The 90s vs. Today: Liberal & Cultural Shifts

The 90s vs. Today: Liberal & Cultural Shifts

Millenials and Gen Z are often put at loggerheads with Boomers over a variety of socio and economic issues, primarily revolving around what’s been lost in privilege and ambition. To an extent however, our experiences parallel those of the youth in the 1960s when cultural revolutions stirred fresh bouts of hope and vigour for civil rights and a new quasi-enlightenment. Now, if we travel back to the 1990s, we can see quite a juxtaposition in the cultural values and liberal ideals espoused then, by the rising Gen X, against what’s promoted today.

In the 1990s, a new world was born from the metaphorical ashes of the Cold War. What was important in the 1980s became promptly unimportant in the 1990s. George H.W. Bush’s policies no longer reflected America as they had done four short years before and in 1992, the people were ready for a new kind of leader and Democrat (and you may interpret that “kind of” as you please) in Bill Clinton; a fresh young face of 40-something. In the meanwhile, the gaudy, glitz of 80s popular culture was eviscerated and torn a part by the ushering in of a more natural, albeit pessimistic dress sense and music scene. Nirvana rose to prominence in glorious fashion, even if it was against their singer’s instincts. Bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden followed suit, undoubtedly talented and unique in their own way, though far from what one could have imagined ten years before, occupying the mainstream Skateboarding took on a whole new dimension of popularity. Indie, auteur filmmakers emerged as the exciting current in cinema. The Simpsons undercut the idealistic family-centric tendencies of 80s television and the attitude which dominated youth culture got drawn as one of indifferences and cynicism.

It was a time buoyed by economic growth and hopeful prospects in America but, alas, the spirit of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, or even 70s wasn’t there. Perhaps this can be attributed to the age-old truth that successive generations will go against what their parents did before (or at least go in a different directions). Perhaps, a new attitude was born as a reaction to the overt-commercialisation and rightward trend of 1980s politics. It’s difficult to determine any one specific truth, especially when covering a subject as broad as generational divide. It’s fascinating, more so, when we reflect on these cultural values in light of what we see today.

A good case study for this cultural shift can be found in the Bill Clinton scandal. The Monica Lewinsky one. Today, we look back on it as an abuse of power and a classic case of sexism dictating media. We acknowledge that Lewinsky was treated unfairly, especially with the hindsight of the toll it took on her mental health. This wasn’t the popular perspective of the time however. People were certainly outraged that Clinton had acted the way he had but more so because he lied about it under oath and because of the headache the ensuing impeachment hearings caused (which eventually yielded a positive upswing for him in the polls, when people felt the Republicans were pushing it). Lewinsky, meanwhile, was subjected to a barrage of late-night jokes and dismissed by many as a silly, immature home-wrecker.

Was it a case of people back then lacking empathy? Well, the treatment Lewinsky was given by the media was cutthroat and cruel but for many, Clinton too had been given merciless scrutiny from the get-go; like no other president before. And for the most part, Democrats were happy with his performance. What was this scandal in light of the greater issues at hand then? Of course, today, this scandal still comes to the forefront of any profile on the 42nd president, which suggests perhaps that we take these work-relationship dynamics more seriously and/or have lost perspective on what’s actually important, feeding the outrage machine further.

This conveys that people were somewhat looser with political correctness in the 1990s. The decade before had been a PC one, in its own sense, albeit of a right-wing, religious kind; apparent notably via the relatively safe-handed approach taken to TV sitcoms and movies. Where the ’70s had reflected a Vietnam-era, mistrust in authority attitude (with the likes of Taxi Driver and Serpico), often with morally ambiguous protagonists, the 1980s saw the rise of a more capitalistic, spectacle type of entertainment. The good guys were once again the good guys.

Artists of the 90s sough to separate themselves from the 80s by creating less formulaic, hero-first works, by returning (in part) to the ethos of a now-nostalgic 70s. Quentin Tarantino was at the forefront of a new kind of cinema; a fantastic of 70s films, he instilled his with references to the greats, morally-ambivalent characters, and violence. Indie darling Richard Linklater meanwhile, made movies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise about clever, if somewhat aimless characters just trying to figure their way out in the world. Plot wasn’t even a concern in these cases. Kevin Smith’s Clerks followed suit. And in these movies and TV shows of the time, what emerged was a prevailing sense of disillusionment with the ways of old, a “whatever, man”, middle-finger approach to the world.

