Songs for the Struggling Artist


Gen X and the Deadly Virus

There’s an article about Gen X thriving in these pandemic times that came out back in March when the lockdown started and has been making the rounds again recently. I haven’t read it since it came out but I remember it as “We’ve been training to sit at home alone eating pop tarts our whole lives. We’re built for this!” If I remember correctly, it spoke to Gen X’s ability to stay home and keep ourselves busy. Our time to shine! At home! With pop tarts!

But I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about this silly tweet that the city of NYC put out last summer where they admonished Gen X for the numbers of cases going up, when it was clear that they did not know who Gen X was. Did they confuse Gen X with Gen Z? On the chart, Gen X lines were sharply going in the right direction. Gen X Covid cases were the lowest on the diagram. I haven’t seen a lot more evidence in this territory but anecdotally, it would seem that Gen X generally has not been hit quite as hard by Covid as other generations, both older and younger. If it’s true, I’m sure the reasons are complex. Maybe we have more of the kinds of jobs we can do from home. Maybe we’re in a weird safe age bubble. But I suspect that Gen X just, generally, does a pretty good job of staying the fuck at home. Why? Why do I think this?

I think we heard there was a deadly virus and the way to beat it was to stay home so we stayed home. You don’t have to tell Gen X how to beat a deadly virus twice. And I think the reason you don’t have to tell us twice is that we came of age during the AIDS epidemic.

When people talk about generational markers, I’ve heard lots of folks claim that the Challenger explosion was a big one for us. That seeing that space shuttle blow up while we watched in our classrooms left a generational imprint on us. And, sure, that was a terrible tragedy – but for me, the deaths of those astronauts didn’t have nearly the impact that the death of Ryan White had on me. I was twelve when the Challenger blew up and I was already terrified of a nuclear holocaust – but the Challenger seemed to me like a dangerous situation that led to a logical conclusion. Going to space seemed risky – of course you might die!

But Ryan White was a kid about my age who had AIDS and – while word on the street was he’d gotten it from a blood transfusion – there was still a lot of confusion about how a person might contract the awful disease that was shaking up the country. We sort of knew we couldn’t get it from touching someone – but we couldn’t be sure. And maybe kissing was dangerous? I mean, maybe not. Probably not. But it could be! And while Ryan White fought just to be able to attend school, I think my generation, or at least a percentage of my generation in the USA, had the bejeezus scared out of us.

It was quite some time before the facts came in on how AIDS was transmitted and I suspect, as a generation, a lot of our nihilism or cynicism is probably connected to our responses to the AIDS crisis. Some lived fast and died young. Some lived fast and survived. And a lot of us just stood off to the side and made fun of everything because that is a lot safer. We are Beavis and Butthead. We are Mystery Science Theatre. We are the footnotes in Infinite Jest. We are Daria. We are Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice and in Heathers and in Reality Bites. Actually, we’re more like Janeane Garofalo in Reality Bites. It’s not her story. She just makes fun of it. I mean, reality bites for us, in part, because we were formed by the presence of a deadly virus – so we are particularly primed for this new one.

That’s why you don’t have to tell us twice to stay home. That’s why we look at crowded gatherings of younger and older people and shake our heads.

You don’t see us out there trying to dodge the restrictions. We’re not throwing parties or “socially distanced” festivals that are really just people hanging out in pretty normal ways. We’re not going out to restaurants as soon as they open. We’re at home. Where science has told us it’s the safest place to be.

It’s not like Gen X folks are generally rule followers. Believe me, we are not. Dumb rules are made to be broken and we break them when it makes sense to. It’s just that when the rules are clear and clearly there to protect everyone – those are good rules and we follow the guidelines. (With some exceptions, of course. You can read about those here.)

Yes, we know how to stay home, entertain ourselves and eat pop tarts (though most of us don’t eat pop tarts anymore, I’d wager) but more than those things, we came of age in a moment dominated by a deadly disease.

I watched a few minutes of the Geraldo show from 1990 where he brought in the Club Kids from NYC’s night life and they were explicit about their fashion being a direct response to the AIDS crisis. They say something like, “We can’t have sex, so we wear crazy clothes.”

Before now, I didn’t think much about the impact AIDS had on Gen X but I do recognize that defending against an epidemic is a familiar feeling and it would explain why Gen X has been more vigilant, on the whole, than other generations. We have practice, actually. We came of age with a deadly virus. We will all try very hard not die of one now, having made it this far.

The Mona Lisa is not Gen X but she does have a very Gen X look going on over that mask.

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Generation X Part 4 – I’m the Only One

If you haven’t seen it, Reality Bites was a film about a bunch of twenty-somethings trying to figure out what to do with themselves after college. (A subject that would never play with contemporary twenty-somethings – oh, wait! That’s the exact premise of Girls!) Singles was also in this genre. So was Kicking and Screaming. And also Last Days of Disco. And St Elmo’s Fire.

