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Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | July 2018 | 11 minutes (2,918 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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I spent most of the ‘90s smoking and being a poseur, but in between packs of Gauloises I also read a lot, so long as it wasn’t the books that my teachers and professors assigned. My literature of choice was all about the same thing: cool contemporary adults wigging out about their relationships, a genre that would soon fall under the terms “chick lit” (see: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, 1996) and its somewhat lesser-known counterpart, “dick lit” (see: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, 1995).
Bridget Jones was acid-tongued but also prone to disastrous pratfalls, just like me! And High Fidelity’s Rob Fleming was unambitious and antisocial, just like me! I loved these protagonists so much, in fact, that when I stood in front of a chagrined Hornby at a signing in New York and thrust out my dog-eared copy of his book, I proclaimed that it had “helped me through some very difficult times,” and then I smoked a cigarette indoors, and everyone seemed pleased, especially me. In revisiting these tomes of my youth as an aging poseur, I’ve had both a not-insubstantial craving for nicotine and a series of horrifying revelations. Namely, these books — despite their cool Gen-X setting, cool Gen-X props (cigarettes), and cool Gen-X openness about failure — are some inveterate Baby Boomer bullshit.
Reader, if you think I’m aiming to incite a Quarrel of the Ancients and the Even More Ancients, you are correct. These cool Gen-X novels, written by people born in 1958 (Fielding) and 1957 (Hornby), are basically different iterations of a familiar Boomer trope. It’s the same romantic wish fulfillment — the uncomplicated, largely imaginary, white-bourgeois heterosexual sort — you find in the offensive and pre-antiquated self-help bestsellers of the same decade, namely The Rules (Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, 1995) and Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (John Gray, 1992).
Whereas the Gen-X motto of whatever encapsulated the extent of our desire to mitigate other people’s love lives and often our own, our elders — unencumbered by slackitude; seemingly aghast at our normalization of casual sex — saw in us a deep and aching need for what the Germans call das Happyend. Romantic fatalists of the ‘90s needn’t worry, you guys! For every (white, bourgeois, heterosexual) romantic problem that appeared in our midst and on our bestseller lists, there was a corresponding solution straight outta Levittown.
If, for example, girls of my generation would only heed Fein and Schneider, and disguise everything about our personalities, never call a man (ever!), grow out our hair, wear “bright tops,” and attend more aerobics classes, then we, too, could enjoy the “Rock of Gibraltar” marriages that Fein and Schneider had. Meanwhile, according to Gray, if men and women learned to communicate with each other — by accepting the “facts” that all men love silence, power, and fixing things, and all women love talking, shopping, and criticizing men — then nobody would ever divorce again.
Even if we weren’t, you know, asking for any, our generation clearly needed help with the opposite sex (and of course it was “the opposite sex,” what other kind of romance was there?). One didn’t have to read Prozac Nation, but merely look at the greasy, dead-eyed waif on its cover, to understand that we were sweaty, underfed messes, filling the Nietzschean abysses of our souls — which gaped in the place of a normal, well-adjusted person’s procreative marriage — with a series of meaningless encounters.
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It never occurred to the scandalized Me Generation that Gen-Xers weren’t unhappier than they were — it was just that we dared to be open about our hesitation and self-doubt. And so, because my cohort made the mistake of admitting we were occasionally sad, the purveyors of advice assumed we asked for them to fix it, even though nobody did. (Please, generation with the highest divorce rate in history, tell me all your secrets!)
All right, obviously somebody bought those books — literal millions of somebodies — and they couldn’t have all been old people passive-aggressively stuffing the stockings of their single children. Helen Fielding, for example, placed a copy of Men Are from Mars onto Bridget Jones’s bookshelf in a nod to its ubiquity, even in the UK.
The John Gray name-drop aside, it’s actually The Rules that Bridget spends the better part of that book trying — and largely failing — to follow. The novel’s raison d’être was partly to skewer the very Rules-endorsed notion that a woman can only ensnare a man by pretending to be a completely different person (e.g. Rule #3: Don’t Stare at Men or Talk Too Much). This makes sense, of course, given that Bridget was itself a ‘90s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a scathing critique of mating rituals in upper-class Regency England (another book I was supposed to read for class — and did, eventually).
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Though neither The Rules nor any parody titles appear in Fielding’s book by name, Bridget herself is precisely the ‘90s gal that Fein and Schneider seek to influence. When she’s not smoking, she’s fretting nonstop about why nobody will ever love her. In her constant bellyaching about her weight (which tops out around 130 whopping pounds), Bridget — funny, conventionally attractive, and gainfully employed — suffers from just the sort of dysmorphic insecurity that makes one vulnerable to recommendations of a personality (and sometimes literal) facelift. “Oh, why am I so unattractive? Why?” she demands. “Why hasn’t he rung? Why? What’s wrong with me?”
