Hot Tub Generation X

I wasn’t going to write about Hot Tub Time Machine which I saw last night until my monthly round up, but city of tongues brought this very apposite article by A O Scott to my attention so I couldn’t resist.

Let it be said from the outset that Hot Tub Time Machine is not feat of cinematic brilliance. It has some slightly dodgy depictions of women (and men for that matter) and it does really somewhat on gross-out humour and some stupid jokes. But there is also a cleverness about it, and it is well done. As a dead-centre Gen Xer (and let’s for a moment pause and remember that there are more differences between members of a generation than there are between generation, but nonetheless), the film was hilarious. I laughed a lot, and I’m sure it wasn’t just the RTD gin & tonics we snuck in that caused that. A film about Gen Xers time travelling back to 1986 in a hot tub which stars John Cusack, probably the most grounded-in-the-1980s of stars (if Andrew McCarthy was still appearing anywhere, they might be able to arm wrestle for that title), always had potential. But casting Crispin Glover, best known for his appearances in those very Gen X formative films about kooky time travel – Back To the Future was a master stroke of winking referentialism, added to with cameos by people like William Zabka, best remembered by those of us of a certain age for his Karate Kid appearances, and you have a film which has thought about how to bond with its audience. Those viewers under 30 may not understand the humour in the references to Red Dawn or why it is hilarious to see the ski patrol boys so puzzled by the energy drink can from Russia, but let’s be honest, this film really wasn’t intended for them anyway.

In his article Scott compares Hot Tub Time Machine with The Big Chill as films which capture the midlife crisis of a generation.  Like me, he prefers Hot Tub. Both films enthusiastically revisit the music of the youth of their protagonists, and let’s say that Nick’s rendition of Jesse’s Girl in Hot Tub was quite a highlight. Both film see folk of a certain age forced to confront their expectations and hopes at a certain age and compare them with where they end up. And how they do that says something about the nature of the differences between two generations which have, in their own ways, tried to maintain an eternal youth. In Big Chill there is a lot of self-important introspection, the protagonists were going to make the world a better place but have manifestly failed to do this. In Hot Tub it is not a matter of failed idealism, but of the failure of promise and expectation, and the introspection is anything but self-important. In Big Chill the characters are brought to these reconsiderations by the death of one of them in a big country house where they cook and sing and talk endlessly. In Hot Tub they are brought together by a possible suicide attempt in a garage with vodka, and hot tub controls which react to the chemicals in a dodgy energy drink. The characters drink and have sex, and wait to see when the bell boy will lose his arm. The deep seriousness of The Big Chill underlines the very seriousness with which the Legacy Of The Sixties and the Importance Of The Baby Boom generation has come to gather, while the absolute flippancy of Hot Tub Time Machine shows that Generation X, as a group, have never had the space to think of themselves in that way, despite the massive changes witnessed as a generation and their own role in those changes.

And hey “I write Stargate fan fiction, so I think I know about time travel.”

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Mad Men and the Sixties Re-Imaged

Following a seminar presentation about the way that films made in the Reagan-Bush era depicted the Sixties, a question was asked about Mad Men. It prompted me to contemplate the manner in which the vision of the early Sixties we see in Mad Men is such a contrast to that which was evident in films from the 1980s – and also the television series of the time such as The Wonder Years.  These films tended to depict the early Sixties as a time of hope and optimism, of innocent experimental sexuality and noble youngsters with the best intentions in their hearts. I guess you know from the first season that you are in a different world as the agency pitches for Nixon.

Mad Men shows nothing of the innocence and idealism which is so apparent in previous depictions of the era. The sex is exploitative and desperate, and the nobility and idealism is drowned in whiskey and pragmatism. Paul Kinsey’s black girlfriend is mocked by Joanie as an affectation and he only goes on the Freedom Rides because he has been dumped from a work trip. The characters are intolerant and misogynist and more interested in their own lives than what is happening in the world around them. And yet, they are still beautifully crafted as characters about whom we care. Nonetheless, this is a far cry from Kevin Arnold or Baby in Dirty Dancing. Twenty years ago, depictions of the early Sixties focused on the young and told stories of learning and growing and loving and caring. it is hard to conceptualise of such an adult program as Mad Men or even a film about similar characters being made.

The reasons for this are no doubt quite varied. The manner in which the past is depicted is strongly influenced by the present in which that representation is created. The character of Betty Draper and her household frustrations and boredoms reflects and builds on the kinds of depictions of 1950s housewives which Julianne Moore has made her own in The Hours and Far From Heaven.  But her location in the early Sixties, and the partnering of her with Don and all that goes along with Sterling Cooper is something new.

I would suggest that one reason that the depictions have changed so dramatically is that those making and writing Mad Men don’t have the kind of nostalgic stake in the Sixties which those making films during the 1980s did. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, for example, born in 1965, is not looking fondly back at his own childhood or the times of his growing up. Similarly, the audience too no longer needs to see the Sixties through the rose coloured glasses that have previously applied. while totally unscientific, I know that all the big fans I know of Mad Men fall firmly within the Generation X category – and the show’s strong internet and Twitter presence would seem to indicate its own awareness of this. without resorting to generational stereotyping, there is certainly something of the rebellion against the orthodoxy of the Sixties evident within a tranche of Gen Xers. Perhaps a harder view of the period appeals to us.

