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Coming Soon: The Economic Lessons of 'Reality Bites'

When Claire Dederer re-watched the '90s slacker film Reality Bites, she noticed, for the first time, its commentary about the economy.
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When Claire Dederer re-watched the '90s slacker film Reality Bites, she noticed, for the first time, its commentary about the economy. The film’s just-fired Winona Ryder and time-wasting Ethan Hawke hate thinking about money and yet they have to—all the time. Twenty years later, the same is still true for many of their real-life counterparts, people born between 1966 and 1977 (of which Dederer is one). “Ambivalence and uncertainty have ruled my generation’s economic lives ever since we came of age alongside the film,” writes Dederer of Reality Bites. Slacking might have seemed cool when it was a pose, a style choice. But Gen Xers lost 45 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010. The market has crashed twice during their adult lives. Their 401ks are flailing, their mortgages are underwater. They’ve been hit harder by the economic crisis than the boomers ahead of them or the millennials behind.

Claire Dederer’s Pacific Standard economics essay is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Tuesday, November 04. Until then, an excerpt:

When it first came out in 1994, Reality Bites struck me as exploitative fluff—as if it were trying to market my own experience back to me. While that’s no big deal these days, at the time it felt notably distasteful. I was a member of the genus represented in the movie: young, educated, urban, artistic, mopey. More than I realized at the time, or would have cared to admit, Reality Bites represented my life.

I watched the film again recently, my curiosity aroused by all the economists who kept making bad puns based on it—and I discovered that Reality Bites, weirdly, provides interesting commentary about the economy. In fact, it’s a film about money. To be a little more specific, the movie explores a deep, complicated ambivalence about work, freedom, capitalist impulses, and authenticity.

The young people of Reality Bites—I find myself now tempted to call them children—think about their financial situation all the time. They don’t want to, but they have to, and they absolutely hate the fact that they do.

I must say, I can relate. I happened to screen the film on a Wednesday morning in my bed, which is sometimes my desk. I didn’t have to go to a job; I never have to go to a job (or never get to go to a job, depending on how you look at it). I have worked for myself as a writer for almost 20 years; the same goes for my husband. I realize this is inherently and spectacularly privileged: We’re living the dream! It’s also, at times, a huge problem.

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