Generation Xette

If there is one lesson to be learned from the media trend story of Generation X, it is to distrust media trend stories. The louder the mainstream media gets about any "trend," the more likely it is that the truth is being distorted or that something of real significance is not being reported. And very often it is women who get bulldozed by the hype. Examples abound. Ten years ago, the husband shortage--bogus statistics telling women to marry young or die alone-- dominated headlines, while in reality it was men who were desperate for wives. More recently, the media's coverage of welfare-reform proposals has focused on issues such as the role of government and personal responsibility, ignoring the fact that the debate has been largely generated by wealthy men and disproportionately targets poor women. But it is the Generation X story that has served as the biggest snow job of all for women. The Gen X headlines decried the demise of the American Dream while masking the truth about Generation Xette--the twentysomething women whose dream of economic and social equality was killed before it ever had a chance to be realized. The idea of a Generation X started off with a powerful message: the American Dream was dead, and it was time to stop kowtowing to Brooks Brothers dreams and impossible ambitions. Indeed, the Baby Busters had come of age to find that their futures had been squandered by their predecessors. Promises of prosperity for these twentysomethings were exposed as blatant lies designed to extract hard work in exchange for meager wages and lives devoid of security. Almost before they took shape, the icons of Generation X were twisted for use against its members. The credo "I am not a target market," a central theme of Douglas Coupland's book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, was subverted by corporate efforts to target this very market. Meanwhile, valid feelings of disenfranchisement and the successive quest for meaning were warped by the media into images of whining, selfish, alienated youth who sought only to justify their own irresponsibility. These messages have served the status quo well. By glorifying alienation, the culture industry has helped to thwart social change. The only visible rebellion has dragged the debate down to a new low, with alleged slackers grasping at the sole defense available to them: "I am too a target market" and "I can and will get rich." But while the Gen X discourse became more and more banal, inspiring a backlash of reinvigorated yuppiedom, a key milestone in women's history went completely unnoticed: Generation Xette, the first generation of women ever promised self-sufficiency, had reached adulthood. It was the day Elizabeth Cady Stanton had died waiting for, the day to which Gloria Steinem had dedicated her life. Born between 1964 and 1973, approximately nineteen million Xettes had been reared during the heyday of modern feminism, and thus instilled with the idea of certain equality. "The messages were very clear," says women's studies scholar and author Laura Sells. "They were everywhere. I remember these issues coming up on The Brady Bunch when I was young. I remember my mother's friend Margie had a button with a silhouette of a woman holding up a machine gun that said, `A woman's work is never done.' So children were assimilating them both directly and indirectly--through the media and through their relationships with women." Gloria Steinem, sexual liberation, and the Equal Rights Amendment were staples of the popular lexicon during the formative years of this generation of girls. The television show Maude was trumpeting feminist ideals while Mad magazine was mocking them, but the effect was the same: a pervasive, unavoidable knowledge of the women's movement and its pursuit of equality. The implications for future Xettes were profound. Instead of being prepped for lives as mothers, wives, nurses, and teachers, little girls were for the first time told that they could become doctors, executives, and entrepreneurs. And they believed it. "The '70s message was that we need to be angry: `We've been victimized, we've had an uprising, we're going to change everything,'" says UCLA women's studies professor Sondra Hale. "But by the '80s, my feeling, just judging by my students, was what Stalin said in the Soviet Union when he came to power, which was that the woman question had been resolved." Feminism was cast aside in the '80s in favor of "post- feminism," which asserted that women had already arrived. Critics such as Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe began to emerge, decrying the feminist movement as hysterical and counterproductive. Feminist author Susan Faludi disparag- ingly paraphrased their postfeminist ideal this way: "Feminists should just shut up now because women have pretty much attained equal opportunity and anyone who claims otherwise is a liar and a whiner." With the struggle for equality out of the way, it was time to join men in an orgy of acquisition. As the national debt quietly skyrocketed, conspicuous consumption became the dominant fashion, an ideal depicted in films such as Working Girl, Wall Street, and The Secret of My Success. As the icons of Rolex and BMW were