Bridget’s miserable obsession with this particular non-caller, Daniel Cleaver — her boss, by whom she disconcertingly “v. much enjoy[s] being sexually harassed” — is a perfect example of what Fein and Schneider call the work of a misguided “nineties woman” who has “simply not been schooled in the basics of successful courtship.” For her part, Jones betrays the same sentiment in different terms, fretting that she is part of a “pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power,” and thus destined to remain alone.
Fein and Schneider argue that all that economic power — combined with the dastardly Free Love and Women’s Lib movements (you know, topical issues of the ‘90s) — made an entire generation of girls plum forget that they simply needed to:
a) treat men like full-on garbaggio;
b) refuse nearly all advances so as to incite “the chase,” which all men loved;
c) sit back and marvel, as said men became so obsessed that they would never cease calling.
“Anger indicates interest,” Fein and Schneider enthuse. “It’s good when men get upset,” you see — because “it means they care about you.” That’s right, ladies: “The chase,” complete with requisite rage, is clearly some sort of ideal mating behavior betwixt heterosexuals, and the idealization thereof has had no palpable negative consequences of any sort — bearing, as it does, no resemblance to either the edicts of the Pick-Up Artist subculture, nor its inverse, the so-called Incel movement.
Still, in case you’re wondering: The primary way to accomplish the excellent goal of getting a man as mad at you as possible is with Rule #5, which is Don’t Call Him and Rarely Return His Calls. “Not calling,” Fein and Schneider explain, “will leave him desiring you more, make him want to see you again and call you again. It prevents him from getting to know all about you much too quickly and getting bored.” Or, alternately, he can seek refuge in a like-minded online community of self-styled sexual rejects and plan murders, imagined and real.
It’s perhaps the tincture of time that has added an ominous note to the moments in Bridget Jones when this approach seems to work. For example, after a week or so of “being an ice-queen” to Daniel Cleaver on the advice of her ride-or-die gay friend Tom — also an excellent ‘90s trope that has damaged nobody, and did not limit queer representation in popular culture to sassy besties for decades — Bridget “can officially confirm that the way to a man’s heart these days is not through beauty, food, sex or alluringness of character, but merely the ability to seem not very interested in him.”
Eventually, Bridget realizes that turning herself inside out to accommodate a total fuckwit, in her parlance, does little to assuage the aforementioned fuckwittage — i.e. Daniel Cleaver runs off with a lithe American sunbather. However, lest one confuse Fielding’s novel for some sort of avant-garde work of romantic nihilism, let’s all remember that Bridget ends up with rich, kind-hearted Mark Darcy, who loved her just the way she was the whole time. Bridget Jones might critique Rules-style fantasy fulfillment, but Fielding just displaces it with fantasy fulfillment of a slightly more palatable sort.
One might assume, then, that Bridget’s dick-lit counterpart — salty, miserable Rob in High Fidelity — would butt against the Boomers’ blatantly imaginary happily-ever-after archetype with a bit more fervor. This is a not-unreasonable assumption, in fact, given how unenthusiastic Rob is about his older-Boomer parents. (In what remains my favorite line of the novel, he says he and his mother “agree to disagree, or at any rate I hang up on her.”)
This is not the case. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the case. Instead, the Rules ethos of no means keep trying — itself a carryover from the days of Postwar sock-hop necking and locker-room talk — supplies High Fidelity’s most disturbing plot point.
To wit: Rob recounts his failed relationship with high-school girlfriend Penny, whom he:
a) once attempted to sexually assault (“I used a degree of force that would have outraged and terrified an adult female, but got nowhere”);
b) dumped, because she would not put out;
c) resented because she cried when he dumped her for not putting out;
and, wait for it:
d) dismisses outright after she admits, years later and in no small degree of anguish, that she slept with the next guy she dated even though she did not want to. “I was too tired to fight him off, and it wasn’t rape,” Penny says, “because I said OK, but it wasn’t far off. And I didn’t have sex with anyone else until after university because I hated it so much.”
All this is to say: I believe it is very fair to characterize Rob Fleming as someone who doesn’t understand many women and doesn’t know how to communicate with them, and that is the most charitable interpretation possible. And I hope that even Rob Fleming — upon whom 1998-Rebecca had a crush, along with Sick Boy from Trainspotting, because I had great taste — would have enough self-awareness to agree.
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In this way, despite its Rules-esque depictions of the definitely-not-sketchy “chase,” High Fidelity is to Men Are from Mars — the dick-lit of romantic how-tos, as it were — as Bridget is to The Rules. Again, like Fielding’s novel and the Schneider/Fein paean to mind games, Rob never refers to Men Are from Mars by name (this is 100 percent in line with Rob’s character, who would put it as #1 on his list of all-time things he’d rather flay himself alive than read) — and yet the two seem perfectly matched, or at any rate better-matched than Rob is with any of the women he dates.
