Wednesday, June 7, 2017

For Gen Xers, Reality Bites was a terrible film

As Generation X settles casually into middle age, I need to share an observation:  Reality Bites was a terrible movie.

When this movie came out in 1994, I was a few years out of college and living in Southeast Asia. The economy was still somewhat sucky for people in their twenties, and by that point the term Generation X had actually become a thing, having been established by Douglas Coupland's seminal novel and capitalized upon by marketing agencies seeking to identify, explain, market to, and manipulate the Twentysomethings previously known as the Slacker Generation. The movie Reality Bites did not help the perception of our demographic. Let's face it, the movie spotlights and caricatures a rather whiny group of losers .... or, as writer Lindy West pointed out a few years ago, a bunch of "shitheads."  The movie wasn't really made for actual members of Generation X, a group of somewhat disaffected young adults who were critical of and suspicious toward most of the traditional institutions in society that had long grounded adulthood in contemporary American - marriage, careers, education, politics, consumerism. It was simply made to capitalize on a moment in time and a marketing term.

None of the people I knew in the early and mid-nineties looked at the world with an entitled sense of desire for the lives of the Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation in front of us. Having grown up in the waning days of the Cold War with a casual acceptance of divorce and disappointing job markets, Generation X simply went about its life, aloof to the self-absorbed yearnings and ponderings of characters like Lelaina and Troy Dyer. Let's face it, the character of Troy was simply a dick, and not in any interesting or noble way. While the backstory of his father is supposed to generate some understanding and empathy for his cold, keep-love-at-a-distance-to-protect-myself demeanor, it is not remotely endearing or appealing. He's just a tool. And Lelaina's interest in him is alternately not at all believable and truly pathetic. The two of them just exemplify terrible decision-making, and they reveal a serious disdain from the filmmakers for the very audience many believed they were portraying honestly. This movie was a big studio release meant to appeal to the masses - but Generation X has never been about "the masses."

Granted, there are some interesting aspects of the movie that were certainly an appropriate sui generis view into the lives and challenges of Gen X. Issues like divorce, drug use, and the dangers of casual sex were addressed in a reasonably honest way. Looking back after decades, the portrayals of "Vickie's AIDS test and Sammy's coming out to his mother" were handled with a candid approach that matched the times and revealed the necessary societal progress that has been a hallmark of Generation X's maturity. And the natural infusion of consumer and popular culture into every conversation was actually an authentic portrayal of the first generation to be acutely aware of the hype with an ability to discount it and embrace it at the same time. Yet, far too often it became as cliche as the jingoistic bromides that Troy regularly tries to pass off as cool, hipster wisdom. The gas station convenience store dance to "My Sharona" was a treat for the creators of movie trailers, and it lives on as a nauseating reminder of why Gen X hates marketing.

There is a fair amount of thoughtful art that actually captures the identity and ethos of Generation X, not the least of which is the novel that named it. In fact, a much better Gen X movie preceded Reality Bites, coming out at roughly the same time as Coupland's novel. Set in the early days of emerging Seattle sound, Cameron Crowe's ensemble piece Singles is the true portrayal of Generation X's rise into adulthood in the early 90s. If I want my generation to be remembered through a film, it's no question that Singles is Generation X's film. Amidst all the sappy commercialized portrayals of Gen X, it's scenes like this one that exemplify who we were ... and are.

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