Some of that independent spirit can still be found in movies today, though it rarely makes the mainstream or a cultural footprint as it did back in the 90s. And where many 90s shows (e.g. Seinfeld) couldn’t have given a damn about pertaining a moral message, today we’re seeing politics enter the narrative of even Marvel TV shows. The politically incorrect, apolitical tone of the 90s (and 00s’ media) is no longer cute but irresponsible. Critics and social media hounds are always ready to pounce if something “problematic” should arise.

This kind of activism really divides the cultural outlook of today against the 90s. Between social media, regular media, and the arts, everything feels politically-driven today. It’s easy to decry this but within the vortex of political correctness and cancel culture, one could argue that we at least try to care a bit more. “Woke” culture may lead to some seriously cringe Twitter posts by “allies” but at its essence, it demonstrates an active effort to diversify and better the prospects of others. Such thinking wasn’t necessarily disparaged in the 90s but authenticity was key to credibility in such instances (i.e. they had much a more acute BS radar). To sell out and commercialise yourself (or play to the masses) was just about the worst thing you could do as an artist. (Nowadays, musicians make songs for food delivery services.) With that said, the 90s seemed to glorify dangerous trends such as the ultra-skinny heroin chic look which showed that maybe there was simply just another orthodoxy to follow (bringing into question the idea of authenticity).

In so far as a narrative is concerned, history will often find fashion trends fading and returning. This applies to cultural outlooks too, in broad strokes. Just as we look back on the 90s and early 00s with rose-tinted glasses, so too did people in the 90s look back on the 70s (Dazed and Confused), and people in the 70s looked back on the 50s (American Grafitti). The lesson here is similarly broad but pertinent, given the self-righteousness of some liberals today: you’re not necessarily right about everything. So as heroin chic was seen to be a psychologically damaging trend, maybe too will we see the current body-positivity movement to be fraught with complications, sidelining health issues. Maybe Clinton’s neo-liberalism set the Democrats back progressively but maybe today’s progressives are undermining the electoral credibility of their party? History has to move on and we should not be apathetic about our cultural values but we shouldn’t arrogantly assume that we’ve reached the nadir of enlightenment either. Every generation could be marked out for its mistakes and embarrassing philosophies. I’m sure ours will be just another one.

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When The Boomers Sold Out

When The Boomers Sold Out

Following on from my last piece about Gen X’s low-profile status when juxtaposed against Boomers and Millenials, I thought it was worth revisiting the murky subject of generational struggle. This time however, I will be focusing on the generation that just won’t die off: The Boomers.

These illustrious, seemingly all-powerful beings were born roughly between the early 40s and early 60s and came into their own at a time of great economic improvement and opportunity, greater music, and massive cultural change (i.e. the ’60s). Indeed, the popular picture that’s been painted of this era is one of revolutionary zeal, free spiritedness, and tremendous progress on Civil Rights; a time of renewed hope for mankind, following the bleakness of the Silent Generation. Of course, theirs was not a time without struggle as Vietnam and race riots dominated the news in the late ’60s while the ’70s saw staggering oil inflation, a decline in respect for politics (following Nixon), and the continuation of the Cold War. By the time of the 1980s however, the Boomers had found a sure footing in America as the dominant electorate and net of cultural values. And… that’s where things changed.

Now, it goes without saying that an entire generation cannot “sell out”; at least not in terms of its populace. With that self-evident notion hovering above us however, let’s consider how the radiant plumage of the ’60s got withered away and replaced with the shoulder pads, dodgy hair-dos, and new right or neoliberal values of the ’80s. Gone were the days of the “Hippie Revolution”; it was in with the “Commercial Revolution”, the “Reagan Revolution”, and a new mentality for an a generation graduating into their mid life.

What happened?

We’ve already touched on the struggles of the ’70s, if not the psychological and cultural repercussions they bore. Most people’s idealism will at some point be compromised by the practicalities of adult life when children, careers, and other factors come into the equation. The teens and young adults of the late ’60s simply grew up at some point. They were jaded, with that said, by the experiences of their time. While 1967 boasted the so-called “Summer of Love”, 1968 brought the “Summer of Hate” with revolutionary spirits leading to protests and then quashed protests. The loveable druggies of the Hippie era became, in part by reality (but also by the Media and politicians) the junkies of the following decade. Lyndon Johnson’s progressive agenda was torn asunder when Vietnam clouded his resume, not to mention the rise of Nixon (who hated Hippies and started the War on Drugs). With the sullen decline of this spirit in the ’70s (the decade of “Malaise”), it was no wonder why many Boomers were ready for a fresh start with the ’80s.

