Monthly Archives: November 2009

What is Generation Y?

You know how historians call people who came of age during World War II ‘the greatest generation’? No one will ever say that about us. We’ll be ‘the cool generation.’ That’s all we’re good at, and that’s all you and your friends seem to aspire to.

I can’t help but think these words aimed at Generation X, from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, could be somewhat applied to Generation Y as well. (Note: The words are not Klosterman’s own but rather a friend of his. Read the book for context. For the purpose of this entry, the context doesn’t matter.) Generation X was known for posturing and wanting nothing to do with the Baby Boomers who spawned them. They’ve since settled into being pretty much the same as their parents. Meanwhile, Generation Y wants to be cool, so many of them buy cool.

I want us to be able to claim responsibility, but we were brought up without knowing better. From the moment we awoke in our Sesame Street cribs, rolled over on our Sesame Street pillows, looked out at our Sesame Street wallpaper, and clutched our stuffed Big Birds, we realized that our identities were tied into the products that we bought and the  images we presented. We haven’t changed since It's telling that I own this t-shirt...then, since the cultural signals we received were all about accumulating things and putting on an image. Our cartoons were designed to sell toys (e.g., Transformers, GI Joe, Popples, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, etc.), and later even our video games did the same. (We were the first generation to encounter Pokemon.) Even the supposedly adult television shows from our collective childhood focused on image and owning stuff. I’ll give you two of the most egregious examples from my childhood: Miami Vice and Knight Rider. The former featured cool guys wearing nice suits, and the latter, subliminally subtitled FuckAwesome Car, featured a bland protagonist whose entire identity was tied to the vehicle he drove. What sort of information will children glean from that content?

Look at Generation Y today. We have so many sub-cultural identities that it’s confusing. We bought into the leftover identities from the previous generation, such as goth, but were also provided with additional ones. We’ve got the hip-hop and rap subculture, we’ve got emo, and we even have hipster. None of these identities grew organically, like the grunge movement of yesteryear. Each one of these was manufactured because Generation Y doesn’t know how to grow anything on its own. We’ve been exploited, and it’s all because we’re too naive to figure out that someone else has made us for their purposes.

But the truth is that all generations are products of the previous. It’s more than obvious to say that we’re genetic products of our priors, but I feel the need to put that out there before some smart ass comes along and tells me. Our identities are often built in reaction to the previous generations. Generation X was a result of rejecting the the suburban sprawl, boxes in a row that all look the same mentality of the Baby Boomers. Boomers wanted to make the most of the money they came into because they were the children of the penny-pinchers who came out of the Great Depression. “The greatest generation” was a united front of patriotism in response to World War II, which was a war for which they obviously weren’t responsible. Generation Y breaks the mold by not being reactionary. Our priors have purposely given us our cultural identity and are exploiting us for money.

I don’t even have to make an argument. Turn on your television or radio to imbibe the Kool-Aid. The radio is probably the most distilled form of this, as the stations mainly play the heavily manufactured nu-metal, emo (the self-indulgent “I was given everything but still feel like nothing” crap), and the current forms of rap and hip-hop. The music is less sincere than what previous generations received. (Although one has to admit that Gen X were the ones who really had to grow up with the hair bands and heavy synth of the 80’s, but their own musical movement made everything better.) All we get now are messages to buy into the music, buy into the fashion, and buy into the identities. After all, what are we if we don’t buy these identities?

Nothing.

If you respond with, “But I’m certainly not one of the people you’re talking about!”, I don’t want to hear it. You’re either a liar or an outlier, and speaking up either makes you naive or smug. Hipsters will probably be quite outspoken, as they are supposedly the intellectuals of the generation. Too bad their identity was manufactured as well, albeit in a more clever way than the others. I like hipsters because they embrace me for adoring the NES aesthetic. I don't like hipsters because they're repulsed by my comparatively encyclopedia-like knowledge about NES games... The embrace of the postmodern gives them an automatic defense mechanism. They can simultaneously embrace aspects of the other subcultures while rejecting them completely simply by saying they love something ironically. (Somehow it’s cool to love things insincerely.) The aesthetic is complicated, though. They mainly scrounge around the second-hand stores; but occasionally girls will want new berets, guys will want swanker looking hats, both will want new retro vintage t-shirts, and both will want some nice looking skinny jeans. And their subculture’s identity, again manufactured, is simply to exist and say that they aren’t part of the other cultures.

I’ve been wondering what historians will say about Generation Y when all is said and done. The recession is probably the period during which we can establish our own identity, but do we have it in us? We’ve never had an opportunity before to claim anything of our own. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to believe that people will settle into variations of the previously established identities once the economy recovers. In the end our greatest accomplishment would be proving some sociological theory. We’ve proven that cultural identity is malleable, programmable, and exploitable. We’ve proven that an entire generation of people can be brought up with its greatest distinction being that they are incapable of distinguishing themselves. I guess that makes us “the programmable generation”. I sure am proud.

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South Park: “Whale Whores” and racism

Last week’s episode of South Park was a pretty biting commentary on reactions to whaling as Check this hand 'cuz I'm marvelouswell as to the show Whale Wars. At first I thought it was being unnecessarily racist to the Japanese, a culture Trey Parker appreciates enough to have become fluent in the language. By the end of the episode, you see where it all goes. It’s pretty brilliant.

Watch the episode here.

What at first looks like a racist commentary of Japanese whaling turns into a commentary on cultural norms. We kill cows and chickens all the time. Hell, we breed them specifically for the purpose of consuming them. It’s the American way. The Japanese eat whale meat. So long as they target whales of sufficient population size, it shouldn’t be a problem. Cow and chicken populations aren’t threatened, and that’s why the world embraces our desire to ravage those particular species.

But it’s probably presumptuous to say that everyone will understand what Parker and Stone were saying with that South Park episode. The ending was just a high brow tag to an otherwise very low brow episode. Many viewers were probably snickering too much at the racism to realize that the projection of our values on other cultures is even more racist.

I want to give credit to the South Park team for how they handled the episode, but I don’t think they intended on the result they have here. The episode, as I saw it, was presented through the perspective of an unintentional racist who just happens to see the practices of other cultures as silly and primitively brutal. This is an embellishment of the perspective we have whenever we are approached by something foreign and say, “What the—? That’s not right!” And don’t say that people don’t do that. Try going out to dinner at the average American diner and strike up a conversation about the consumption of dogs and cats in other cultures. Get back to me with notes on the reactions.

The roundabout point of the episode was that whaling isn’t such a big deal considering what we do over here. I just think the meaning can easily be extrapolated for other discussion on norms, especially given the fact that they went out of their way to make the Japanese mere caricatures of their own culture. Now I just wish more episodes could be more like “Whale Whores” and less like “Butters’ Bottom Bitch”.