Generation X: How We (ironically) Roll

I’ve been thinking lately about the role of Gen X women in the reproductive rights activism in Texas over the past year. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of how social media got us engaged in a way that seemed different. At this point, I have read countless papers (by Baby Boomers) on how GenX women (also sometimes called 3rd Wave Feminists) are disorganized, cynical, inconsistent, self-involved, and disengaged.

One particularly horrible article, written in 2001, looked at Gen X actresses and musicians as examples of 3rd Wave feminist icons. Apparently, because Courtney Love sometimes likes to dress up pretty, and sometimes doesn’t, she’s not a real feminist. (The author didn’t take into account that her drug issues had an impact on her ability to provide a perfect image.). The author cited Janis Joplin, who never liked to dress pretty, as a more appropriate feminist icon (failing to point out that Janis died young and Courtney cleaned up, at least enough to go on living into her 40s). Um, okay.   Janeane Garofalo is lambasted by the author for both refusing to conform to Hollywood’s standards of emaciation, while being honest about her self-esteem issues about her weight. According to the author, this makes her confusing and inconsistent. To me, it makes her authentic. It means she’s not agreeing with the ideology of beauty that Hollywood tries to enforce, while refusing to hide the damage that it has done to her psyche. To me, it would be inconsistent to say I refuse to lose weight for Hollywood, and I love my body all the time. No woman in this society loves her body all the time. Claiming to think and feel exactly the way you want to (or believe you should) all the time is bullshit.

Pretending to be other than we are, no matter how worthy the cause, is damaging and causes cognitive dissonance. Dissonance is the enemy of change. We feel dissonance in our bodies. When someone says one thing, but does another, it makes me feel kind of ill, especially if they seem to have no awareness that it is going on. So Garofolo avoided dissonance by saying no, I don’t agree with the Hollywood beauty standard, but yes, I feel unhappy about my appearance sometimes (after being bombarded with unreasonable beauty standards for her whole life). The thing is, you can’t avoid dissonance without recognizing that hot button issues like abortion are complex, multifaceted, and not clear cut.

So after reading a bunch of these papers about the women of my generation, I was part of a conversation with a very orthodox second wave feminist. To her credit, she is really good at explaining the effects of larger systems on individual actions.  Studying social justice and feminism from that perspective has opened my eyes about some of the faulty assumptions I make that correlate worth with financial success and lack of worth with failure. Certainly, our system is not set up to help people born into families with low incomes or darker skin succeed at the rate that those of us born into monied families with lighter skin are. Point taken.

But that’s where we diverge. At various points in the conversation, I and other participants were called “narcissistic” and “hypocritical” for not always wanting to take on and take down the established power structures that create these inequalities. For example, I teach adult students writing skills. Many of my students have writing problems, some are “disadvantaged” in more visible ways; others not. But I’m trying to think about some innovative and sustainable ways to help these people get the skills they need, because they certainly don’t lack for intelligence, depth of thought, or commitment. Apparently, my behavior is narcissistic because it makes me happy and it doesn’t fix the systemic issues of poor writing education. On top of that little zinger, she also used the word “hypocritical” to describe anyone who isn’t willing to take their principles regarding equality and fight them at the highest levels of our system. It was a very ‘Where will you stand when the Revolution starts” kind of conversation.

Now, I’m not saying that trying to change our entrenched systems is a bad thing, but it’s not the only thing. There is another option, when fighting the same war with the same people on the same ideologies starts to seem a little repetitive.

Baby Boomers (and the generation before) grew up with a very strict, prescribed view of who they were in society based on their gender and race. Men were professionals, women were wives and mothers. White men were lawyers, black men were laborers. In the 60s, a bunch of young people decided that this was bullshit. They protested, fought, got arrested, and they got the constitution amended and laws changed. They were the driving force behind creating a somewhat more fair society, where at least I, as a white girl, could grow up and expect to have a career beyond reproduction and housekeeping. This is fucking awesome.

But my generation grew up seeing the advantages and the fallout. We don’t have any illusions that the old way was good – but we see all the cracks and fissures in the “new” way as well. Our parents struggled. The income gap widened. The divorce rate when we were kids was astronomical. Terrorism. Gun violence. Drug addiction. Massive economic instability. On the plus side, our gay friends and relatives can how be married (though not in Texas), but on the minus, women are losing reproductive rights in many states. Our political system is in chaos, and it’s hard to see how it can be fixed through more pitched battles with the establishment (whomever that actually is – anyone have a good definition?).

