The rise of the heroic dirtbag in 2022

This year, from "Stranger Things" to space, the dirtbag answered the call

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 31, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with delivery guards (Kenny Fullwood and Josh Herdman) in "Andor." (Lucasfilm/Disney)
Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with delivery guards (Kenny Fullwood and Josh Herdman) in "Andor." (Lucasfilm/Disney)

This summer, the song was everywhere, 22 years after its first release. The song was Wheatus' 2000 single "Teenage Dirtbag" and a sped-up version wailed from TikTok after TikTok as users, including many famous ones, posted slideshows of old photos from their youthful years, times when they were sweaty, straggly and having fun.

Colloquially, a dirtbag is a someone dirty and unkempt. Think teens hanging out in ripped tees at the skatepark, or the gas station, or the playground late at night, bumming cigarettes, pretending to not have fun on the swings, "listen[ing] to Iron Maiden, baby" as the Wheatus lyrics go. Not everyone has a dirtbag phase, and some people only have a dirtbag phrase. What about a dirtbag who saves the world? A lot? 2022, that was their year.

When the song "Teenage Dirtbag" was released, it wasn't a compliment. A teenage dirtbag was the boy your mother warned you against, the thing your father shouted at you as you sped up the stairs to slam the door to your room covered in band posters. "Go get your grunge clothes," a teacher said to me and my sister when he saw us outside Goodwill once. 

Our cultural rediscovery and recasting of the dirtbag was helped along immensely by "Stranger Things." The zeitgeist-y Netflix series helped bring the '80s back, nursing the nostalgia of Gen X-ers and introducing some younger generations, like Gen Z, to the music, malls and madness that was growing up in a time of AIDS, excess, "The NeverEnding Story" and the dirtbag.

"Stranger Things" has a few, from Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), the floppy-haired outcast who gets the girl, to really gross (like, abusive gross) and greasy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who martyrs himself. "Stranger Things" very much likes to make a bad boy go good — or die trying. Haircuts were not as rare in the '80s as the show would have you believe. But the most recent season saw our dirtbag allegiance shift dramatically. Jonathan waded heavily into stoner territory and into a weird swamp of relationship issues with Nancy (Natalia Dyer) that seem awfully contrived, plot-wise.

And a new dirtbag emerged, the one to rule them all: Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn), topping our list of brave dirtbags, from "Star Wars" to Chicago, for the year 2022.

Eddie of "Stranger Things"
Image_placeholderStranger ThingsJoseph Quinn as Eddie Munson in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)

Eddie is brash, bordering on mean. He wears his hair long and fluffy, his jeans ripped and his silver rings on many fingers. He also wears his heart on his sleeve, evidenced fairly early in last season when Eddie did his best to help Chrissy.


In the past, the show has used Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) several times as evidence of another character's true goodness, which is kind of troubling if you think about it. We first believed Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) to be a jerk (he's extremely coifed, not a dirtbag) but then he became best buddies with the younger dude. The same happened with Eddie this season. He befriended Dustin, and even younger kids like Erica (Priah Ferguson). He joined the quest and became its savior, sacrificing himself in a blaze of heavy metal glory that would make Mandy proud. 


The 2022 dirtbag answers the call.

Carmy of "The Bear"
The BearJeremy Allen White as Carmen "Carmy' Berzatto in "The Bear" (Matt Dinerstein/FX)

Eddie became so beloved by viewers, there's a vehement backlash after he was offed. My son won't wear his Hellfire Club shirt anymore (luckily, it fits me). With 2022's "The Bear," the opposite seemed to happen. The star of the Hulu series, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White), a celebrated young fine dining chef who comes home after his brother dies to run the family's Chicago Italian beef sandwich shop, has incredibly thick, incredibly greasy hair which never seems to be in a hairnet, burn scars, a lot of tattoos and sweat. So much sweat. But he won people over. Fast. 


Viewers went wild for him. Like, romantically wild. Bon Appetit describes the character as "the Sexually Competent Dirtbag Line Cook." Writer Sarah York characterizes Carmy as "a no-bed-frame man . . . Has he showered today? No. Are you going to be the one to change him and make him want to settle down? Also no!"


Lest you think the popular interest is purely superficial, Carmy also saves the day and stuff. Specifically, he saves the family's restaurant by figuring out a riddle left by his brother. And in doing so, he saves the jobs of his employees and their futures. Smart thinking, Carmy. White, for his part, said in an interview with Eater that he doesn't consider Carmy to be dirtbag but instead, as writer Ashok Selvam put it, "just a genuine and nice guy." That's exactly what a heroic dirtbag would say.

Cassian Andor of "Andor
AndorCassian Andor (Diego Luna) in "Andor" (Lucasfilm/Disney)

There's saving the family business, saving the small, perpetually besieged town of Hawkins, Indiana, and then there's saving the galaxy, one heist or prison break at a time. Enter "Andor," the orphan dirtbag. As the title character of the Disney+ hit, Cassian Andor (the magnetic Diego Luna) is a dirtbag for grownups. He's complicated, a Dickensian David Copperfield who could kick your ass or start an uprising. Depends on the day. 


His story is long and complex. He behaves thoughtlessly, making the criminal mistake at the beginning of the story that will dog him throughout the long saga. Yet he always comes back to his elderly, adoptive mother. He needs a haircut (all dirtbags do, it's part of the job), a shower and probably a hot meal. When he shaves his beard it's a big deal.


Andor can't resist the pull of home or helping. His love for his long-gone sister fuels this "Les Miz" in space, and though he's a mercenary, he only starts out that way. To be a heroic dirtbag, you must change, grow, and start to work for the good of others. What does it say about us that in 2022 that's the kind of hero we want most of all? A redeemed one? A rough around the edges one?

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In a world that pretty much feels like it's dying in a dozen different ways every day and most of the destructive forces are out of our individual control, we want to believe that one person could actually make a difference. Still. That we can, even or especially if we're young, inexperienced, jaded, dirty. If the dirtbag can do it, anyone can. We can stem the destruction of climate change, survive this unending pandemic, push back the forces of the Upside Down or the Empire, or serve lunch.   

The dirtbag is dead. Long live the dirtbag. 

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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