely facilitator of serenity. The Mannequin Challenge evokes a space where notifications can’t reach you — but then it goes viral.
Freezing as a social activity is hardly new. The 19th century saw a vogue for tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” in which partygoers would cast themselves into a frozen arrangement of living figures, costumed and posed in reference to a scene from art, literature, or history. Among the popular scenes, according to the 1860 manual Home Pastimes; or Tableaux Vivants, were “Venus Rising From the Sea,” “Liberty,” and “Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans.” Though the Mannequin Challenge participants are not necessarily following set scenarios, they sometimes can be read as aligning themselves with time-honored types: the beauty, the joker, the muscle man, etc. The silence of the medium throws these iconic representations in stark relief, giving them the resonance of eternity.
The Mannequin Challenge evokes a space where notifications can’t reach you — but then it goes viral.
The depiction of such epic scenes and archetypes made the idealizations of art appear accessible in reality: By existing in such a tableau, for a brief moment, the individual becomes part of something timeless. Edith Wharton included a tableaux-vivants scene in The House of Mirth (1905): “To unfurnished minds,” her narrator explains, tableaux vivants “remain, in spite of every enhancement of art, only a superior kind of wax-works, but to the responsive fancy they may give magic glimpses of the boundary world between fact and imagination.” That is, the tableaux offered an opportunity for audiences to confirm to themselves that they are properly “responsive” by dissolving their cognitive dissonance and holding the fake and the real in their mind simultaneously.
Likewise, 19th-century pantomimist Tony Denier claimed in Parlor Tableaux (1869) that “the realization of a picture on canvas, and reproduced by living figure in all its beauty and entirety, tends to assimilate the real with the ideal, and also to improve the understanding and fill the mind with purer thoughts, and clothe the outer form with fresh graces.” This perspective focuses on the edifying effects for the audience. But for the performers, it allowed for a kind of conscious objectification. Lily Bart, Wharton’s heroine, appears in a tableau posed as the bare-torsoed Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd from a 1775–76 neoclassical portrait by Joshua Reynolds. In this guise, Lily was “divested of the trivialities of her little world … catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.”
This kind of role playing could also serve as a type of meditation, for stillness, silence (usually), and concentration can create a deep sense of contemplation and awareness. A paused moment is full of poised anticipation, investing seemingly ordinary time with the drama of possibility, a sense that something momentous has to happen. But from inside, the stillness itself seems momentous.
One day after work, I was finally roped into a mannequin challenge (one that has never seen the light of day, I hope). While I was frozen in a simple sitting position with a magazine, I grew hyper-conscious of my body, the way you do when you’re trying to meditate and you haven’t quite locked into a place of concentration. I felt the weight of my body all of a sudden, and I realized that my “natural” sitting position is quite uncomfortable. But more than that, I found that while frozen, I was able to think clearly. Holding still suddenly, paradoxically, felt like an elusive escape from the stresses of daily life. I couldn’t move, but I felt free.
Stillness offers the chance to reflect, to meditate. But it is also hard work. Maintaining motionlessness is a feat of physical endurance, as shown by the quivering arms of the carefully balanced participants in many Mannequin Challenge videos. Ultimately, stillness is a struggle between one’s mind and body in the quest to reach a controlled state.
It might seem wonderful to float around the world like a poltergeist, rearranging things at one’s leisure (or to stop your life story to become your own narrator, like Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell). But as Bart and Milhouse learn in a Simpsons Halloween episode when their mail-order time-freezing stopwatch breaks, complete control only seems fun when it’s fleeting. HBO’s Westworld illustrates the opposite possibility: robot hosts are forced to be frozen in an instant, with the sharp demand to “freeze all motor functions,” or simply with the press of a button, their sense of free will made to disappear in an instant. This version of uncanny stillness usurps that focused experience of self-control, creating the ultimate display of powerlessness. Stillness serves to confirm visually the illusion of choice.
The illustration of how the sense of agency can be so easily withdrawn is a horrifying reminder of the unspoken hierarchies we routinely obey, the various techniques by which we are controlled and rendered passive. With a simple declaration, the government can effectively take control of our bodies, and restrict our free will, our mobility, our means of representing ourselves. Westworld depicts a too-familiar world in which an unseen few can control the actions of all; stillness is how that power manifests. Stillness becomes the ultimate display of vulnerability, an inevitable consequence of the ever more thorough ways people are put under surveillance.
Which interpretation of stillness fits with our cultural moment: the person who chooses to pose or the one who’s frozen against their will? It may be that stillness resonates because it blurs these together: the desire to control oneself, and the fear of being controlled. Technologies of social control are expanding their reach, through the devices and platforms that have made phenomena like the Mannequin Challenge possible. But participating in the mannequin challenge allows us to creatively explore identities and embody representations of ideals, as in some of the 19th-century tableaux. One can exercise a mastery of the mind over the body, through the force of a free will.