Reality bites?

I’ve spent the majority of this semester placed fairly firmly in the 1990s and early aughts. Perhaps it’s escapism for an earlier time, or just faux nostalgia induced by my required reading list featuring David Foster Wallace, Chris Kraus, and Mary Gaitskill. I also watched Reality Bites (1994), a film about Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke smoking cigarettes, and also the segue into the main body of this article.

Reality Bites opens with a typical generation X graduation speech from charismatic valedictorian Lelaina (played by Ryder) roasting the 80-hour work week and their parents’ obsessions with BMWs and sports sneakers. Very 90s zeitgeist stuff. The rest of the film is pretty much a group of solipsistic bohemians not getting jobs, being surprised about this fact, and in true 90s fashion, ironicising everything. It’s a pretty good film. But this trope of graduates realising a degree isn’t necessarily the golden ticket to success is a bit overplayed. 

It feels like our generation expects the inverse; everyone knows a degree does not lead you straight into a job in your preferred field. We’re not that naïve. And we’re more realistic – with many of us shouldering considerable amounts of student debt, and (for anyone making the jump to Amsterdam, or any other major city) ridiculous amounts of rent, it feels like most of us would be happy enough with somewhere to live and a way to get paid. If anything, Covid has taught us that best laid plans often go awry, and the security we know is fragile and should be enjoyed and relished rather than ironicised.

With Reality Bites’ gen Xers now the people who raised the first generation in recent history to be financially worse off than their parents, I doubt our graduating classes’ valedictorian speech will dismiss the middle-class creature comforts in the same way. It’s always dangerous to try and paint a picture of a generation, as such a reductive endeavour necessitates fictionalisation, but behind the conceit there may be a kind of truth: the class of 2021 is pretty realistic, and no-one is gonna be able to pull a fast one on us.

Irony feels like a hallmark of the decade of Seinfeld, and I think it’s fair to say that whilst we can still see Ethan Hawke as a smouldering and grungy antihero, we’re much less ironic. As pointed out by John Baskin in the New Yorker, our generation is being shaped by completely unironic momentous social movements. He uses the recent Black Lives Matter protests as an example, but you could also include environmental movements such as Extinction Rebellion as examples of unironic and sincere cultural movements that focus on the collective, rather than the more self-conscious and introspective David Foster Wallaces of the 90s and Charlie Kauffmans of the early 2000s. Whilst I love stories about what it means to be a person, they often tend to be about what it means to be a white man. Whilst as a white man, this is perfect and relatable, it might be for the best to have a less solipsistic cultural landscape. 

So where does this leave us? We exist within the paradox of high hopes for social justice whilst being (hopefully) educated enough to know that achieving such justice is going to be an uphill struggle. Some of us believe we can change the world, but don’t believe we’ll ever own our homes – if that’s even something that’s important anymore. So where do we sit as the generation with high hopes and low expectations? To quote the end of Winona’s valedictorian speech, I don’t know.