elevated to demigods, the first wave of Generation X women were entering college. Nurtured on the "you can be anything" idealism of the '70s and the "you can have everything" materialism of the '80s, Xettes reached adulthood with higher expectations than any of their foremothers could have imagined. But for these young women, this new day turned out to be blacker than night. At almost the same moment when the first Xettes were graduating from college, youth futures bottomed out. Wealth had been radically redistributed, assuring that most twentysomethings would not climb the ladder to success. Their lost hopes were stamped with the Gen X label and filed under "W" for "whiners." The Generation X idea, which proposed that today's young people will be the first to fare worse in life than their parents, described a perfectly unisex trend. And in doing so, it struck a pose of absolute gender neutrality, implicitly assuming the postfeminist stance that sexism was ancient history. But while some doors had opened to young women, equality had not been won, and a fierce anti-feminist backlash was underway. On every front, women continued to be exploited, subordinated, and violated. Physical attacks against women escalated. Challenges to reproductive rights were getting louder and more violent. Women were still shouldering more than 70 percent of domestic and child-care duties. Gains in workplace equality were marred by unequal pay and sexual harassment. "In every place where women have now supposedly gained access," observes Sells, "access hasn't come without a price. The price is sexual harassment. The price is the glass ceiling. The price is, `Well, I don't know what you women are complaining about, you're making more money than women were before,' even though I'm still not making as much as men make." Now in their twenties and early thirties, Xettes still measure their earnings in cents on the male dollar. Optimists boast that this figure is up to 79 cents; others argue that women's real wages are closer to the 1950s average of 59 centsþclaiming, therefore, that women haven't advanced at all. "Even 79 cents to the male dollar is still an enormous disparity," says Hale. "What keeps coming back to me is that the Department of Labor in the late '80s divided the U.S. occupational structure into 420 job categories, and issued the statistic that 80 percent of women in the workforce are in 20 percent of those job categories. Those jobs are mainly the extensions of our domestic labor: service occupations, secretaries, and so on. And those are the lowest-paying jobs. Now that's an enormous disparity." It's a disparity, however, in which the mainstream media hasn't taken much interest. Not only has the promise been unfulfilled, but few will even acknowledge that it has been broken. Women's earnings haven't changed much in 40 years- what's newsworthy about that? Men are suffering- now that's news. The boys have taken the stage and the rotting corpse of Kurt Cobain occupies the only cross in the public square. Women's complaints about unequal earnings seem moot. Their financial problems are dressed up in designer suits and hidden behind images of high-powered career girls who have it all but want more. The more common problemþsurvivalþgoes unnoticed. "If the wage gap were wiped out between the sexes," reported Faludi, " half of female-headed households would be instantly lifted out of poverty." Because postfeminist culture denies that any problem exists, women are given two choices: join men in Generation X despair or obliviously pursue dead yuppie hopes. Given the options, many women are choosing the latter. "I used the term Generation X in a joking way a few weeks ago with one of my classes, and got quite an angry reaction from a number of people who said, `We're not Generation X,'" recounts Hale. "I think there's an attempt on the part of women to see themselves advancing in a system that has opened up more options for them. I think women--and I [believe] wrongly, by the way--are more hopeful than men are." Their false hopes were not born in a vacuum. From Nike ads to Murphy Brown episodes, female power and progress are dangled before women, suggesting that success is just one more positive affirmation away. While focusing exclusively on monetary and career goals, the 1970s feminist messageþ "You can be anything you want to be"--is repeated over and over. Women's advancement, held up as evidence that "things keep getting better," is portrayed as an effortless and un- stoppable evolutionary process, rather than as the product of difficult struggles. Implicitly, the prescription is apathy--a familiar chime of Generation X. If advancement is occurring naturally, there's no need to fight for more. Equality is surely just around the corner. The media images themselves are clues to the fallacy, for within them lies the power supply of the Gen X culture machine and the concomitant appropriation of feminist ideals. "The Generation X idea is that of postmodernity- that nothing means anything anymore," says Sells. "We live in a hypermediated culture in which all experience is indirect. We have copies of copies of copies of things. The Mona Lisa is no longer a work of art but instead a postage stamp