Ronald Reagan was able to sell that “fresh start” for many. Whilst his administration pushed America on a right-wing trajectory (it’s largely followed since) that would actually (in years to come) negatively affect the majority of Americans, he was able to sell it with a winning smile and the profile of a true leader. Enough Americans believed things were improving (having faced the “tough love” years of the Carter Administration) and voted him back in in 1984 as well as his successor, George H.W. Bush in 1988. The Democrats, in meek response, basically followed the New Right to the centre, whereby they could get a New Democrat-type politician into power with Bill Clinton in 1992 and so on… Politics aside, the point is that Boomers, having taken the largest share of the electorate by the 1980s were the ones to benefit from the initial economic upturn. Thus, even a mantra like “Greed is Good” (meant as a warning from Oliver Stone in 1987’s Wall Street) came to exhibit a twisted kind of wisdom for its age.

Ronald Reagan, keeping it real

Bruce Gibney, author of A Generation of Sociopaths has been particularly critical of this turn of events. Speaking in an interview with Vox at the time of the book’s release, he said:

“Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.’ This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatised gain and socialised risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant bomber economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.”

The “Trickle-Down” economic model has been something of a “greatest hits” piece for the GOP since the 1980s. It would be foolish to state however that Boomers knew what they were in for with such changes. Even the politicians of the time, bent on conservative policies, couldn’t have known. With that said, that particular decade did set a damaging tone for what was to follow. The future of subsequent generation’s retirement funds, college loans, mortgages, and more were determined by what was set out then. At least in the 1970s, when there were economic struggles, there was some measure of co-ordination between Republicans and Democrats to balance out the extremes of either side that have increasingly flourished since. In many ways, it was a time of more liberal economic and political thinking.

The ’80s saw the rise of modern commercialism and a quasi-sanitised media too. Malls replaced high streets and new kinds of products lined the window faces of the shops built within. Movies of the ’70s, built on morally ambivalent antiheroes and dark realities faded from popularity as likeable heroes again took the screen. “Just Say No” and other family-friendly values and slogans helped push cheesy sitcoms to the fore. CDs saw the introduction of “Parental Advisory” stickers with censorship prevailing in the MTV era. Language and content were closely monitored on TV. It was a different kind of political correctness, to what we’re used to today, buoyed mostly by the New Right with puritanical leanings. All that is not to say great art wasn’t born out of that decade because it was but it was certainly symptomatic of a new way of refining the cultural values of the time.

American culture naturally moved on from the ’80s, with some persuasion from Gen X and subsequently Millenials in the following decades but by the mid-late ’90s, Boomers had effectively seized the reigns of power, which they still have tremendous persuasion over.

It is a harsh indictment, yes, and perhaps one a millennial, such as myself should be careful about castigating. As aforementioned, it’s generally the case that people will have different concerns in their 20s to what they have in their 40s. And the latter group, having moved up the career ladder, will have more money and more likely to grow conservative. People in their 20s want to see change. People in their latter years, less so. Plus, we’re not the first generation to think we know better or are “with it”. As Holly Scott put it in The Washington Post, of this generational divide:

“Young radicals believed they were ushering in a new America, and those over 30 were hopelessly out of touch and not to be trusted. Today’s youths have ‘Ok, boomer’. The youths of the 1960s had a different taunt: Mr. Jones, derived from the Arron saint of the youths, Bob Dylan, who sang, ‘ something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?'”

Perhaps, like the Boomers, we are destined to meet a dead end, to hit a brick wall? Perhaps each generation is bound to retrace the same, familiar patterns if within a different context? And perhaps still, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “every generation needs a new revolution”.

What About Generation X?

What About Generation X?

Boomers and Millenials don’t get along. Where Boomers, in the post-war economic boost, saw a general incline in the quality of life and retirement benefits, Millenials feel they’ve been given the short-end of the stick with increasing opportunities for debt and later-retirement. Meanwhile, Boomers feel their foes have become increasingly fragile and dependent on benefits that didn’t exist way back when. To each other, the stereotypes are consolidated, ruminated upon, and passed around for affirmation across social and traditional media. In the midst of this quagmire however lies a “forgotten” 65 million Americans we sometimes call “Generation X”.

