On Irony and Millennial Rage, Pointedly

I am a Millennial. I live in the age of technology, apathy, and stagnancy. I find myself, for some reason, oddly incensed when I read articles decrying the state of our Millennial generation and the effect we’ll have on the future.

One of my friends posted a link to a New York Times op-ed piece called “How to Live Without Irony” on his facebook wall. I, being the curious creature that I am, clicked on it. And I’ve been in a Millennial fury ever since.

The article focuses on irony as the “ethos of our age” and discusses hipsters as “the archetype of ironic living.” Before I even begin, I must state that I believe that the sort of hipster that the author, Ms. Wampole, is describing is a sort of hipster that we only see in stereotyped form – the sort of hipster that she imagines is the sort of hipster that died out the minute Urban Outfitters opened its first store, just as the emo movement of my teens trickled into black nothingness after a few years of outpourings of softened masculinity and affectation of grief stemming from the loss of nothing concrete.

(The cover image of the article shows two hip-looking twenty-somethings wearing Justin Bieber shirts, ironically. I know plenty of hipsters and I’ve never once seen a single one of them wearing any sort of pop star t-shirt, save for Ben, the South African grad student who owns a Britney Spears t-shirt but genuinely loves her. That’s not irony; that’s adoration.)

The author goes on to describe the acceptance of such an ironic life as being something easily mocked and lacking individuality, the ability to gift sincerely, communication skills, and an aversion to risk.

She’s right on the count that it’s easy to mock hipsters. But that’s not really a point. It’s easy to mock most groups, so long as you’re not a part of them. Ms. Wampole admits that the reason she’s so irked by hipsters is that “they are….an amplified version of me.” I’m not sure what she means by this, although she goes on to point out that she, just like hipsters, finds it hard to gift sincerely.

This is bullshit. Maybe you, Ms. Wampole, are just a terrible gift-giver. Yes, it’s terrifying to work really hard on a present that someone might hate, but that’s part of being alive. (Do you also not date because you’re afraid of rejection?) I know hipsters who gift-give insanely well – I own two eye patches and a pair of man-pants, neither given ironically, and all three things appreciated intensely.

I have no idea where the author is getting the idea that hipsters can’t gift sincerely. Oh, wait, perhaps she’s thinking Urban Outfitters, which is hipster gift central, but again, way too mainstream for authentic hipsters. (You’ll find them in the boutiques that I’m terrified to enter – because instead of finding acceptance and awesome things, I find condescending glares from the pierced staff and faces full of disgust.)

The teenagers who buy the brass knuckles mug for $17.99 (I’m making that price up) aren’t buying in to hipsterism and ultimately embracing irony as their ethos; they’re buying it because they want to feel badass. They want to feel adult. They want to feel like a unique consumer.

Same goes for the dude who’s in the Puma store buying a pair of sweet track shoes. Or the new bride in Anthropologie spending a ridiculous amount of her newly created joint back account on a bathrobe or a pretty, lace-lined dress. They want to feel unique. They want to exude the air of quality, or expensive taste, or maturity through purchasing power. Those people aren’t hipsters, or maybe they are. But it doesn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, it’s not the ironic life that anyone is buying into.

This is in no way a new thing. Expression of self through material expression is the ultimate in statements. The fashion industry thrives not because we need couture. It thrives because the clothes we wear ultimately send signals to our peers about who and what we are.

Judith Butler (my favorite feminist theorist, don’t judge me) writes about a concept that I’ve hung on to: the idea that all individuals are always dressing in drag. This means, essentially, that what we wear and how we put ourselves together is all a performance. For example, I usually wear jeans and a sweatshirt to work. Today, I’m wearing dress pants and a nice shirt. My co-workers are all like, “Laundry day?” because me dressed up is usually my signal that it’s time to wash my clothes. But no, today I’m wearing dress pants because we’re closing on our house (eek!) and I want to give off the appearance that I’m totally calm and put together (I’m not).

Everything we do and own is performance, and I think the author would do well to remember that the idea of “heteronormative drag” goes much further than the Brooklyn hipsters.

It is my contention that the expression of irony through statement t-shirts, and other ironic, or potentially outdated fashions is merely a cultural commentary, and a rejection of the bubblegum pop materialism that we Millennials came of age in.  (Ms. Wampole seems to forget that fashion is cyclical – I would kill for some more vintage dresses. Think 50s housewife. The lines look good on me, and accentuate my almost non-existent curves. I don’t want them to make feminist statements; I want them because I feel good in them.)

I don’t think that it’s so much “nostalgia for times he never lived himself” so much as it is the rejection of consumerism as a whole – for example, the move toward bicycles signals a conscious attempt to provide quicker pedestrian transportation, particularly in cities. It’s practical and functional, and people want to deck out their bicycles the same way they want to put fuzzy dice in their cars (but shouldn’t).

I can’t (and won’t) speak to fixed-gear bicycles because they terrify me. My dad gifted me his 1973 road bike (with gears and brakes, thankfully) for my birthday a couple of years ago – not because I was feeling nostalgic for the damn time in which the bike was created, but because I rode on the bike when I was a baby; I think it’s sweet; and it was free. Perhaps they signal some sort of accomplishment, as in, “yeah, you see this baby, it has no brakes. I’m a badass.” Again, I think that’s what people really want. It’s the cycling equivalent of a Tesla Roadster.

I grew up in an age marked by plastic and glitter and things made of glittering plastic. I think that the hipster mentality is rooted in a desire to embrace the bright colors but simplistic design and clean lines of times past, when furniture was for function rather than overly artistic design for the sake of overly artistic design. (Think of McMansions and the glittering, faux-crystal chandeliers. It’s not that the hipster is rejecting quality, but they’re rejecting the pretense that “all that glitters is gold.”)

