Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

 

 

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Generation X Part 3 – Islands in the Stream

When magazines used to write about Generation X, they were pretty darn concerned about how much time we spent on our own, unsupervised. The Latch Key Generation may not have really stuck to us as a name (I imagine this was partly because, what’s a LATCH key? When does anyone use the word “LATCH KEY”? It’s clearly an old fashioned word. It’s a key, guys.) but, yes, a lot of Gen X kids went home from school by ourselves because our parents were at work.

You could see this as a problem. (Oh, those poor lonely unsupervised children!) Or, you could see it as a gift. (What independence! What self-reliance!) Leave us alone for long enough, we tend to solve our problems on our own.

The kids in The Breakfast Club start their day in detention as adversaries and by the end of it, they’ve come together to challenge the authoritarianism of their school. The movie opens with a voiceover.

“Dear Mr. Vernon:
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us—in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

By the end of the film, they are the Breakfast Club and recognize that despite their very disparate identities, they are each a bit like the others.

I wonder if Gen X is in a little bit of a life-long Breakfast Club experience. We start off thinking we couldn’t possibly be like our peers. The guy with the Mohawk couldn’t possibly have anything in common with the guy in the tie who wants to be a lawyer. Hardcore and Hip Hop, Grunge and folk punk are not even the same generation, man. But then the guy in the Mohawk becomes a lawyer. And the guy in the tie discovers his inner punk and their kids now go to the same school. And we’re all writing letters to the administration, telling them we think they’re crazy.

Gen X has never been one culture and we have always been highly aware of our plurality. We are ever Freaks and Geeks. But every generation is full of this variability.

Generation painting is always a broad brush. Once you start looking at the details, it all falls apart. Broad brush generation thinking only lets us see a single stroke of color. Boomers are like this. Millennials are like that. And most people stopped worrying about Gen X in the 90s. But like an audience of people watching a show, there isn’t any real uniformity. I told a millennial man a statistic I’d read that suggested that Baby Boomers were leading the Resistance – that they were protesting in significantly larger numbers than the rest of us. The millennial was shocked because he’d just read an article about how Baby Boomers created the mess we’re in, particularly environmentally. He couldn’t reconcile the two ideas. But both things can be true. We may think of the Baby Boomers as protesting the Vietnam War but not all of them were into that. Some stayed inside. Some fought in the war. Some went to work for their family business. Some became evangelicals. Some became Presidents. We are none of us ever only one thing.

As much as I wish it were not so, Paul Ryan is Generation X. I have to allow that some Gen X-ers were not characterized by non-conformity and individuality, or at least not in the ways that we think of it. I doubt Paul Ryan was wearing black in high school or rocking out to Tupac or Nirvana. Frankly, I wish he’d read more David Foster Wallace and less Ayn Rand. But there’s not much to be done about that now. Every Generation has its villains and its heroes. If Gen X has to claim Paul Ryan, then Millennials have to claim Milo Yiannopoulos and Boomers have to claim Lil’ Donnie T. The bozos in culture are multi-generational. And so is the resistance.

We are not the same. But we’re not that different either. A generation is a culture. There are things we share and things that vary. And the overlaps can be interesting.

I read an article about Gen X from the BBC and it referenced major touchstones in British Gen X culture that defined the generation but they were things that never made it across the ocean to American Gen X. We share some culture, we share some touchstones, but we don’t share them all. But despite the major differences in our cultural tipping points, I recognized the British Gen X as the Gen X I know. I don’t know what Gen X was like worldwide or if I’d recognize Bolivian Gen X with the ease that I recognize the British Gen X but I am very curious about that. I lived in Italy in peak Gen X years and in retrospect, I see Gen X echoes in my Italian peers. I met an Italian the same age as me recently and I see the Gen X in him.

But what IS that Gen X thing I think I see? Is it our sense of humor? A spirit of heightened realism? There are things in the stereotype of Gen X that I actually like. I like the pragmatic realist, the skeptic, the cool, the anti-authoritarianism. But am I self-selecting the traits that I like and calling bullshit on the ones I don’t?

Gen X questions everything. Did we get called slackers simply because there was a popular movie called Slackers? Do we have a cynical rep because Reality Bites was a popular movie made about us? It’s all culture. It may all be bullshit. But it’s somehow meaningful bullshit.

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This is Part 3 of a multi-part series.

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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Generation X Part 2 – We Belong

Generation X has tended to resist being labeled and we also tend to resent being identified with a group. We like to think ourselves as individuals. I have a Gen X friend who finds the concept of a “hive mind” deeply troubling. It strikes him as dangerous conformity to ask the hive mind what it thinks.

I get it. I identify as a non-conformist, too. But I also grew up listening to a lot of Steve Martin records. And from an early age, I understood the irony of identifying as a non-conformist along with a group through this part of his routine:

STEVE MARTIN: And now let’s repeat the non-conformist oath! I promise to be different!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be different!
STEVE MARTIN: I promise to be unique!
AUDIENCE: I promise to be unique!
STEVEN MARTIN: I promise not to repeat things other people say!
AUDIENCE: (laughter)

Generation X has tended to view itself as an outsider. And our numbers do nothing to disabuse us of this. We were once outsiders as an aesthetic. (see also: The Outsiders, Bender and Allison in The Breakfast Club, Ducky in Pretty in Pink, Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful, and Fat Albert. Grunge and Hip-hop were outsider genres when they began.) But now, due to our numbers, we may be perpetual outsiders simply because we are always in the generational minority. It’s a good thing we have practice at outsider status!

But as much as I dig the individualist spirit of Gen X, I also see the value in thinking collectively. I think it’s amazing the way the average of people’s guesses on the number of jellybeans in a jar comes closer in accuracy than any one person’s guess. I understand the way that every audience, despite being made up of individuals, has a different quality. If you’re a performer, you’ve likely experienced how differently audiences can react to the exact same show. As groups we have personalities, a sort of dominant theme, an average of all the different flavors of jellybeans.

One of the things I admire about the generations surrounding ours is that they seem much better at gathering together than we ever were. Boomers have “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try and love another right now.” Millennials have “We are young. So we’ll set the world on fire. We can burn brighter than the sun.” And y’all get together now, and you smile on your brothers, and set the world on fire. While Gen X is like, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” and if we have to, we will “Fight for Our Right to Party” But “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and also “Everyone’s a Fucking Napoleon.”

I dig the exuberance, the positivity and optimism of the Millennials and the revolutionary spirit of our Boomer mothers and fathers. (Or big brothers and sisters, depending.) But getting together is not something I’ve ever seen Gen X be particularly good at. Maybe that’s one of the reasons there were no Gen X-ers to be found at that Saturday night in the small town, maybe we just don’t do well in crowds.

Or maybe we just don’t have the numbers. Gen X is the smallest generation, numbers-wise. In fact, after I posted Part One of this Generational Exploration Piece, several of my Gen X friends told me how outnumbered they are in their workplaces. One of them called Gen X an endangered species.

I mean, we can get our endangered selves together at the Love Shack but the car to take us there only sits about 20, even if it is a big as a whale. And maybe twenty is the most Gen X-ers we can mange to find in any given place. Certainly in that small town I visited, if I’d have gone to the Love Shack with all the other Gen X-ers in town, I’d have been headed to the Love Shack alone.

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This was Part 2 of a multi-part series. To read Part 1, click here and to read Part 3, click here.


Help a Gen X Artist save the world

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read a previous blog on Soundcloud, click here.screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-1-33-28-am

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 




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