that we put on a postcard that gets mailed across the country and photocopied and hung on a bulletin board, so that it's completely lost its meaning. It's what's being called `the implosion of meaning.'" Michelangelo is now a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle--and a has-been at that--while Vivaldi and Mozart turn in their graves as their works are reduced to jingles for selling jewelry and glass cleaner. And as postmodernity consumes all meaning in its path, the women's movement has become its favorite meal. "The women's movement becomes commodified and com- mercialized and appropriated by the media industry," says Sells. "So we have Jan Brady stomping her foot and saying that girls can do anything that boys can do, which is a real trivialization of the social changes women are interested in. In the '90s you see that translated into `My choice, my cure, Mycelex'- written in the same letter type that NOW uses--so that issues of autonomy and independence get translated into what I buy in the grocery store to deal with my yeast infection." The result is Gen X's favorite double whammy. While promoting alienation and passivity, the media leviathan sounds a call to the only "political" action it deems acceptable: consumerism. As Sells explains, "There really appears to be no difference between `My choice, my cure, Mycelex' and going to a march on Washington. If I feel riled up about some issue and I see a march on Washington on TV, it satisfies that feeling. So by purchasing Mycelex, I can labor under the illusion that I've participated in the women's movement.... Independence and autonomy and all those kinds of issues that were hard fought and hard wonþand not even really won yet--become commodified and trivialized." That ever-present sales pitch, "You can be anything you want to be," sounds empowering at best and harmless at worst, until upon closer examination it's exposed in complete form: "You can be anything you want to beþexcept fairly compensated, equal in the home, free to walk the streets without the threat of violence, esteemed by others, fat, sexually assertive, flat-chested, African-American, lesbian, or old." Even then, it's still a lie. Hillary Clinton couldn't become a politically active first lady, much less president of the United States. Though she was named twice as one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country, public fear and hatred of female power reduced her to sharing cookie recipes on national television. Originally, Generation X was about the quest for meaning in a postmodern world where gainful employment, home ownership, security, and a stable family life were no longer attainable. Now it's been reduced to mere economics, ob- scuring a host of other concerns central to women's progress. "I think that one bad thing about the way the media has been representing Generation X is the focus on the generation's lack of economic opportunity," says Sells. "When that's generalized to include women, it reduces the women's movement to something that's solely about economics, and that's a problem because the women's movement is about more than just whether women should be CEOs. It's about other things as well, like health-care issues, abortion, and male-centered medicine. It's about violence, being able to have independence in our relationships, not having rigid social roles. It's about not being tied to the dominant images of what a beautiful woman should look like." When career women do manage a degree of success, post- feminism steps in to administer a punitive blow: the false assertion that feminism itself is women's worst enemy, that monetary and career success leave women with "empty beds and barren wombs." Virginia Slims still insists "You've come a long way, baby." Business schools are still cashing tuition checks of the women who enroll in droves. L'Oreal proudly salutes groundbreaking women in 30-second TV spots. But the best any Xette can hope for is to beat the odds--and they are formidable. Whether she dons tweed or flannel, the twentysomething woman has been duped. The only two options given to her by the Generation X trend story--compliance or rebellion--are not options at all. If she chooses to chase the ever-visible carrot of corporate success, she must put on blinders that impair her sight in every direction. She must deny the fact that, for the most part, wealth is no longer being distributed to hard-working youth and that it never was being distributed to women. She must ignore the 1992 statistic that while 3.4 million men earn more than $75,000 a year, only 437,000 women can make the same claim. In her blocked peripheral vision, other women appear to be competitors, not sisters. In a life dedicated to material gain, there is no time to fight against social injustice, violence, and misogyny. It's better to just pretend they don't exist. If she chooses, on the other hand, to join the slackers of Generation X, she must pretend not to notice that the money ran out just as her turn had come to have a little for herself. If she wants to be chic, cutting-edge, one of the boys, or even justified in her failure, she must deny the death of her own American Dream.

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