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Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | March 2018 | 9 minutes (2,305 words)
The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.
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After Richard Linklater’s Slacker became an unexpected box-office hit in 1991, every major studio in the United States dropped untold amounts of money trying to clone its success — that is, to duplicate a film that cost $23,000 to make and whose entire raison d’etre was that it did not care about success.
Some offerings, such as Cameron Crowe’s Singles (1992), succeeded in spite of their own distributors’ low expectations. Others, such as then “indie comic” (!) Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, succeeded in spite of, or probably because of, their own craven cynicism. (There was also Threesome, Lord help us all.) These films relied, without exception, on two crucial tropes: the cynical cool of rejecting ambition and popularity, and the mopey, tortured Gen X man-child who embodied that cool.
In the nineties, the rules for how to be cool were pretty simple.
- Having a job (or four) was cool, as long as you didn’t try very hard at it. (Having a “career trajectory” was decidedly not cool, which is probably why I am 41 years old and have never had one to speak of.)
- Wearing a vintage grease-covered gas-station attendant uniform as a jacket was cool if its original owner was that weird older cousin who bought you beer. (Buying an expensive jacket crafted to look like a vintage-replica gas-station attendant uniform was extremely not cool.)
- Weed was cool. (Doing coke and being all ’80s yuppie aggro was not cool.)
- Being nasty about famous people who were way too popular was cool, which is probably why I thought it acceptable to proclaim, in the arts column I wrote with my friend Justin for my college newspaper, that I wanted to shoot Jewel. Shoot Jewel! What did Jewel ever do to me? She seems very nice. But Jewel didn’t subscribe to the Vassar Miscellany News, so it was a victimless crime.
- Numbered lists of how to be cool were definitely not cool.
- It was cool to view everything at an ironic distance, including the concept of ironic distance itself.
In the nineties, the worst insult you could lob — or get — was to be a sellout. Dominant mass-produced mainstream culture — literally anything, the exact moment it became popular enough to no longer be confined to your friend’s basement and maybe a ‘zine — deserved to be mocked. If you were lucky enough to like something before it got big, then you found yourself flush with the only currency Gen X accepted.
That is how a wide-eyed goon-fest like Singles managed to be one of the coolest movies of 1992, despite its leads, Steve and Linda, being two overly earnest dildos. (Remember when young people could be named Steve and Linda?) Putting Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam in a movie before any of them became top-40 radio mainstays was so cool, in fact, that the aging coked-out preppies at Crowe’s studio, Warner Bros., didn’t see the appeal. Accordingly, they shelved Singles for months, and then, when a certain band hit and became way too popular and soooo over, insisted Crowe retitle it Come As You Are. “Finally,” Crowe told Rolling Stone on the film’s 25th anniversary, “I think their kids were telling them, ‘You have Pearl Jam in a movie, and you’re not putting the movie out?!?’”
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Two years later, American cinema hit Peak Gen X with Reality Bites, whose sole purpose was to market the marketing-averse, disaffected generational irony of the decade. The film chronicles the lives and loves of four slackety-slack-slack-slackers in early-nineties Houston. And it was, indeed, pretty successful ($33 million in 1994 would be $54 million today), thanks in large part to the hordes of high-school kids such as yours truly, who flocked to watch adult versions of ourselves deal with their problems poorly. However, re-watching Reality Bites now, I will be the first to admit that it is a story wince-inducingly stuck in its own time — and not just because of the omnipresent cigarettes and three jarring uses of the r-word.
Where Reality Bites most shows its age, in fact, is in its best and also most annoying character: Troy Dyer, a.k.a. the Cool Loser Dream Boy ne plus ultra, Ethan Hawke. Troy is Hawke’s most iconic role (sorry, Dead Poets Society), a brilliant college dropout who’s just been fired from his twelfth job and only leaves the couch he’s crashing on to “rehearse” with his (you guessed it) band, Hey, That’s My Bike. (In what is perhaps the film’s most dated moment, H,TMB cover the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” and, to preserve the cigarette-choked movie’s PG-13 rating, ultimate-rebel Troy refuses to sing the lyrics just one fuck.)
It is Troy’s dogged insistence on, as Roger Ebert put it get-off-my-lawn-ily in his 1994 review, “cultivat[ing] an air of languorous superiority toward everyone with plans, ambitions or a job” that makes him both the conscience of this film, and the primary reason it doesn’t hold up in 2018.
I’m far from alone in this sentiment. To test my hypothesis, I foisted Reality Bites upon several people who were born the year it came out, and they came to similar conclusions. “I do not appreciate the attitude of acting like you are above it all and you know something the rest of us don’t,” says Ellen Main, 23 and a science student teacher in Davis, California. “Sometimes you have to sell out a bit to pay the bills and get shit done,” she explains. “I am not interested in a guy who chain-smokes, doesn’t appear to wash his hair very often, leaves without a trace for extended periods of time, and is super rude to other dudes.”
What this admirable young person has no way of truly understanding, of course, is that in the nineties, every sincere emotion had to be conveyed through at least six layers of hair grease and spite. Some Gen X humor played off this tendency and made it the butt of its own joke; see, for example, this 1997 sketch from Mr. Show, where the Chip on the Shoulder Club trade barbs before their earnest Boomer teacher (Bob Odenkirk) takes their scorn literally and brings them on a field trip up his mother’s ass. But that was the exception. Much of what passed for humor in the nineties was just really, really mean.
