On the 25th anniversary of Reality Bites, that Gen X classic starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn and Ben Stiller, I should go ahead and get my personal bias out of the way.
In 1994, I didn’t exactly love Reality Bites at the time it came out. I was working at a video store with a porn room and majoring in journalism, and although there were undeniably good jokes in Ben Stiller’s directorial debut, with a screenplay from Helen Childress (“Man, you are in the bell jar!”), it felt too try-hard in its attempt to sell my generation back to me before the decade had even ended. The movie is essentially a music video about the Gen X experience brought to you by Big Gulp and Pizza Hut.
Another disclosure: In the ’90s, I knew, hung out with and dated plenty of philosophy bro fuccbois like Troy (Ethan Hawke), and avoided yuppie douches like Michael (Ben Stiller) like the plague, the two men who form the film’s central love triangle. It’s a debate we’re still waging today as anti-capitalist sentiment reaches a fever pitch and young people are shamed relentlessly for dismantling whole industries. Troy and Michael are two oppositional forces in both masculinity and ambition that are meant to represent the generational choice between authenticity and corporate sponsorship.
So I’ll try to conclude impartially which character is the bigger chode.
But first: Is the film any good? I recently rewatched it to find out. In the early to mid-’90s, there were far more interesting, of-the-moment indie films (Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming or anything by Whit Stillman) that managed to show people sitting around talking and smoking through crippling existential angst, all without the heavy-handed “voice of a generation” smarm of the studio treatment. But as I’ve come to realize about a lot of art, it can be badly executed in parts and still land on the truth.
And Reality Bites, for all its missteps, does tell some truth. Living through the ’90s as an adult was living through the last pre-internet era when no one was tethered to the digital leash, and selling out was still treason instead of what it is today — inevitable. Brands weren’t people yet and people weren’t brands, and we were absolutely smugly self-serious and precious about our identities. Our personalities and relationships were hard won, if for no other reason than the fact that we had to cultivate them in real time, in person, with actual talking.
We really did sit around smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much beer and coffee and wondering what the hell we were supposed to do with our lives. God forbid we end up like our parents (the cursed boomers), and god forbid we end up like what some of them turned into (yuppies).
All that was left in between were people like the characters on Reality Bites, a crew of too-clever-for-their-own-good college grads navigating ennui and confusion in Texas, looking for authenticity and meaning at the end of every pretentious quip and Camel cigarette. Raised by television, they swim in 1970s cultural nostalgia for their childhoods, like Good Times and The Brady Bunch.
They listen to Squeeze, Frampton and the Knack.
They live in fear of AIDS, yet fall into bed way too easily and get all wounded about it. They ghost each other, too. Ghosting then was tossing an actual piece of paper with someone’s actual phone number hand-written on it into the actual trash after you actually fucked them.
If you were a creative of any sort, which many Gen X-ers would become (thank us for the vinyl resurgence and cool glasses), you hung out listening to bands and thinking about art, trying to figure out how to make it all go without selling out to the almighty corporation. That doesn’t mean we were too good to flirt with the idea: In the film, Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) works at the Gap, for cripes’ sake. Lelaina (Winona Ryder) accepts Daddy’s old BWM and his gas card because she can’t afford a car of her own yet as she pulls in $400 a week.
It was true that we winced about our hypocritical corporate dalliances. Because, you know, our lives were supposed to be more real and shit. We were supposed to figure out a way to live well, with something like integrity, without having to do all that soulless ass-kissing. We didn’t figure it out, but hey, you can’t blame us for trying.
While the film is about Lelaina trying to make a documentary that tells the truth about her generation, and to what degree she’ll compromise that truth to succeed, her most symbolic choice in the film comes down to that love triangle and the pick-me dance between Troy and Michael.
Troy is a cynical, brooding, sarcastic, anti-materialist, unemployable, couple-credits-short-of-a-philosophy-degree child masquerading as a man who hooks up with too many women to even remember their names. He’s been fired from 12 jobs, is fond of chain-smoking Camel straights, doesn’t appear to even own a car and has a greasy ’90s butt cut. You won’t be surprised to hear he’s the lead singer of a band, the kind that would cover the Violent Femmes. And that the best word to describe him is petulant.