So I am sure there are a lot of other reasons why the depictions of the Sixties are so different. There is also something sort of voyeuristic about watching people behave in ways which are so socially and professionally unacceptable today. The dominance of consumer capitalism and advertising and branding also make it fascinating to look back at some of the beginnings of these things. I plan to investigate all this more fully – coming soon to an academic journal near you. Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the permission we now have to look at the Sixties in a different way.

Generation nothing

When I am at work, my staff know that there is one thing that is guaranteed to make me go an kick a filing cabinet – the reduction of complex issues about the changing nature of the workforce, technology and pretty much anything else to a “Gen X/Gen Y” headline. A very over-used trope in the media, the whole Generation Y thing is particularly abused in discussions whihc focus on jobs and training and management. Unsurprisingly, definition of the generation are constantly mutable, generally fitting whatever point the author is trying to make. And massive, sweeping generalisations abound. My general irritation with the abuse of this notion means I feel I must refute, or at least discuss, a number of aspects of the manner in which this terminology is used.

The most high profile reference to Gen Y ers and their work ethic has been Senator Arbib’s speech last week which has been widely reported as having him refer to them as job snobs. While he notes in The Punch that he did not really say specifically that he does make a number of generalisations about Gen Y. The fact that the media also took the whole Gen Y job-snob label and ran with it also shows how happpily these kinds of concepts get grabbed. Of course, they aren’t new, and this, like so many other “young people today” type admonishments is hardly new. As Dr Verity Archer’s work has showed, this idea about dole bludgers has been alive and well since the mid 1970s. While the focus of the dole bludger label has not always specifically been young people, they have always been strongly associated with labelling in this way. All generations, it would seem, have their own job snobs.

But beyond the “young people today” issues we seen in the generalising about generations, there are some other aspects of the way this labelling gets used that disturb me. For example, it doesn’t seem to occur to people how discriminatory its indiscriminate use is. Try this: find any article about Gen Yers or Xers and substitute the generation label for a term like, say, “black people”, “Asians”, “women”, “Jews” or “the disabled.” The article is probably still about as true, but it will certainly seem a great deal more offensive. Discrimination occurs when individuals are treated as part of a category, for no reason other than they fit some arbitrary aspect that is the same: eg gender, religion, race or date of birth. If you substituted “all Aries people” for Gen Y people, it would seem ludicrous, but lets remember that there is pretty much the same level of arbitrariness going on.

Karl Mannheim in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge notes that  a generation can be consider a constituted group “where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the social and intellectual symptoms of a process of dynamic de-stabilization.” By this Mannheim is arguing that being born at the same time is not necessarily enough to constitute a “generation as an actuality”; for example Mannheim would point out that there is little in common between Chinese peasants born into any generation and an American of the same birthdate. As he writes, “mere contemporaneity becomes sociologically significant only when it involves participation in the same historical and social circumstances.” What Mannheim is noting here is that there is indeed a connection between people of a generation because, like women and black people, they are influenced by facing the same social circumstances from the same point of view. It is not that they are inherently the same, but that, because they have shared a range of the same social attitudes and treated, they have in common a range of socially constructed experiences.

However, and this is as always an important however, Mannheim crucially notes that  generations are not monolithic entities and that “within any generation there can exist a number of differentiated, antagonistic generation-units.” Just think back, for example, to the generation to end all generations, the Baby Boomers. Any cursory examination of that generation and the directions in which it has gone can clearly spell out the fact that a generation is not homogeneous. Paul Lyons, for example, in New Left, New Right and the Legacy of the Sixties, identifies at least four significant (American) generation groupings who were active during the Sixties: the left including protesters and political radicals; those who served in Vietnam, mostly American “proletariat and sub-proletariat”; the large “silent majority” who avoided political activism and Vietnam service; and the New Right, a “powerful conservative movement” that emerged in the Sixties.  Going back to Mannheim, he notes that  the “generation-unit tends to impose a much more concrete and binding tie on its members because of the parallelism of responses it involves.”  Thus any individual is will reflect the ideas of the particular sub-set of the generation he or she is a part of to a much greater extent than the characteristics of the generation as a whole. Even Strauss and Howe, the ra-ra agents for the notion of generational identity, implicitly note the problematic nature of generalisations about generations when writing “you and your peers share the same “age location” in history, and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you—whether you agree with it or spend your lifetime battling against it.”  And lots of people do spend a lifetime fighting against it.

So when people talk about the fact that “Gen Ys demand more from their jobs” I point out the fact that the modern workplace has changed, consciousness of entitlements and ideas of fairness are current throughout the working environment, so of course young people who have only experienced this will have different expectations. But guess what, all the Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have exactly the same expectations nowadays. Similarly, I have seen as many older people in my workplace flit from job to job as I have seen young people – guess what, this is the era of labour mobility – it isn’t an aspect of age or generation! I loved it when at a conference nearly two years ago now, one of the speakers dismissed the generation discourse and said “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t a sage, experienced, quiet, hard worker either when I was 20 – that’s about being young, it isn’t about being in any sort of generation.” Similarly when older people say “it is so hard to communicate with Gen Y” it is not a function of the generation, it is a function of the difference in ages and experience and the subsequently different points of reference in the world – and any cursory glance at literature through the ages will show that isn’t confined to people born since 1980s.

So please journalists and guest speakers everywhere, for the sake of my filing cabinets, could you just stop with this whole Generation Y crapola. It is wrong, it is discriminatory and, bascially, it is lazy!