Gen X’s Midlife Crisis: For Men Only?

Gen X’s Midlife Crisis: For Men Only?

In his column “Gen X Has a Midlife Crisis,” NY Times film critic A.O. Scott considers the current state of Generation X as seen by popular culture. Through an analysis of three texts released in 2010 — the novel The Ask (Sam Lipsyte) and the movies Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink) and Greenberg (Noah Baumbach) — Scott summarizes what contemporary society apparently thinks about those of us born between 1965-1980:

  1. Our motto is that “we did what we could.” This is nothing like the dominant slogans of the Greatest Generation (“make do or do without”) or the Baby Boomers (“change the world”) but one, Scott laments, of “the underachiever, the excuse maker, the loser.”
  2. Generation X refuses to grow up. We’re “stuck in an earlier phase of life, which wasn’t so great to begin with,” Scott writes. We seek out old friends and rehash one-time dreams all while refusing to accept that we’re approaching middle age with our spouses/partners, families, and overall responsibilities.
  3. As well, because we inherently reject adulthood, Gen X is a regretful bunch of people. We’ve “squandered our ambition, the professional road not taken.” In effect, our lives have been wasted, and we bemoan this fact.
  4. Finally, Scott claims that these particular traits define us because we “grew up in the shadow of the Baby Boomers,” a generation that, despite its eventual toil on our Social Security system and economy, can still manage to garner a great deal of attention. For example, every time the Boomers cross another milestone, “it’s worth 10 magazine covers,” the critic claims.

Why the long face, fella? (Stiller in Greenberg, 2010)

While I have not read The Ask, I have seen Hot Tub Time Machine and Greenberg; in fact, I screened the latter the day after Scott published his column. And I concur with the critic: the lead characters are “losers” — remorseful, unpleasant, and tragically confined to their youth. They are also, however, ALL (mostly white) MALES. What about the representations of Gen-X females in popular culture, Mr. Scott? Do they subscribe to these same depressing generalizations?

One might consider, for example, the lawyers, teachers, book editors, artists, physical therapists, pet-shop owners, columnists, and art dealers portrayed in Bride Wars, My Life in Ruins, The Proposal, The Time-Traveler’s Wife (all released 2009), The Back-Up Plan, Just Wright, and Sex and the City 2 (released 2010). On one hand, these onscreen careers suggest that Gen-X women do not subscribe to the same mottos of their male counterparts; rather, they have clearly grown up and have refused to “squander their ambition.” On the other hand, there are undeniably many problems with the representations of women in these movies. First, over the course of the narrative, the (usually aloof) woman must learn that a heterosexual romantic relationship is the only thing that can complete her. Second, she is all too quickly willing to substitute her hard-earned vocation for a life of blissful motherhood and domesticity. Last, the character’s career or other non-familial/non-romantic achievements are hardly ever the focal point of her story.

If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it. (The Proposal, 2009)

Hmmm, so in popular culture, Generation X amounts to either loserdom or a return to traditional female roles? Yikes. Where are the images of most of the Gen-Xers I know? Those friends, family members, acquaintances, and colleagues with whom I interact face-to-face as well as virtually on Twitter and Facebook? Those people who completely defy these labels?

Unlike the adolescent-acting guys in Hot Tub Time Machine, the Gen Xers with whom I am familiar excel as professors, pharmacists, nurses, medical doctors, speech pathologists, dieticians, accountants, physical therapists, dentists, database programmers, student-affairs professionals, ophthalmologists, and lawyers as well as mothers and fathers. Moreover, these Gen X women and men successfully balance their careers alongside their friendships and families. In essence, they are far removed from a character like Stiller’s dour Greenberg, a 40-year old who, in his words, “wants to be doing nothing. I’m doing nothing deliberately.” Finally, I’d say that most of the Generation X class I know has moved on; its members think of high school/college as An Experience in their life, not The Defining Time of it. If only we had more characters and stories in popular culture to illustrate that

Men literally living in the past. (Hot Tub Time Machine, 2010)

For other reactions to Scott’s Gen X column, see:

Gen X’s Midlife Crisis Will Not Be Televised” (Jezebel): “At least you have a major motion picture that is ‘the story of your life.’”

The Young and The Feckless: Reinventing the Identity Wheel” (Bitch Magazine): “Scott has actually swallowed the stereotypes attached to his peers (especially male peers) hook, line and sinker and has chosen to regurgitate them on the pages of the New York Times.”

New York Times Forgets Gen X Women“:  “You’d think someone would notice when an eighteen-hundred word feature categorizing an entire generation was published without addressing women.”

Whither the Female Midlife Crisis?” (Slate Magazine): “In Scott’s world, [women] don’t count. The midlife crisis, it seems, only happens to men.”