Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Reality Bites and the slackers of 1994 all but ruined me

In 1994, I was a soft-brained 16-year-old—soft in many respects, really. Of mind and of body, of cushy suburban surroundings, of 1990s thrift-shop flannels and T-shirts so baggy I could have curled up inside them and gone to sleep (which was all I wanted to do at age 16, anyway). How fortuitous that I was at my laziest in an age where idleness was celebrated as the noblest of virtues. 1994 was when the “slacker” hit its cultural apex, spawned of Douglas Coupland novels, grunge rockers, and Richard Linklater’s 1991 movie, bottled in cans of OK Soda and big studio movies about directionless twentysomethings, then sold back to couch-bound sponges like me, all but ruining us forever. Allen Ginsberg saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by the madness of an oppressively conformist culture. Mine were destroyed by Kevin Smith and Ethan Hawke.


You’ll have to forgive the self-indulgent nature of this essay, as in 1994, I was led to believe there was nothing more interesting—yet simultaneously worthy of ironic derision—than the story of yourself. This thanks to a flood of pop culture about talky characters who were endlessly unspooling their own lives out loud, all while dismissing the idea of anything beyond your own navel as just society’s sad self-delusion. Happiness is a lie you learned on The Brady Bunch. To buy in is to sell out. Caring about, like, careers and politics only made you vulnerable to mockery and disappointment. This was the world that 1994 movies like Reality Bites, S.F.W., PCU, and Clerks inhabited. And it was the world I, as a high school senior, was about to join. Gee, thanks, I sneered for the next decade or so.

And they wonder why those of us in our 20s refuse to work an 80-hour week, just so we can afford to buy their BMWs. Why we aren’t interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes. But the question remains, what are we going to do now? How can we repair all the damage we inherited? Fellow graduates, the answer is simple. The answer is… The answer is… I don’t know.

Reality Bites opens with this speech given by Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce, the most defeatist college valedictorian ever to grace a podium. The joke is that Lelaina has lost her notes and fumbled her grand, unifying statement, but that “I don’t know” actually works just as well, because this was an age when “statements” were totally meaningless. As Lelaina alludes to, the disenfranchised dropout was a proud tradition long before she and her Reality Bites gang decried the emptiness of gainful employment. Marlon Brando rebelled against whatever you’ve got. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson just wanted to grow their hair and ride free. The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock just wanted to float in the pool. John Lennon declared that world peace starts by staying in bed. But remember when Nike used The Beatles “Revolution” to sell some sneakers? Yeah, so they were all full of shit, then. Better just to say you don’t know—and what’s more, who cares.

That virtue of jaded apathy, so alluring to a teenaged asshole, is best embodied in the ostensible hero of Reality Bites, Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer. Troy is a shaggy, slacker Sartre who finds life as pointless as baths. Troy is incapable of smiling—only smirking. Troy speaks entirely in ironically appropriated slogans. (“I finally figured out what your problem is, Dyer,” Lelaina says. “What’s that? I’m not a Pepper?” Troy retorts, sort of.) Troy is above material concerns and can’t be troubled to keep his menial job if it means he can’t steal a candy bar now and again.


Troy is repeatedly characterized as a “genius” adrift in a world where intelligence doesn’t have any marketable value, despite mostly expending that “genius” on talking about old TV shows and his terrible coffee shop band. Troy—wearing a vintage polyester shirt, his greasy bangs caressing his oops-I-grew-a-goatee—stops Reality Bites mid-movie to deliver a monologue about the emptiness of human existence and the deliciousness of Quarter Pounders With Cheese. It’s like 1994 summed up in a single, cringe-worthy minute.

Naturally, Troy proves irresistible—not only to the parade of “philosopher groupies” whose beds he’s sometimes seen exiting, but ultimately to Lelaina herself, who recognizes the wounded, brilliant poet behind the cloud of Camel smoke and Cool Hand Luke quotes. He wins her, despite spending most of the movie treating her like shit—despite at one point telling her he loves her then openly laughing in her face—ostensibly because he is “the only real thing” in her life. Or in life itself, for that matter. His competition for her hand, Michael, played by the film’s director, Ben Stiller, is a nebbishy yuppie TV executive whose chief failing is that he’s actually sincere. What a loser.


But Michael’s sincerity is (ostensibly) exposed as totally fake, after his network turns Lelaina’s voice-of-a-generation documentary that she worked so hard on—mostly by videotaping her friends getting stoned and saying faux-profound nonsense—into MTV-friendly romantic pabulum. (The deeper irony, of course, is that Reality Bites is doing the exact same thing. And now, Lisa Loeb’s video for “Stay.”) So, despite Michael’s self-flagellating apologies, and his white knight offers to fly Lelaina to the network to present her documentary the way she wants it, obviously, Lelaina gives up on her dream and chooses the warm, greasy embrace of Troy’s utter apathy. After all, it’s the only thing that’s real.