Who comprises this mysterious assembly of shadows, you may ask. Born between the mid ’60s and the early ’80s, this generation saw a displacement in the values and philosophies placed before them. With the thaw of the ’60s counter-culture giving way to the commercial assembly-line of the 80s, the rise of the right, and the formation of the neoliberal left, they grew up with a somewhat despondent and disinterested outlook on life and politics. It was a time when children were raised by TVs (as both parents went to work), when walkmans roamed the Earth, and when being cool meant you didn’t care. Highlighted by the raucous fuzz of grunge in the early ’90s, the emergence of hip-hop, and indie auteurs in cinema (Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, etc), this generation paved its own path demarcating itself from the passions and dominance of the generations preceding and succeeding them.

Now, all this talk of generational values is of course susceptible to inferences of exceptions and accusations of generalisations. With that much acknowledged (for the sake of it), I would still agree with Rich Cohen’s point of view (from Vanity Fair in 2017) that the “shared experiences” roughly define a generation and our purpose in examining them. And as he puts it, with such flavour, Gen X was shaped by “irony and a keen sense of dread”, almost sharing “more in common with the poets haunting the taverns on 52nd street at the end of the 30s than the hippies at Woodstock”.

This is an interesting association. In poetic form, it is sometimes philosophised that trends associated with one generation skip the next before re-emerging (like fashion). To an extent, one could argue that Millenials and Boomers share in common, a sense of passion for civil liberties and rights (at least drawing a parallel between today and the late 60s). However, again as it is worth noting (along with this entire piece), this is speculative and may cause distress to some.

Speaking of “distress”, it is sometimes noted that what divides Millenials from Gen X is this sense of “fragility” touched upon so delicately earlier. Gen X, being the “whatever, man” generation, are thought to be less emotionally involved and politically fired up (for all the good and bad that comes with that). One doesn’t have to look back too far to see a time when not every chat show was dominated by politics and when the dominant subject of a presidency was an affair with an intern. Perhaps this sense of displacement and disinterest was based on how the Boomers came to adopt new ill-fitted power suits with giant shoulder pads in the ’80s, when the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s was paved over for a parking lot. Perhaps, this disenfranchisement was wrung from disappointment.

A part of me feels a little annoyed for Gen X because many of the woes of Millenials are shared by them, to some extent. For example, they only control 16% of wealth in the US despite being in the 40-55 age bracket and having both Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos (where Boomers control over 50%). They’ve got their share of debt and suffered through the dotcom bust and 2008 Financial Crash at pivotal times of home ownership in their age group. Plus, they’ve had to watch their beloved VHS and DVDs die tragically. They’re the first generation to be worse off than their parents in terms of retirement.

Now, many of the debt woes that plague both generations have gotten worse, like college loans. In this sense, Millenials are worse off in facing an even grimmer future. But let’s face it, they suck up too much oxygen in this room. Gen X deserves some attention too. Perhaps, their unflinching, shoe-gazing, Breakfast Club, Ethan Hawk-ish, Kurt Cobain, ironic ways have led them to sulk where others shout. Perhaps, these Boomers serving in office till they collapse hasn’t afforded them the chance to do the shouting. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly why they’ve been left in the dark but their influence may yet come (or comeback) to the forefront of our political and cultural zeitgeist.

To leave this destination-less fathoming on a note of some aplomb, I’d like to quote George Orwell (the Stephanie Meyer of his day): “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it and the one that comes after it.” So the next time you’re thinking of those unyielding Boomers or those self-righteous Millenials or whatever Gen Z is, spare a thought for that kinda-somewhere-in-the-middle-but-not-really-generation that is Generation X.

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

How Sitcoms Reflect Their Times

Like many of yous, I’ve been eagerly awaiting new episodes of the Marvel series Wandavision each week. Besides fitting in with the greater course of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and boasting an interesting premise in itself (and no spoilers, don’t worry), what delights me is the attention paid to the shifting styles of sitcoms from the 1950s to the 2010s. It’s so expertly executed each episode that it stirs nostalgic feelings, even for times before my own (1991 on).