The funny thing about thinking about the movies of my youth is realizing the sorts of men that the culture wanted me to find attractive. Watching clips of The Breakfast Club anew helped me understand a lot about why I was attracted to jerks in my youth. (Oh, Bender! You’re just misunderstood!) Reality Bites taught me that it was better to be with a cool asshole than a nice square. Lindy West’s article “I Re-watched Reality Bites and It’s Basically a Manual for Shitheads” sums up the issues of that film quite hilariously and succinctly. Heathers features a sexy sociopath that you’re supposed to find attractive and then realize that he’s an actual murderer and that’s not really so cool, you know? In music, boys were “Nasty” and “Wild” and “Bad.” In Singles, the bar for men was so low that all the Bridget Fonda character wanted was a man who’d say “bless you” when she sneezed. The ideal Gen X man was a scruffy tortured cynic who told it like it was.

And, pretty much, this cut across genre. David Foster Wallace is the literary Gen X man. Kurt Cobain is the music version. It’s a sort of hyper-masculinity, a hyper-cool. And it was clearly toxic. Almost every icon who embodied it eventually killed himself. (Keep it together, Ethan Hawke! We’re rooting for you! Eddie Vedder – do you need anything? Any kind of support group we can send you to?) The quintessence of Gen X-ness was a sort of aggrieved masculinity. While Winona Ryder may have been a Gen X icon, she was always in a relationship with this type of cool dude.

There was never a real Gen X feminist movement. We were told our mother’s had taken care of that for us. And surely our mothers hoped they had. Some of our mothers (and fathers! There were some feminist fathers then, too!) bought us Free to Be You and Me and from that we learned that mommies were people and daddies were people and William had a doll and that it was alright for all of us to cry. Lego was for all of us and girls were told we could be anything we wanted.

But it wasn’t that easy. I’ll leave it to a male Gen X writer to speak to how boys took on these messages but I can say that there weren’t that many models for girlhood back then. The percentage of girls in film and TV has gone up in the last decade or so, due to Geena Davis’ remarkable Institute for Gender in Media but when I was a child, there was pretty much just Josie and the Pussycats for me. (And watching clips of that now, I’m a little disturbed by how much those costumes look like kitty versions of the Playboy Bunnies.) On the Smurfs, being a girl was the girl character’s only trait. While the entire village was full of male Smurfs with one defining characteristic (Brainy, Jokey, Painter, etc) the one girl was just Smurfette – the girl one. The Muppets main characters were mostly male where once again the only major female character was defined by her femaleness – and her species. And while Miss Piggy has a distinctive personality – other animals have names that define them more than their species. What if Fozzie the Bear had been Mr. Bear? Or Rolf the Dog had been Mr. Doggie? Or Kermit was Mr. Froggy?

At home we learned we could do anything but at school, and in pop culture, it became clear that mostly we were supposed to be cute, pretty and/or sexy. We were supposed to get ourselves boyfriends this way. Cool boyfriends who’d (maybe) say ‘bless you’ when we sneezed but who’d admire us and tell us we were pretty. Oh and maybe also we could go to college and learn things and maybe have a little career while we were doing that. Nothing too demanding, you understand. We weren’t gonna be challenging anyone for their jobs – don’t worry, we just want to have a little something to make us interesting enough to marry.

I was a pretty feminist kid – and I hung out with feminists. But I also wanted a boyfriend. And I felt that I’d have to sell out a little of the sisterhood, a little of my feminist sensibility to enjoy the affections of dudes. This same impulse made its way into my career. My dream was to perform in the theatre. But I clocked pretty quickly that the professional theatre was not a feminist friendly place. In one of my first acting jobs, I was berated by a costume designer because I did not own a push-up bra. “You want to be an actress? And you don’t have a push-up bra?” he said, horrified, before fitting me for the costume with the plunging neckline. I wanted to work, so I kept my feminist feelings to myself. I bought a push-up bra. I auditioned for floozies and girlfriends and vamps and worked in companies where men always outnumbered women, sometimes three to one. I knew the deck was stacked before I started but my belief in myself was so powerful, I thought it would overcome anything. Even a sexist theatrical landscape. I believed I could transform the world around me. Newsflash. I didn’t quite.

And this is a mistake that every generation seems to make. We think that by raising our girls to believe that they can do anything, that they will. But if we don’t make inroads into changing the systemic sexism, we continue to perpetuate the same patterns. Belief is a wonderful thing but without systemic changes, the same old shit gets reinforced.

The thing is, I expect older generations to be sexist and I expected my generation to be sexist. (I saw what they were seeing. I heard their jokes. I got into those arguments about boys just being better than girls.) What troubles me are the sexists that are younger than me. Because I had some idea that the generations behind me were so much more open, so much more diverse. That’s what the media tells me. Millennials have a reputation for being well ahead on cultural open-ness. And a lot of them are. But some didn’t get that memo. According to this article, the KKK was about to go out of business but are back in play due to the revitalization in the young. A third of Millennials who voted, voted for Lil’ Donnie T. This doesn’t fit into the story of who Millennials are in the common imagination. Avocado toast and Nazis wouldn’t seem to be compatible. (Also if avocado toast is a Millennial invention, I applaud you because it is awesome.)