As a 16-year-old asshole, I couldn’t blame her. I also found Troy super cool.

1994 spawned several variations on Troy Dyer, each of them their own walking, snarking mouthpieces for the ideology of indifference. Starring Jeremy Piven as the world’s only 45-year-old college student, PCU finds Piven’s “Droz” sarcastically navigating a campus overrun by “cause-heads,” whose commitment to animal rights and feminism have transformed them into cartoons right out of a 1970s Playboy. He’s pitted against a crusty old dean (Jessica Walter) whose commitment to “political correctness” threatens everyone’s steak-and-cigarettes-and-rock-n-roll good times. And her hatred of Piven’s fraternity, The Pit, runs so deep that she allies herself with the Balls And Shaft, a Skull And Bones-like society of bigoted young Republicans run by David Spade—who, much like his fast-food manager character in Reality Bites, represents all that is career-obsessed and therefore risible.


More than just lampooning the idea of college students adopting social causes “for about a week,” PCU mocked the very idea of giving a shit. As Droz walks his assigned “pre-frosh” through college life, he points out a student whose senior thesis involves proving that a Gene Hackman or Michael Caine movie is always on TV. (“That’s the beauty of college these days, Tommy! You can major in Game Boy if you know how to bullshit.”) The film’s true hero is Gutter, a blinkered, grunge-loving wastoid played by Jon Favreau, whose pot-fueled misadventure to procure a keg ends with his accidentally bringing George Clinton to play a campus rager, after Clinton decides it’s too much trouble to get to his scheduled show. “Let’s give up,” is not just the mantra of The Pit’s two skateboarding idiots, Dave and Dave; it’s the entire message of the film. I went to college the year after PCU’s release with Droz’s “Classes: nothing before 11” credo burning in my ear and a chosen major in watching movies.

I’m not saying my spotty attendance record and general academic laziness can be blamed entirely on PCU. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

Similarly fortuitously (or unfortunately) timed was Kevin Smith’s Clerks, as
1994 was the year I truly entered the work force, beginning with a brief turn as a pharmacy cashier and followed by the first of many video store jobs. As it no doubt did for many, Clerks contributed greatly to my notion that to be an overeducated wage slave was actually quite romantic—and quietly tragicomic.


The film’s Randal (Jeff Anderson) and Dante (Brian O’Halloran) are two guys who are too smart for their menial positions, yet similarly unmotivated to do anything about it. Like Troy Dyer, Dante is a college dropout whose girlfriend laments his wasted potential, even as he constantly whines, “I’m not even supposed to be here today”—the existential lament of an entire generation. His friend Randal is more like Troy Dyer’s rampant id, given to Star Wars exegeses and an indifference toward social niceties that borders on sociopathy. But such obvious shortcomings aside, the movie argues, they’re heroes for enduring the daily barrage of stupidity inherent in customer service.

To Clerks’ credit, even the movie calls Dante out for his unreasonably high opinion of himself—and unlike Reality Bites, it doesn’t go ahead and reward him anyway. “’I’m not even supposed to be here today’—you sound like an asshole!” a fed-up Randal shouts at Dante, pointing out that the two work “a monkey’s job” solely because of their own poor decisions. “We look down on them as if we’re so advanced. Well, if we’re so fucking advanced, what are we doing working here?” Randal asks. For the slacker generation, it’s a sobering moment of clarity. Though of course, the notorious original ending of Clerks provides a shocking punchline to that semi-enlightenment, with Dante being gunned down by a robber—a nihilistic capper that would have made the movie just another statement on the cruel pointlessness of life (as well as way less fun).


While it was thankfully cut from Clerks, that existential punishment would finally be meted out at the tail end of 1994’s season of the slacker, in Jefery Levy’s S.F.W. Released in January 1995, almost exactly a year after Reality Bites, S.F.W. starred the off-brand Ethan Hawke, Stephen Dorff, as Troy Dyer’s physical and spiritual twin, a guy bearing the incredibly ’90s movie name of “Cliff Spab” who’s kidnapped and held hostage live on TV. Cliff quickly becomes a pop icon, and his mantra, “So Fucking What,” an inescapable catchphrase, emblazoned across T-shirts and CDs. The fast-food restaurant where he once toiled even sells a “Cliff Spab Burger,” in case you needed a meatier metaphor for the mass marketing of Gen-X angst.