As someone who unabashedly lives in the past, I can’t help but remark how much our sensibilities have changed; evident even in such a specific format as the sitcom. Where some subjects were once taboo (the word “pregnancy” wasn’t used on I Love Lucy in the 1950s) and others prioritised (the traditional family unit), we now tend to approach these issues and images with a much different set of eyes. Of course, this can be traced through cultural developments that extend beyond the sitcom, but for a format that’s (more or less) remained consistently popular, I think some of these changes are more readily apparent.

1950s-1960s

With the advent of TV in American households, a novel form of entertainment was born. Being a rather conservative era (culturally), risqué subjects weren’t often broached with emphasis instead placed on garnering comfortable content that would make audiences tune in each week. To this end, the format was developed with strong lighting, familiar camera angles, likeable characters who embodied the American middle class ideal and below the line, comedy fodder (slapstick gags, catchphrases, etc.) Some of the popular sitcoms from this era included I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Andy Griffith Show.

1970s

The 1960s saw remarkable cultural change with the rise of the counter-culture and boomers beginning to assert their voices. Plus, colour started creeping onto TV sets, setting the stage for a new era of television. Despite the vibrancy of these tones and the fashion however, sitcoms began to reflect a more realistic world, focusing on friends, family, and the workplace. Taboos also began to be addressed, such as abortion, in shows like All In The Family.

1980s

A crazy decade for sure but again, the sitcom snuggly repeated tropes on the cozy, ideal American family unit. In an era of conservatism and Reagan, heavy-handed morals also began to dominate many shows (“just say no” to drugs, etc.) The wholesomeness of this era was reflected in Family Ties, The Cosby Show (now ironically), and Cheers, among others.

1990s

The sitcom continued to follow some of the usual cliches but with an increased air of rebellion against the traditional family unit becoming the norm. Gen-X were now asserting their claim to TV. This was thanks in part to The Simpsons, which flared up the culture wars when President George H.W. Bush reflected his hopes that there were more families “like the Waltons and less like The Simpsons.” Alas, his finger wasn’t on the pulse there. Instead, parental figures would increasingly become the ire and mocking of the “school sucks, parents blow” ethos.

Working class families and family dysfunction began to also see some representation with the likes of Roseanne, although on the whole, we were still dealing with conventional values.

2000s

The sitcom format was more purposefully challenged this decade with the likes of The Office reflecting a reality-TV obsessed world. Catchphrases by this point had largely become hokey and laugh tracks were on the way out. As The Office and shows to follow took up a mockumentary-style format, others like Malcolm In The Middle and Scrubs experimented with narrative. Thanks to globalisation, syndication, and the Box set market, shows also became a lot more attuned to retention humour, relating to the popular culture they were influencing.

2010s

With traditional networks losing ratings as streaming became the norm, the sitcom was seemingly on the decline. Still, there was plenty of room for the likes of Modern Family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine to thrive. What’s especially notable about the sitcoms of more recent years is the diversification in cast members and the deconstruction of the family unit, to reflect something less traditional. On the other hand, where the 90s and 00s saw moves away from moralistic standpoints, the 2010s revived this sense of idealism, in part (albeit in a far more progressive and tactful way, perhaps reflecting millennial indignation, as opposed to the despondency of Gen X).

Change and Consistency

Any discussion of generational change is bound to ensnare the trappings of misgivings and generalisations but sometimes, it’s worth drawing a sketch. To an extent, the sitcom really hasn’t changed all that much, considering the span of decades in discussion. The same innovations in lighting and cinematography, largely pioneered by Karl Freund for I Love Lucy in the ’50s set the stage for what followed with many classics like Growing Pains, The Golden Girls, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, Seinfeld, and Friends. Sure, single-cam sitcoms have replaced multi-cam ones in many instances, the laugh track has largely died out (a positive development, in my opinion), and the American family has changed in appearance but many of these popular shows have thrived because they’ve all shared the collective space of comfort TV. We relate to and enjoy returning to the lives of these characters and the wacky shenanigans they get up to. It’s likely, there’ll always be a space for such light-hearted entertainment, even if the streaming services get the bulk of their kudos from the heavy-hitting dramas.

What Wandavision has managed to achieve, in this regard, is giving us a glimpse into the sensibilities of the eras it depicts. We see the idealism of the Eisenhower era, the cultural change of the 1970s, the pop-punk aesthetic of the MTV generation, and the onset of the modern era. They’re not wholly accurate representations, sure, but they reflect the popular images we’ve come to appreciate of these times (which in part, then also reinforces the nostalgic preoccupation of today). And as art imitates life, the opposite often holds true as well.