The other crucial facet of nineties emotional intelligence, such as it was, was that while caring about things was not cool, caring about people was, so long as you displayed your care for them by being as damaged as possible and then letting them know that your damaged self had, out of all the other damaged selves in the world, chosen them. Hence, how, in Reality Bites, Troy gets to say this:
I’m sorry Lelaina, but you can’t navigate me. I might do mean things and I might hurt you and I might run away without your permission and you might hate me forever, and I know that that scares the shit out of you because I’m the only real thing that you have.
In utter seriousness! And it counts as baring his soul even though it is unabashedly cruel and manipulative! And then, after only a medium-sized blowout, soundtracked to a band of near-unknowns called U2 (ha ha), Troy and Lelaina move in together, presumably with the rest of Ben Stiller’s dirty documentary money.
Like I said, I’m 41 now, and I have a modicum of self-worth. I see, like the writer and cultural critic Lindy West sees, that the correct response to that Troy soliloquy is not to, as Lelaina inexplicably does, pine over the guy for two weeks and then cohabitate — it’s to lose that motherfucker’s number, and in those days that was easy, because all you had to do was rip up the piece of paper you had it written down on.
And yet. Reader, shortly after my friends and I returned from our Reality Bites screening at the Gateway Mall, I made a very obvious point of telling a guy I had a crush on that I, an amalgam of both Ben Stiller and Winona Ryder’s characters, was both a non-practicing Jew and a non-practicing virgin, and the next week he passed me a note that did nothing but quote Steppenwolf and explain how incapable of human connection he was, and I was in love with him for the next six years despite the fact that we only dated for three months.
Several of the millennials I had watch this film were also shocked at its dated gender politics. Daisy Richards, a 23-year-old researcher in film and television at the University of Warwick in the U.K., found herself unimpressed at “the kind of ‘man-fight’ the two lead males have over Lelaina,” in the scene where Ryder’s character emerges from her room dressed in a flowy ’70s-looking number for her doomed documentary premiere, and Troy says she looks like a doily. Their “insistence that each ‘knows what’s good for her in a way that you never will’ (or whatever) seems old-fashioned now. You don’t realize how romantic it seemed, even as recently as the 1990s, to have a man just speak for you.”
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I remember watching that scene in 1994, and being impressed that Ryder could pull off that look without a brassiere, but then also confused as to why Lelaina didn’t, in fact, tell both of those guys she was Outtie 5000 right at that moment. It’s interesting to me that the film’s younger viewers ascribe this passivity — which I think is actually just a weak moment of screenwriting — to a generational trait, as if my crushed-velvet-clad friends and I all just sat around while guys fought over the true nature of our deepest souls. This is, of course, wildly inaccurate. We all just sat around while guys played Mario Kart on mute whilst blasting Coolio.
I’ve had almost a quarter-century to think about this (and, I guess, a few other things), and I think what both jars the millennials and makes me feel decrepit — what makes Reality Bites a true relic — is the film’s circulation of a currency that isn’t just worthless. It no longer exists. The questionable artifacts that millennials have made canonical aren’t just not cool. They do not seem to place any value on being cool. It’s not cool to be a hipster, unless you’re one of those evangelical Christians with a rock worship team. It’s not cool to stay at an AirBnB — it’s just a cheaper way to cram all nine of your squad into one place. It’s not cool to be on Instagram; it’s just the gateway to monetizing your thinkfluence. Your most annoying friend does not object to Uber because it sold out and got too popular, but because of its litany of labor abuses. (Millennials, like Gen Xers, are still plenty mean — but not in a “cool” punching-up way. They’re mean in a “sanctimonious” calling-out way.)
This is all fine. I am not aiming to start a Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. That my own generation is no longer culturally relevant does not surprise or interest me. But how I’ve become irrelevant does. Just like Troy Dyer always knew he would eventually get mature enough to cease recording demands for the cosmological justification of existence on his answering machine — but probably could not have predicted the death of the recorded voice message in toto — I always knew that I would age out of being cool. What I could not have fathomed — beyond the $8 cardamom-and-quinoa kombucha I just paid for with my face — was that cool would no longer even be the criterion that defeated me.
It is entirely possible that, in the words of the angry mime in Singles, love does disappear. But more than love, cool disappears — not just as a measurable entity, but as a metric.
This begs the question: Where are the Troy Dyers now that cool isn’t a thing? Did they all become Bernie Bros and tip the 2016 election? Did they “accidentally” invent instant messaging while dicking around on their computers in 1996, and basically had, like, no choice but to sell out in the first tech bubble? And how lucky were they that the Janeane Garofalos of the world did not yet employ the phrase toxic masculinity? One thing is for sure: Like me, they have probably all forgotten not just what it was like to be cool, but what cool was in the first place.
Most of the Troys now probably have mortgages and children, upon whom they lavish a possibly unhealthy amount of attention and affection in clear renunciation of their divorced ’70s parents’ cigarette-and-landline-gabbing neglect. Like me, they probably spend most of their time looking for their kids’ cleanest pair of pants and trying to avoid the news.
But maybe, sometimes, middle-aged Troy will be stuck in traffic in his Prius, and he’ll mindlessly flip to the Oldies station and the opening strains of “Two Princes” will come on. And he’ll know it’s a terrible song, that the Spin Doctors were derivative sellouts who any self-respecting member of Hey, That’s My Bike would not be caught dead enjoying.
But in spite of himself, perhaps 40-something Troy will find himself singing along, lost in the remembered smell of stale cigarettes and CK One, catching a flash of his creased forehead in the rear-view and wondering if any of his old flannels might be buried somewhere in his closet.
Just go ahead now, he’ll sing, as traffic inches forward, a passive-aggressive standoff with his wife and a binge-watch of The Crown awaiting him at home. Just go ahead now. Just go ahead now.
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Editor: Ben Huberman