Of course, I must address mustaches. I’m personally terrified of facial hair. I think it’s weird. On some people, it looks great, but I don’t want to wake up next to the remnants of last night’s sweet handlebar mustache. I don’t want to date a guy who spends more time on his mustache than I do on my hair. I don’t get hipster mustaches. And I am critical of them. But heck, I’m critical of Bump-Its, too.

I think Ms. Wampole is correct when she says, “Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions.” But she’s wrong to say that our “contemporary ironic mode is somehow deeper; it has leaked from the realm of rhetoric into life itself. This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche.”

I do believe that outwardly, the display of the ironic is more present than at most points in history. But again, I contend that it stems from not only access to social media and all things internet-based and it also stems from a sort of cultural shift that’s happening. We’re frustrated and stagnant, and it seems that no amount of pushing and shoving is allowing this generation to get out of the critical gaze of our elders. I feel as though we can honestly do no right. I’ve attended webinars that focus solely on how to manage Millennials, webinars that criticize but neglect to touch on the benefits that we may have. We may lack social interaction skills, but I think that with enough mentoring and practice, we’d all be more than proficient. (I exchanged recipes with a middle-aged businessman at the last trade show I attended. I don’t think I sat there the whole time buried in my phone. I was terrified, but I stood, hands folded in front of me, smiling and making small talk. Success.)

(Something for middle-aged readers to remember: did you start out in middle-management? No? You started out as a kid in an ill-fitting suit who had no idea what was expected of you? Oh, really. Hmmm…perhaps you’d like to share your experiences and some tips with the young kids in your office. Perhaps you could each benefit from a relationship. I bet they’d be willing to teach you about a lot of things, not just pop culture references. I always say that one of the things I’m most grateful for is the fact that I’m the youngest by 18 years in my office. I’ve had such beautiful opportunities to learn and grow, both personally and professionally. And I’ve also contributed to the environment in which I work. I bring enthusiasm, perspective, and humor. I’d argue that we’ve all benefited.)

Is our move toward silly expression really just a reaction to the overwhelming burden that’s been placed on us? As a Millennial, I’m constantly met with statistics that are wildly incorrect. They tell me that I’m not civic-minded or politically engaged. These are distinctly false. I am both civic-minded and an informed voter. (I think the pollsters would do best to stop interviewing 18-year old high school graduates, for I think that all rational thought at 18 is not necessarily the rational thought that those same people will possess a mere five years later.) I’m constantly facing the news that I’m going nowhere, that I’m ill-prepared to lead a productive and sustainable life, that I’m vapid and moronic. I have news for you: I’m none of those things. And I resent it.

Perhaps I am a bit sensitive, the hallmark of my generation. We were so coddled and loved and adored, but that’s the fault of our parents, the generation that moved to the suburbs and embraced materialism as a marker of success and eschewed happiness in favor of social status. (Oh she’s shifting blame! Quick, get her!)

I’m not shifting blame entirely. I do know plenty of people who aren’t half as self-sufficient as I am. I know plenty of Millennials who lack the drive and focus. But can’t you say the same for people in your own generation?

Ms. Wampole describes us as a “self-infantilizing citizenry,” and I think she’s wildly incorrect. We are not that. We are driven, determined, and yes, stagnant. Our under-employment and over-educated minds are frustrated. Our loans are crippling and our credit scores sick with over-exertion and exhaustion. We work jobs and jobs and jobs, until we are exhausted, mentally and physically. And yet, we hope.

Just as Ms. Wampole says she did in the 90s (mind you, she’s really only 3 years removed from this pathetic generation of Millennnials and hipsters, so perhaps the fact that she sees some of us in her is based in proximity alone). We hope for better for ourselves. Not necessarily materialistically better, but better. We hope for many things – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; a solid 401(k); a peaceful, sustainable future for our own children (should we choose to procreate). None of these things vary that drastically from the hopes of generations before us, but the messages are so mixed these days, it’s hard to tell if we’re headed in the right direction.

She also discusses the archetype of her own generation, “the slacker who slouched through life in plaid flannel, alone in his room, misunderstood. And when we were bored with not caring, we were vaguely angry and melancholic, eating antidepressants like candy.” I’m not sure how this differs from the current hipster archetype. I’d like to argue that her generation’s slacker has become the hipster of mine. The aimlessness we feel somewhat resembles that of the Lost Generation, the generation who struggled to find meaning, who struggled in a post-war world, who lacked the solid foundations of a future, yet who desired so much to discern meaning from their circumstances.

We need to stop writing off the hipsters or the Millennials, or both singularly, as being unintelligent and uninformed. We need to stop criticizing them for this mess – the current social atmosphere is far more charged and reactionary than you might be inclined to believe.

The friend who posted the article responded to my comment taking offense to Ms. Wampole’s assertion of our insincerity through ironic expression saying that he felt that the author’s intent was not to go after hipsters and that irony can undermine sincerity and authenticity. He’s wrong about her intent: she’s a hipster-hating human who doesn’t have any clue what she’s talking about since she’s locked in the ivory tower of academia – it’s a very sheltered world, and I often find that when theoretical thinking is not paired with real-world experiences, it tends to become a shade too intense and unrealistic.

He’s right about irony undermining sincerity and authenticity. I personally strive to be the most authentic person I can be. I love sincerity and truth and understanding and the trust that can be fostered through honest communication. But I also think that since truth and trust are difficult for some to embrace, irony can serve a purpose.

I think that plenty of identity formation can stem from negation. Think of it as “I am not this, therefore I am something else.” Granted, it’s a much broader approach, but finding out what you dislike or reject can lead to some very necessary self-exploration that perhaps you may not have done otherwise.

I will concede that irony, like all things, is best in moderation.

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