Millennial feminists are rockin’ it so hard. I love the exuberance and the vitality of their fight. They started a dye-your-underarm-hair trend. I love that. But I watch Millennial men enjoy the same sense of entitlement that my male peers did and that the generation before them did and I can see from this angle how patriarchy gets handed down from one entitled fella to another, like property.

In my local coffeeshops, I see 22 year old men already in the seats of power while the 22 year old women chat about their internships at a magazine. I see young women defer while young men take. And it is so much worse to watch a young man do this than an old. I see young women baffled by a system that they thought was fair when they were getting good grades in school but that doesn’t seem to want them when they graduate. The system banks on young women not noticing the hurdles to their goals until they’re older and the system doesn’t value them anymore. It banks on young women being so busy trying to shape their bodies to an ideal to please some imaginary man that they won’t have time to change the world.

Gen X just got wise to this. We crossed over into the middle space and lightbulbs have started to flash. No one’s coming to fix this for us. Percentage wise, American Gen X–ers vote more than any other generation. We are politically engaged. We are calling misogyny. We are calling bullshit. But we don’t have the numbers. We’re the smallest generation.

So Millennial women, I’m especially talking to you and to you, Generation Z and whatever we’re calling the generation after you. You probably stopped reading this a long while ago, (if you’re reading at all) but if you’re still here, thank you. And I’m just going to tell you what I wish someone had told me earlier: You may think, from where you’re standing, that you will be the woman to beat the odds, that sexism won’t have its way with you. But even if you do beat the odds – one way or another, sooner or later, sexism will become apparent, if it’s not obvious already. You can be the valedictorian of your class, marry an attractive man, try and shape your appearance to please the masses, do all the work, win a bunch of battles, be fierce and capable and prepared and you’ll still be beaten by a man with none of your accomplishments or skill. You think it won’t happen to you – that you are the exception. And I hope you will be the exception. But I have yet to see a woman make it through a few decades without some patriarchal bruises, even if she doesn’t recognize them as such. If you start fighting it now, Millennials and Gen Z and beyond, maybe you won’t have to watch the generations that follow you go through the same frustrating cycle.

This makes me think of Good Girls Revolt, the TV series. (The book is fantastic, too.) Good Girls Revolt tells the story of the young women working at Newsweek in the 1960s. In the TV series, there is a character who doesn’t join the lawsuit filed by most of the female employees at first because she’s doing well. She gets opportunities other women aren’t given. She feels exceptional, because she’s the one beating the odds. She rises in the ranks. Then, in her position as the token woman, she runs face first into some high level sexism. The show perfectly illustrates why the exceptionalism we can fall victim to can be so damaging to our progress as a whole. Our power is in collectivity.

Each generation seems to look at the ones before it, blaming them for their troubles, while meanwhile, in our own midst, the same trouble is brewing. While I was busy worrying about the Baby Boomer Patriarchs and OG-xers in charge, many of the men in my generation were busy learning how to take their places. I missed it because I was too busy working on my exceptionalism. Now as I watch it grow up behind me, I see how it happened. We hope each generation will be better than the last and in some ways they are. But the patriarchy is still in the water.

I know some amazing Millennials of all genders but watching entitled white male Millennials embrace their power gives me the shivers – because the world has a slot for them that they have only to step into to fill. This happened in my generation too – but I missed it because I was too busy looking at the sexism ahead to worry about the sexism next to me. And there was plenty.

When I started my theatre company in 2001, there were dozens of others doing the same. But as I went on, the men’s companies received recognition while the women’s companies floundered. The companies started by men were reviewed and funded and mentored and fostered and encouraged, while the women worked on in obscurity until most of their companies finally folded. While it was happening, I thought it was just me, that somehow my work just wasn’t as good as all those guys getting reviews. It was exceptionalism again but the shadow side of exceptionalism. And in my generation, pointing this sort of thing out wasn’t cool. (And as we learned from our films and music, cool was the best thing to be) so I went along, hoping to swing from the shadow exceptionalism to the one in the light. I think a lot of us did this. Maybe every generation falls victim to exceptionalism. Each generation thinks it will be the one to beat the odds. Each generation blames the other generations for the problems in our own.

Perhaps nothing makes us more American than this attachment to exceptionalism. Even if we don’t necessarily believe in American Exceptionalism, (if we don’t think we are an exceptional nation, for example) we might still find ourselves believing we are exceptional individuals. I suspect that this impulse to believe we will be the exception is how we end up with such abysmal safety nets, such terrible health care and so on. We always think we will be the ones to rise above, that we won’t get sick, that we alone will beat the odds. It is the dark shadow of American optimism. Maybe Generation X is the dark shadow of the optimism of the generations that surround us.

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This is Part 4 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

And to continue: Part 5 is here and here is Part 6.

 

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