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Author, SCHADENFREUDE, A LOVE STORY.

When ‘The Real World’ Gave Up on Reality

MTV, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | June 2018 | 9 minutes (2,208 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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The most appropriate single epithet for MTV’s unscripted housemate drama The Real World is pioneering. Granted, given what the show and the oeuvre it birthed have since become — an indistinguishable procession of aggressively vapid ab models who take turns getting alcohol poisoning in a hot tub, no matter the show’s setting or purpose — the positive connotations of that word make it painful to use.

But alas, pioneering is accurate. Before producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray had the idea in 1992 to choose seven strangers at random, deposit them in a New York City loft, have their lives “taped” at a totally grungified 42-degree angle, and find out what happens, the very thought of someone going on television for no other reason than to live in an apartment with a bunch of randos was extremely novel.

What we so easily forget now, in an age where the country’s only housewives are Housewives, is that The Real World‘s early seasons were beloved by young adults precisely because they showed the largely-unremarkable exploits of largely-unremarkable (if mildly telegenic) young people. By “early seasons” I mean 1992-1996 — the 1997 season, shot in Boston, would mark the show’s transition from unscripted soap opera to unapologetic grotesque, a.k.a. what we now consider the reality-television standard. This transformation is one of the most notable — possibly most ignominious? — legacies of the ’90s, perhaps even more so than the mushroom cuts, black chokers, and off-kilter camera work.

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It’s Like This and Like That and Like What?

Death Row/Interscope Records. Illustration by Katie Kosma

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,912 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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In the entirety of 1990, exactly one hip-hop single made it to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. This was “Ice Ice Baby,” and the LP whence its dope melodies came, To the Extreme, also ruled the Billboard album charts for the final eight weeks of that year — knocking off the previous number one, another rap record, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. (It turned out that if U were Vanilla Ice, U could, in fact, touch this.) As the nineties rush-rushed in, aching to break out of the previous decade’s noxious forcefield of Aqua Net, one thing was clear: American Top 40 radio was ready for hip hop — so long as it was squeaky clean, or, failing that, performed by a white guy with the wackest eyebrows in history.

By the end of the decade, the landscape had shifted almost beyond recognition. Synth-pop was the stuff of nostalgia nights; rock was emitting the first gurgle of its death rattle (which sounded like this); and what had heretofore been called “hardcore” hip hop was so ubiquitous in “mainstream” (read: white) culture that its ubiquity became a bit in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space.

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You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent

Universal Pictures, Illustration by Katie Kosma

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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. Weed was cool. (Doing coke and being all ’80s yuppie aggro was not cool.)
  4. 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.
  5. Numbered lists of how to be cool were definitely not cool.
  6. 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. Read more…

I Think, Therefore I Am Getting the Goddamned Epidural

Illustration by Annelise Capossela

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3989 words)

Until I was 34 weeks pregnant, I only considered the act of childbirth in blurred, vague terms, and this meant I was unusually impressionable. Hence, the entrée in week 35 of one Ina May Gaskin, legendary midwife, and successful deliverer of eleventy-dillion babies at what definitely didn’t seem like a very creepy commune in the middle of Tennessee. “You must read Ina May,” explained my friend Charlotte (not her real name), who’d recently driven 80 miles across state lines to push out her second child in a midwifery center. “She will make you SO CONFIDENT about what your body can do,” all caps in original. I was intrigued — and, a few hundred pages deep into Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, equal parts tentative and enamored.

Both books consisted primarily of first-person accounts of sublime natural birthing. “The ecstasy of birth was so wonderful,” wrote one mother, named Kim, after her daughter simply “slipped out.” Another went for a two-hour hike in the middle of labor. “I could feel my baby move me open, and when the intensity of the rushes increased, I just leaned on a tree.” First-time mother Celeste, furthermore, wouldn’t call labor painful — she’d call it “INTENSELY NATURAL,” all caps, once again, in the original. Then there was my favorite, Mary, who “visualized [her] yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean,” and “surrendered over and over to the great, oceanic, engulfing waves. It was really delightful — very orgasmic and invigorating.”

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Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

East Berlin, August 1990. Image by Sludge G (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)

 

This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

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Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…