Just before S.F.W. hit the festival circuit in 1994, Levy gave an interview where he linked S.F.W.—and implicitly, all of those recent movies starring scraggly cynics—to their actual marketing source. “In a way, this story parallels what happened to [Kurt] Cobain,” Levy told Entertainment Weekly, meaning that, like Cobain, Cliff Spab had an “extraordinary sensitivity” that made him self-destructively sick to see his misanthropy transformed into a branding niche. That Levy made a movie that did exactly that did not appear to bother him—or even register. In fact, Levy claimed that Cobain had “really connected” with the film at a private screening, then remarked, in a just-sayin’ sort of way, that during Courtney Love’s reading of Cobain’s suicide note, “she kept using the term ‘so fucking what.’ It was weird,” as though it were all some particularly morbid subliminal marketing.


Somehow, there was an even more uncomfortable parallel. Like Clerks originally intended for Dante, Cliff Spab is put out of his misery with a bullet—though in his case Cliff survives, and his near-martyrdom proves but a brief prelude to a Hollywood happy ending. Symbolically, he’s gunned down by a member of the younger generation, a teenager who screams out, “Everything matters!” Her upbeat motto quickly replaces Cliff Spab’s “so fucking what” in the public consciousness; even Spab learns to love it.

While S.F.W. was far from influential—or even a hit—it was prescient in predicting 1995 as the death of the slacker, at the hands of a younger generation tired of being tired. That year, the anti-activism stance of PCU yielded to Higher Learning—a movie where not only did every campus cause matter, it was a matter of life and death. The ambling dream hangouts of Dazed And Confused and Reality Bites gave way to the AIDS-ridden nightmare of Larry Clark’s Kids. Kevin Smith followed Clerks with Mallrats, a semi-prequel that traded the former’s ambivalence for deep, if equally destructive, romantic passion. Even Ethan Hawke grew up, shedding Troy Dyer’s nihilist approach to love-or-whatever for the genuine, awestruck passion of Before Sunrise.


I first became aware of this sea change in the summer after I’d graduated high school, watching a teen movie that I realized, for the very first time, was no longer meant for me. Clueless presented a world populated by young people who actually cared—teenagers like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher who, despite all their superficialities, are motivated by a genuine interest in being somebody. In one of its most slyly epochal moments, Cher declares, “I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don’t get how guys dress today. I mean, come on, it looks like they just fell out of bed and put on some baggy pants and take their greasy hair—ew—and cover it up with a backwards cap and like, we’re expected to swoon? I don’t think so.” Sitting in the theater, I swear I could feel the Earth tremble, as an entire populace of Troy Dyers stampeded for the shower.

In Clueless, Paul Rudd’s Generation X stand-in is ribbed for his Nietzsche-reading angst and his coffeehouse soul patch. After learning that she’s interested in hanging with the school burnouts, Cher disdainfully lectures Brittany Murphy’s Tai on the difference between going to “spark up a doobie and get laced at parties” and being “fried all day.” In short, all of the qualities that only a year before had been the mark of a hero were turned on their head in an instant, replaced by a chipper will to succeed. In the ensuing years, movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, and American Pie would be filled with Clueless-derived teens brimming with crazy ambitious schemes and youthful exuberance. The dream of not giving a shit was at its end.


“The revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost!” David Huddleston sneers to Jeff Bridges’ The Dude in The Big Lebowski, one of the movies, like Office Space and Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, that would carry the embers of the slacker archetype into the 21st century. And while each of those movies featured their own bums achieving their own minor, bum victories, the revolution was over: The ’90s slacker more or less died with Cliff Spab. Today, the bums have been replaced by a new breed of mumblecore solipsists, who, for all their slacker tendencies, have no problem with emotional vulnerability, and remain unflappably convinced of their own self-worth. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation—or, at least, a voice of a generation,” Lena Dunham famously proclaimed in Girls, an echo of Winona Ryder’s “I’d like to somehow make a difference in people’s lives” in Reality Bites. And yet there’s no Troy Dyer popping up next to Lena Dunham, sarcastically declaring that he’d like to buy the world a Coke.

Fortunately, I was caught between the tail-end of Gen-X wallowing and Gen-Y determination, and—through happenstance and the barest of careerism—I managed to turn some of my own slacker proclivities into a job. (Poor Troy Dyer; he would have made an excellent pop culture blogger.) But like so many of my narrowly defined generation, I know I struggle still to overcome the jaded laziness that is my ingrained, natural resting state. I love my work. I try to evolve. But somewhere, deep within my DNA, Troy and his 1994 ilk are sitting back with their Camel straights, asking why I bother. And the answer is… I don’t know.


Share This Story