Reality bites, so of course Generation X was always going to sell out and vote Republican

Turns out that in the fantasy world of Gen X films, it was a mistake to believe more of us related to the slackers

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 20, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Ethan Hawke sits with Winona Ryder in a scene from the film 'Reality Bites', 1994. (Universal/Getty Images)
Ethan Hawke sits with Winona Ryder in a scene from the film 'Reality Bites', 1994. (Universal/Getty Images)

Among the movies purporting to have captured the essence of Generation X's identity, "Reality Bites" probably has the highest name brand recognition and one of the lower levels of realism.

Nevertheless, three decades after its release, the romance it peddles is easy to comprehend. The movie stars Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn as four friends, all recent college graduates, settling into some version of adult independence in Houston, Texas, only to discover that the game of life isn't as straightforward as Milton Bradley led them to believe.

Ryder's heroine Lelaina Pierce is an aspiring documentary filmmaker who plummets from her aspirational heights as the valedictorian of her class to taking abuse as a lowly production assistant at a local daytime show. Her roommate and will they/won't they pal Troy Dyer (Hawke) shambles through his days, cigarette dripping from sullen lower lip and bouncing from one minimum wage gig to another while pouring his creativity into his coffee house band.

Ben Stiller, who made his directorial debut with this movie, cast himself as Michael Barnes, a successful TV executive competing for Lelaina's affection. He wears nice suits, drives a new convertible he can plainly afford, and expresses passionate interest in Lelaina's biographical documentary project. He's also terribly uncultured.

Snappy comebacks don't pay the rent.

Michael is kind, patient and clear about how much he cares about Lelaina. Troy, meanwhile, is emotionally distant and fickle. Troy can also quote lines from "Cool Hand Luke" and rattle off the correct definition of irony – something Lelaina couldn't do when asked by a potential employer – whereas Michael thinks I.Q. stands for "intelligence quotations."

Their differences come to a head in a scene when Michael picks up Lelaina for a date and Troy goads him into an argument that ends with Michael telling Lelaina, "Let's go. You don't need this."

Troy snaps, "You don't know what she needs."

At this Michael turns back to him and says in a menacing voice, "I think I know what she needs in a way that you never will."

Another snippet of dialogue from this scene is quoted more frequently; it's the exchange where Michael asks Troy, "Have I like stepped over some line in the sands of coolness with you? . . .  Because, excuse me, it's as if somebody has to know a secret handshake with you." Troy replies, with the sexiest sneer, "There's no secret handshake. There's an IQ prerequisite, but there's no secret handshake."

But the back-and-forth about knowing what Lelaina needs nails the Gen X mindset more accurately than nearly everything in else the film. Troy is always locked and loaded with the perfect comeback which, through the coke bottle lenses of 1994, makes him the hero, the erudite area iconoclast reminding Lelaina to never compromise her creative vision, and never sell out.

"Reality Bites" is an idealized distillation of what popular culture decided Generation X was as opposed to reflecting the truth.

Viewing the movie three decades later, and from the perspective of our low social tolerance, high economic anxiety era, that edit doesn't quite fit. Snappy comebacks don't pay the rent. For that, you need a steady paycheck, ambition and a dedication to protecting what's yours. Selling out gets you paid.

This illustrates why "Reality Bites" is an idealized distillation of what popular culture decided Generation X was as opposed to reflecting the truth of what the majority of the 65 million Americans born between 1965 and 1980 have turned out to be – a cohort that is overwhelmingly planning to vote Republican in the midterms, according to recently published findings from a New York Times/Siena poll. And that is not an aberration: a poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist released in April reflected the same skew.

Kurt Cobain of NirvanaKurt Cobain of Nirvana (Getty Images/Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Gen Xers were defined by our apathy, and nobody wants to look at that.

"How on Earth can this be?" you may be asking. We get it. For the second half of the 1990s, the entertainment industry tried to convince the world that the MTV Generation was dominated by Troys. Troys, we are led to believe, idolized Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and, we assume, agreed with his proclaimed anti-racism and support of gay rights.

Then the world forgot about us. No joke. The willful overlooking of Generation X by mainstream news organizations and popular culture has become a meme.