Generation X knows these things. And Generation X cares, because we have kids now, and we want them to grow up in a better world, just like our parents did.

Here’s the thing. We are not a generation of disengaged, slacker, cynics. We’re realists. So when the system isn’t working for us, we don’t always do what our parents did. We don’t always get together and protest, and fight for little or big changes to the big powerful systems, because that takes an incredible amount of energy and rarely has much of an effect. We don’t trade one restrictive identity for another, slightly less restrictive identity. Do you know what we do? We make a better one. When the system doesn’t work, we build a new one.

When The Feminine Mystique came out, magazines, television, and radio represented women as simple, maternal, domestic creatures who should be perfectly happy and fulfilled by using shiny products to clean their houses over and over, cook perfect meals, and create perfect children. If a woman was depressed, unhappy, or wanted to get the fuck out of the house, she was sick and aberrant. Clearly, this was bullshit. Second wave feminists got together and created new magazines, like Ms., staged sit-ins in publishers offices to get press for the women’s movement, got laws changed, and raised awareness about how damaging advertising messaging was for women and girls. They marched and screamed and boycotted. They changed how women were portrayed in the media dramatically. It was epic. It was awesome.

But 50 years after The Feminine Mystique was published, advertising is still evil. Advertisers use more and more sophisticated ways to emotionally manipulate people into buying shit they don’t need, and feel crappy about themselves so they will buy more. There’s little oversight, and no ethical code. My generation grew up with this. We know that we can’t change it by telling the people making all the money that they’re doing it wrong. So we built our own media empire. It’s called the Internet.

The number of households who no longer pay for cable television has jumped 150% since 2007. My family doesn’t have cable, and we don’t watch commercial TV. We use an Apple TV to either watch Netflix or buy shows and movies through iTunes. Most of my friends do some version of the same, whether it’s through and X-box or Roku or a computer hooked up to the television. Even cable subscribers opt out of most commercials with their DVRs. I don’t watch commercials any more. I haven’t for about 10 years. So those advertisers who spend all that money trying to hook me into buying their crap don’t have access to me or my family anymore. (I’m not saying I live in an advertising proof bubble, just that I most of it out.) Instead, I watch a lot of privately produced web shows on YouTube and Funny or Die, mostly produced by people from my generation or younger.  I watch documentaries. If I want to watch a TV show, I buy it from AppleTV and watch it commercial-free. I listen to NPR. I’ve given up on most magazines, mostly because they’ve given up on content. Try comparing the thickness of a printed magazine from 10 years ago to today – no advertisers = no content. The publishing industry has been gutted, and it’s because we opted out of their crap. We opted into something we could create, control, and curate for ourselves and our children.

Blogs started off as a much sneered upon place for young adults to write bad poetry and journal about minutiae. Do you know how many books are published now that started off as blogs? How many blogs have you followed in the last few years that turned into mainstream published books? Fuck You Penguin, Hyperbole and a Half, Shit my Dad Says (now with failed sitcom pilot!), Cute Overload, multiple books by Dooce and Pioneer Woman, Momestary, Smitten Kitchen; successful blogs have spawned books, television shows, and movies. This did not happen because someone said, “We have to show those mean advertisers a lesson!” It happened because we got sick of their shit and moved the fuck on to something amazing, new, different, and ours.

When we can’t find interesting people, interesting food, interesting entertainment, interesting communities, or interesting ideas, we create them. Most of my friends are business owners or work for themselves. We don’t see social injustice as binary. It’s not either collude with the system or deconstruct the system (or even change the system) – there’s another option. Create a different fucking system. Yes, minorities are not well represented in mainstream media. But thousands of artists, including minority artists are making relevant, interesting, funny, moving, and topical art on the internet, and MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE WATCHING.

So I guess what I’m saying, is we can look at social justice issues from a fight the Man, big-brother perspective, or we can look at the larger system and decide what needs to be built, instead of what needs to be taken apart. Deconstruction can be useful, especially for bringing social inequalities into awareness. The protests this summer really helped me recognize a whole bunch of false assumptions I was making. That was super important. But what I think is even better, is taking that awareness and seeing what we can do to not only change the existing system to represent our needs and values accurately, but how we can create new ideas, new systems, and new innovations that will give people choices beyond the binary of fighting or joining what is already there. And that is what my generation does really, really well.

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