Earlier this year, Salon ventured to explain why “millennials will miss Boomers when they’re gone.” Although the piece came in for some mockery, its central point — that the Americans born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s fostered a vibrant counterculture whose echoes we still feel today — was sound. But I’d offer an even simpler explanation of why the much-hyped conflict between millennials and boomers is gilded with a kind of grudging respect: The Boomers are our parents. None of them are perfect, but many raised us well, with the outspoken love and support that may have been lacking in their own childhoods.
The anger we have at people their age for thwarting progressive politics is ever at odds with affection for the countless moms and dads we know are truly decent at heart. The “OK Boomers,” if you will. And the data bears this out, as many millennials financially support their parents and vice versa.
Really, then, we don’t want to have this intergenerational fight, which has always been more about economic inequality and bad-faith debate anyway. Trouble is, we still appear locked in this historical polarity, with the media farming it for clicks and meme creators young and old in a virtual arms race to own the enemy online. Apart from the highly partisan, Impact font shitposts that make the rounds on Facebook, an essential weapon in the Boomer arsenal is a suitably outdated one: the newspaper op-ed cartoon. These are typically done in the style of a straw man argument, with a Boomer character exasperated by a millennial or Gen Z kid who is portrayed as entitled, unaccomplished and tech-addled. (The Onion satirizes the formula well.)
Those of us under 40 have been laughing and rolling our eyes at this grumpiness for a long time. Really, you’d rather we die in a war than play video games? But lately, in surprising contrast to the escalation of anti-Boomer sentiment — I’m sure the grown men throwing a tantrum about a 16-year-old climate change activist didn’t help — the community of “Boomer humor” academics have gone in a wholesome direction. On Reddit and /co/, 4chan’s comics board, people are now tweaking the rote, repetitive Boomer cartoons to find some hope beneath the dour surface.
Suddenly, parents are taking an interest in their kids’ 21st-century hobbies, while the younger characters are telling their elders how much they admire and treasure them. Screens are turned off, and the exaggerated horrors of fancy coffee shops are neatly resolved.
The revisions don’t stop there, either. A secondary target of interest is the explicit misogyny of some Boomer comedy, in particular the trope that marriage must be defined as a suffering husband forever shackled to a hideous, nagging shrew of a wife. In the edited panels, this Edward Albee-like atmosphere of marital combat is thrown aside for healthy partnerships and mutual fondness.
As with the parents-and-kids comics, the new twists have a way of spinning humor from the lazy assumptions and biases of the source material — you chuckle because it’s now so obvious how a handful of Boomer cartoonists have pounded a cynical reduction into the collective consciousness, since that was easier than coming up with fresh jokes or observations. They’ve been recycling a toxic frame on domestic life and trying to pass it off as “relatable.” CollegeHumor illustrator Justin Hall is at the forefront of this fix-it-with-another-panel subgenre.
What strikes me as miraculous in these works is that although they still take the piss out of the stubbornest reactionary Boomers, they nonetheless function as gentle correctives — and a reminder that underneath all the heated discourse, we’re in this batshit world together. That we ought to be able to express ourselves clearly, and openly, without resorting to our stereotypes of each other. And while some vent greater frustration (I’m thinking of this strip, where a boy rebukes a librarian for regarding him as too fundamentally stupid to exist), all are welcome critiques of the hackiest crank comedian moves, from “Everyone’s on their phone these days!” to “Kids literally don’t know what a book is.”
Society changes over the decades, the cartoon-modifiers seem to be saying, and 60-year-olds need to get over that as surely as teens and twentysomethings need to meet the challenges of adulthood head-on. The fears and resentment on either side can only fester if we encourage it with a steady stream of bile.
Could this mark a bright new chapter in relations between Boomers and everyone younger than them? That’s placing a heavy a burden on a stealth meme that has yet to break into the mainstream, let alone the Boomers’ media diet. But I can imagine those who are reflective, and not hardened to the perceived weakness of empathy, might take stock upon reading one. What, in the end, are they actually angry about? Who cares if a fourth-grader enjoys Pokémon — and is grumbling at this fact any use when you seek to instill good values in the people who will one day replace you?
The overall project of the bad Boomer cartoonist was to privilege the view of the “average” (read: straight, white, suburban, TV-watching, beer-swilling, backyard-grilling) dad by othering the rest of his family — the wife and kids may as well be different species. The best way to undo that damage is by reclaiming a common language in which it’s possible to be kind.