The same marketers who benefited from the FCC deregulating restrictions on advertising in children's programming after Ronald Reagan took office skipped on down the road to the Millennials. But not before replacing "Schoolhouse Rock" and "Captain Kangaroo" with half-hour animated toy commercials we know as "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers."

Gen Xers were defined by our apathy, and nobody wants to look at that.

Most Xers were raised to fend for themselves in a societal environment that showed there were no guarantees in life, evidenced by the poor job market that greeted many college graduates in the so-called "Slacker" era. (But let's put this in perspective: Millennial college graduates had, and are having, a much tougher time.) Those are reasons to crave career success and economic stability, like Stiller's Michael. This is reflected in findings from the Pew Research Center from 2014, when 44% of Xers were more pessimistic than Boomers or Millennials that they'll have enough money for their retirement.

They're also the reason many people prefer not to think too much about the ramifications of how their choices might affect the world around them, like Stiller's Michael, who reacted to being dumped by Lelaina by creating a TV melodrama featuring characters based on her and Troy.

Posters of the Benetton brand including the newborn on the right in September 1991 in Paris, FrancePosters of the Benetton brand including the newborn on the right in September 1991 in Paris, France (William STEVENS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Remember, we're also the United Colors of Benetton generation, the same demographic for which CK One – a gender-neutral fragrance! – was developed. We were the ones who bought into the music and fashion world's '90s global vision of multiracial harmony. Racism? Solved! So why should we promote divisiveness in our kids' education in 2022?

The view from 2022, when Generation X has inherited the sins of the Boomers and seems content to continue perpetuating them, may lead one to conclude that Michael was the true Xer while Troy is an apathetic elitist. He's the kind of fellow who's convinced he knew what the world needs in the way the rest of the slouches around him never did. He explains why Generation X is overwhelmingly more likely to vote Republican, including supporting Donald Trump.

After all, what is Trump if not the perfect collision of a generation's programming to accept branding as truth, including his claims to be a great businessman and a "political outsider" who could drain the swamp?  

Once reality set in, and it became obvious that the alligators and mosquitoes weren't going anywhere, the Xer's allegiance to their chosen political product morphed into pragmatism, convincing themselves that the lying showbiz huckster may be better for our retirement plans. 

Boomers still hold the most sway in Congress and have spent several decades loosening regulations that were meant to protect the environment and provide a social safety net for the most vulnerable among us. Boomers and the Silents before them also made tremendous strides in the arenas of civil rights and women's equality and secured protections for reproductive autonomy.

Generation X benefited the most from these gains. Now, three Supreme Court justices hailing from that generational cohort – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett – are taking tremendous pleasure in joining their Boomer counterparts in rolling them back. We got ours, right?

Again, there are many movies and TV shows that encapsulate the Generation X experience better than "Reality Bites," although the makers and stars of most of them may be loath to describe their work as strictly reflective of that cohort. The creators of "Friends" made every effort to distance themselves from the label when the show first came on the air. I also doubt that, for example, Mike Judge would describe his modern classic  "Office Space" as a Generation X movie even though it brilliantly reflects the 1990s workplace experience.

Neither of those titles is set to be revived as a TV series. But "Reality Bites" is being developed, again, into a TV show for NBC's streaming service Peacock, written by the original screenwriter Helen Childress. (The network first tapped Stiller to adapt it for TV in 2013; the "Severance" creator is not attached to this version.)

Regardless, Childress and Stiller's original fantasy about that age inadvertently explains why so many white Generation Xers are ready to blithely slide the meter back on progress. As author Ted Halstead directly describes in a philosophically corrective essay on Xers published in a 1999 issue of The Atlantic:

. . . there is a general decline in social trust among the young, whether that is trust in their fellow citizens, in established institutions, or in elected officials. These tendencies are, of course, related: heightened individualism and materialism, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, tend to isolate people from one another, weakening the communal bonds that give meaning and force to notions of national identity and the common good.

Halstead prophetically added: "Today's young adults will be remembered either as a late-blooming generation that ultimately helped to revive American democracy by coalescing around a bold new political program and bringing the rest of the nation along with them, or as another silent generation that stood by as our democracy and society suffered a slow decline."

Or, in the words of Hawke's Troy, "I'm not under any orders to make the world a better place, Lelaina."

We can't claim we weren't warned.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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