“Although almost everyone would agree that men and women are different,” Gray explains, “how different is still undefined for most people.” But not Rob! Rob has never understood women. (Even though he “can see what feminists are on about, most of the time, but not the radical ones.”) People like Rob scoff at self-help literature like Men Are From Mars, and yet Rob’s own approach to his lackluster dating history is entirely dependent upon his unshakable certainty that women, as a whole, are an impossible mystery. “One moment you wanted to clonk them on the head for being your sister, or someone else’s sister,” Rob opines in the novel’s opening, “and the next you wanted to…actually, we didn’t know.”
All Rob does know is the same thing John Gray knows: There is no use trying to parse the individual differences between individuals. That would be like defusing a single bomb, when what they really want is to blame women for all bombs existing ever.
Gray couches his gleefully unsubstantiated theories in difference, but the value judgment inherent in those differences is clear: “Martians” value important, good things such as uniformed jobs, building stuff, solving problems, and being needed. “Venusians” value different things that aren’t bad, per se, but just, you know, different, like rampant hyperbole and changing outfits 70 times a day. “To fully express their feelings,” Gray writes, “women assume poetic license and use various superlatives, metaphors, and generalizations. Men mistakenly take these expressions literally.”
Similarly, Rob can use the “fact” that all women baffle him to excuse his open lack of interest in relating to them like human beings. He accepts “gender differences” all right, but in the manner of another ‘90s throwback I’d rather throw back: the conservative evangelical Promise Keepers, who didn’t subjugate women by embracing their natural differences and relegating them to the status of Biblical help-meet, you heathen ingrates, but rather worshipped them by doing so.
One thing Rob does somehow seem to understand with his feeble man-brain is the coded language of his fellow man — or at any rate of Dick and Barry, the slightly more tolerable losers who work in his record shop (yes, even Barry comes off better in 2018 than Rob does). When these two find out Rob’s been dumped, they set about trying to help, in seemingly direct fulfillment of Gray’s dictum that men “offer solutions” as their primary method of supporting someone. Insufferable snob Barry makes Rob “an elaborately annotated compilation tape,” and shy, hesitant Dick “now rephrases his questions four or five times instead of the usual two or three,” the latter being a truly oblique performative that Rob still has no trouble understanding despite also failing to see why a woman might still be miffed 20 years after he’s tried to force sex on her.
To his credit — I guess? — Rob does seem to have a communicating-with-women strategy if he really wants to, in British parlance, get off with someone. In the midst of seducing singer-songwriter Marie LaSalle, his rebound fling, he declares that “If someone wanted to know how to get off with seventeen women,” all they have to do is “ask questions. It works precisely because that isn’t how you’re supposed to do it, if you listen to the collective male wisdom.”
This is uncannily identical to Gray’s advice: “If you are a man,” he explains, “I suggest that for the next week you practice listening whenever a woman speaks, with the sole intention of respectfully understanding what she is going through.” You know, whenever she speaks, italics in original, no matter how annoying, irrelevant, unimportant, or voluminous it is. (See The Rules, #3.)
Just like with Bridget the “ice-queen” and Daniel Cleaver, Rob gets a disingenuous strategy to work for him, temporarily at least. He listens to Marie talk about her semi-famous ex, and then, when he does talk, “I speak quietly, slowly, thoughtfully, I express regret, I say nice things about Laura, I hint at a deep ocean of melancholy just below the surface. But it’s all bollocks, really.”
Yes, it is all bollocks, Rob. It really, really is. Rob’s full of it — and Marie knows it, but, being a mature ‘90s American woman, doesn’t care, and is only looking for a one-night stand herself. High Fidelity ends in a similarly bollocks fashion, with Laura and Rob getting back together even though he still doesn’t begin to deserve her. Here’s where my Sick-Boy-from-Trainspotting unifying theory of life comes in: The success of High Fidelity, just like the success of Bridget Jones, The Rules, and Men Are From Mars, is the eternal return of the same imaginary ‘50s, idealized boy-gets-girl-back wish-fulfillment bullshit that took over Gen-X popular culture, probably because we were too lazy, or unambitious, or angst-ridden, or whatever, to fight it off.
This is not to deny the appeal of a universal solution to the issues that all relationships have. It’s the reason Ellen Fein is still publishing books (now telling cool, hip millennials what to do) despite divorcing her own Rock of Gibraltar in 2001. It’s the reason that I still get pangs of recognition (and cravings for Gauloises) when I revisit both lovable Bridget Jones and arsehole Rob Fleming. It’s the reason that all literature, for time immemorial, is mostly people wigging out over their relationships. It’s the glimmer of possibility that a generation defined primarily by apathy and lack of enthusiasm still loves a happy ending, and so there’s hope for us after all.
But sometimes everything ends in heartbreak anyway, even if you spend all your time being mindful of man caves and shopping, or if you grow your hair out and never call him — or even if you do the opposite of all of these things. Like a very wise angry mime once said, sometimes love disappears, man; sometimes it was never there to begin with. I realize it’s narcissistic to believe my generation cornered the market on romantic nihilism — but come on, you guys. Let us have just this one thing.
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Editor: Ben Huberman