Then there’s Michael, a douchey uptight suit who drives a convertible Saab with a car phone and works at the thinly disguised MTV network called In Your Face network, and who is charged with finding some “real” programming to offset all those music videos. He, of course, wouldn’t know real if tossed a cigarette butt right into his Saab, because he’s not the brightest bulb. Proof of this is that all their painfully deep references to philosophy, literature and Cool Movies fly right over his head. In one of Troy’s best sick burns, he tells Lelaina that Michael is the reason CliffsNotes were invented.
But Michael is, after all, an adult with a job and a real apartment, and Troy is sleeping on their couch and barely covering his portion of the rent. And regardless, as all love triangles eventually demand, Lelaina must stare down a diverging fork and pick a goddamn path: the commitment-phobic bad boy who can’t love her, or the way-too-eager corporate schmo who doesn’t actually understand her?
Charm points for Troy: As they dance around whether or not they’re ever going to fuck, he tells her that all they need is a couple of smokes, a cup of coffee and a little bit of conversation. “You and me and five bucks,” he waxes.
Charm points for Michael: He takes her documentary to In Your Face, because he believes in her and wants her to be recognized for her talents and actually get her paid, even if he doesn’t exactly understand her and her friends’ whole cynical-precious-slacker vibe.
So does she pick Troy, who represents the complex and real, which is far more difficult and risky, or pick Michael, who represents selling out and getting paid, even if the art she makes ends up in front of people who don’t get it any more than an In Your Face exec? You can practically hear Nirvana’s “In Bloom”: “He’s the one/ who likes all our pretty songs/ and he likes to sing along/ and he likes to shoot his gun/ but he don’t know what it means.”
But nothing is ever that simple. Troy is still off nailing some chick somewhere, probably with a paperback of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in his back pocket, so she falls for Michael’s pitch about commercializing her art while staying true to its essence. But Michael reveals himself immediately: In the hands of In Your Face, her precious documentary is rendered into a cheesy, reductive reality show like The Real World. The network comically finds a simple, insulting answer to the central, existential question of their lives: What are they supposed to do with all their angst and confusion about making a difference in the world? Eat pizza. Cue the Pizza Hut brand plug.
A piece at the Atlantic on the film’s backstory tells us that the same thing that happens to Lelaina’s doc in the movie is the same thing that happened to Childress’ screenplay and the resulting film in real life: Her attempt at telling a real story was steamrolled and watered down into a studio movie, and her career suffered in the years since.
That is somehow sadly fitting, but for our purposes, I’m more interested in the moment when, off of Michael’s betrayal, Lelaina flees directly into Troy’s arms where they finally hook up, only to have him wuss out the next day and scurry off because he’s still a boy who’s too scared and damaged to love. It’s Michael who shows back up at the club the night Troy’s band will play, where Lelaina now realizes she should’ve picked the real thing. Michael is sorry, and intends to do whatever he can to make it right if she’ll let him.
She won’t. But Troy is still Troy, so Lelaina leaves them both, back where she began at the beginning of the film. When the two men stand outside the club realizing they’ve both lost her, the Atlantic‘s Soraya Roberts sees this as a moment where both men losing the woman they love renders them essentially in the same role, both wanting the same thing in life and both “equally unable to get it.”
If only the film stopped right there with a kind of prescience that could foreshadow what really happened to Gen X. Instead, though, Lelaina ends up with Troy, allegedly taking the risk of the real over the easy shortcut of selling out. But the correct answer for the film, as in life, would’ve been for her to pick neither. To take her documentary and find a home where it could live on her own terms, and also get paid.
And to realize that the angry philosopher boy was never really going to grow up, and the uptight suit was never really going to get her. They were both chodes in their own unique chode way.
The illusion of all young-adulthood confusion is that there often appear to be only two choices, when the choices are infinite. We learned our lesson the hard way too. Future generations would leave us in the dust by signing on the dotted line without the slightest hesitation about what it meant to their personal authenticity. And for that, we’ve taken our lumps. It’s no wonder millennials mock Gen X-ers (when they’re remembering to include us at all).
But I can’t help but believe that our generation still had it right about one thing, even though it wasn’t Troy vs. Michael. We may have all sold ourselves out down to the geolocation these days, but it’s worth noting that because of it, thanks to your friendly neighborhood fortysomething, now all everyone wants to do, person or brand, is come off as authentic. Today’s successful person — or beef company — is an easygoing mix of both, no dread required.