Dispatches | December 12, 2008

As a few of my students at Stephens College and graduate students here at TMR prepare to graduate in May, I am reminded of the film Reality Bites about a group of over-educated, underemployed Generation Xers in Houston, Texas in the early 1990s. Reality hit that generation hard as they graduated into a recession that now looks paltry when compared to current tough times. Gen X was one of the first groups in recent history who economists predicted would make less money than their parents. The forecast proved accurate, and Gen X jumped off the career fast track to nowhere. Instead, they settled for McJobs or counter-culture careers and loads of leisure time. They also delayed parenthood, home ownership and basically gave up on the American dream. They psychically insulated themselves against disappointment by adopting a useful credo: “whatever,” delivered with a shoulder-shrug.
What Gen X had that the current generation of twenty-something’s lacks is a keen sense of irony. In Reality Bites, Lelaina (Winnona Rider), a valedictorian of her university and would-be documentary filmmaker, is asked to define irony, which she can’t. She complains to her roommate Troy (Ethan Hawke) about the strenuousness of the interviewing process: “I mean, can you define irony?” Troy rattles off a succinct definition. At its most basic, the movie becomes a battle between the ironic, nihilistic slacker Troy and the earnest, gainfully employed MTV-like executive Michael (Ben Stiller) for Lelaina’s loyalty and worldview. Irony rules.
In the New York Times article “Irony Is Dead. Again. Yeah, Right,” Andy Newman argues that since 9/11 and the election of Obama it has become a challenging time “for the professionally arch.” Some feel that we have an obligation not to diminish the profundity of these events with cleverness and wit. The recent criticism of The New Yorker’s Michelle-and-Barack’s-knuckle-bump cover suggests a loss of appetite for and understanding of satire. Yet, I suspect that our current economic freefall will soon sour this reverence. Irony lampoons what doesn’t measure up, and life in all its wonderful complexities provides ample fodder. As the automakers fly personal jets to Washington to beg for bailouts and former political candidates think Africa is a country and not a continent, one doesn’t have to be too concerned that irony will take more than a brief holiday.