What Alicia Silverstone Can Teach Me About Self-identity
Or, how to abandon a generational stereotype
(I didn’t have time to do a comic this week, so here’s one from the archives.)
My husband says I’m not GenX, but I’ve always identified as a youngish member of the cohort. I watched Reality Bites, I listened to REM, I said ‘whatever’ a billion and a half times. What else do I need to get my official membership card for the generation that would never have an official membership card? Writes Janan Ganesh in the FT about this indifferent demographic:
The analysis of generations can sometimes verge on pseudoscience. Each one is too internally diverse to characterise with generalities. In America, the X-ers are associated with a bleak dropout culture in the 1990s. In Britain, they stood for a hedonistic materialism. The big bands of the time rather embodied the contrast.
But whether they admired Nirvana’s insularity or the Everest of cocaine that Oasis hoovered, X-ers were united in the things they were rejecting. Big ideas. Noble causes. Political zeal.(emphasis mine)
Ganesh’s column was a superlative take on the same ideas lovely Lindy West unearthed a few weeks ago over at The New York Times, where she opined that “’90s pop culture convinced a generation of would-be earnest activists that caring was uncool.” She writes:
In the 1990s, activism — particularly student activism — was stigmatized as tedious, silly, self-important and, most damningly, ineffectual. Student activism was Paul Rudd smirking behind designer sunglasses in the 1995 movie “Clueless”: “I’m going to a Tree People meeting. We might get Marky Mark to plant a celebrity tree.”
Though I bristle a bit at being so accurately typecast, I see a lot of myself in these descriptions. At age 9, my friend Jenny formed a group called Earth Troop, where we dutifully snipped 6-pack rings and picked up beach trash. But somewhere along the way I became that 90s GenX stereotype of a human. I don’t think I thought much about the environment between ages 15 and 30. I just thought everything was fine. Which was precisely the time when it wasn’t fine:
Over the past years I’ve been whittling myself into the shape of a person who acts, redefining myself against the person I’ve always felt I was: a corduroy-wearing, paint-covered twerp who didn’t think she needed to care about anything bigger than herself. When will I finally accept that I am not carving myself in opposition to a relic of myself, but instead am this new self? We generate entirely new cells every seven years, right? I am my own Ship of Theseus: the same, but different.
I wonder if others of this generation feel similarly fraudulent in new, politicized skins? It is hard to slough off our formative selves, even as it’s more necessary than ever to mobilize our intermediary generation of it’llallbeokayers into let’seffingdothisers. Our generation is literally defined as an X, a negation of efficacy. Worse, the appointed spokespeople of this generation persist in championing this ambivalent detachment. Writes Ganesh further down in his column -
No living generation has shown less interest in changing the world. As a result, no living generation looks wiser today.
Goodness knows no one look wiser for their apathy in a world roiling with disaster and inequality. Humanity very much needs everyone with a pulse working towards this great shift. Even GenX can’t sit this one out. At the time in life where it becomes ever more difficult to do so (hello impending middle age!), we need to change.
And yes I know we are all much more than Ok Boomers or Karens or Avocado Milquetoasts, but social norms are powerful and inform so much of who we are and how we see ourselves and how we think the world sees us. Which explains why I feel sheepish when I write something earnest, or worse, impassioned. And yet we need hope and passion and vim and vigour and moxie and momentum. We need to slough off our generational identities and dance like the world is on fire. Or at least like Winona and Janeane:
What is your generational baggage and how does it affect your climate action? LMK if you please!
I’ve never been into sailing but am so interested in La Vagabonde sailing Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic in treacherous waves! Very cool to watch.
The Overton Window on climate is shifting. Yes!
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Sorry for the blip in newsletter service, I needed some time to take deep breaths and explore the restorative powers of garlic, ginger, and hours spent listening to Chilly Gonzales on my couch.
Have a wonderful week in this beautiful world. And Happy Friday!