If you’re going to devote a lengthy article to explaining why you’re inherently just better than about 80 million people you’ve never met, it’s perhaps not especially wise to start it with a mention of the fact that you wrote this. Such things, however, do not concern Bret Easton Ellis, who has doubled down on the interview he gave to VICE last year, in which he pronounced the millennial generation to be “Generation Wuss,” by penning 2,000 words for Vanity Fair‘s French edition about, yes, why he considers the millennial generation to be “Generation Wuss.” The article comes accompanied, with crushing inevitability, by a picture of Lena Dunham.
You can read the whole thing if you want, but honestly, you’ve heard it all before: “My huge generalities,” writes Ellis in the sort of sentence that makes you think that this piece was never touched by the meddling hand of an actual editor, “touch on [millennials’] over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the overreacting, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds they’ve been fed since childhood by over-protective ‘helicopter’ parents mapping their every move.”
You’ll be delighted to know that one of the worst fights Ellis has had with his (millennial) boyfriend occurred because of the suicide of Tyler Clementi — tough old Bret describes how he considers Clementi being outed by being filmed kissing a man in his dorm room to be “a pretty harmless freshman dorm-room prank” and that there’s a difference between “victimization narratives and cyber-‘bullying’ versus imagined threats and genuine hands-on bullying.” For good measure, he describes Clementi as “an overly sensitive Generation Wuss snowflake.” His boyfriend, presumably, took a dim view of this, which is perfectly understandable considering that Ellis’ argument is an industrial load of horseshit.
Ellis also writes that “I never pretended to be an expert on Millenials [sic],” which is just as well, because anyone who puts the “bullying” in “cyber-bullying” in scare quotes might as well headline his article, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THE FUCK I AM TALKING ABOUT BUT HEY I’M GOING TO SAY IT ANYWAY.” The irony of a man who’s just written a tract for Vanity Fair on a subject he says he doesn’t know a great deal about upbraiding others for narcissism should be lost on no one — least of all Ellis himself, given that he’s “a member of one of the most pessimistic and ironic generations that has ever roamed the earth.” And while we’re on irony, let’s all giggle at the fact that in the same piece where he complains, “When Generation Wuss creates something they have so many outlets to display it that it often goes out into the world unfettered, unedited, posted everywhere, and because of this freedom a lot of the content displayed is rushed and kind of shitty and that’s OK,” Ellis can’t even get Tyler Clementi’s fucking name right (he spells it “Clemente” throughout).
It gets tiring rebutting these sorts of pieces, to be honest — it gets tiring to read again and again that the complaints Ellis makes about millennials are unique to that generation, and not true of every batch of adolescents and early-20s types trying to make their way in the world. Essentially they all boil down to “millennials are touchy and sensitive” and “millennials want to be liked” and “millennials are stubborn,” which, for fuck’s sake, have you ever spent any time around teenagers? Of any generation?
So what’s the difference this time around? Oh go on, you’ll never guess… it’s SOCIAL MEDIA. Writers and thinkers of the world, if your argument can be summarized as “because social media,” go back and think harder. Suggesting that a penchant for oversharing on Instagram somehow makes this generation unique is like arguing that Gen Y was warped by their overexposure to Saved by the Bell. In fairness to Ellis, he does make some interesting points about the enforced positivity of Facebook and social media in general, and how criticism tends to get miscast as “hating” — although, ahem ahem, he’s not the first to make them.
But his piece also makes a mistake that pretty much every trend piece on millennials makes: it conflates the characteristics of an entire generation with the most prominent technological development of that generation’s adolescence. This isn’t the first time this has happened, of course — people wrung their hands over the amount of time Ellis’ generation spent watching television, the amount of time my generation spent playing video games, and probably over how long the class of 1895 spent with those book things. My generation’s parents fretted that we were spending too much time on the Nintendo and not enough time gamboling innocently in the fields or whatever kids were supposed to do in the good old days, and shockingly, we haven’t destroyed the world yet.
There have always been entitled dipshits who’ve been removed from reality — as Ellis himself acknowledges, he used to write rather good novels about them. But those people have also consistently been a minority, and they’re still a minority. It’s easy to cherry-pick examples — Ellis cites primary school students who “participated in a tug-of-war game with his classmates on the field of his elementary school and after a minute or two the well-meaning coach announced the game was officially a tie, told the kids they did a great job, and everyone got a ribbon.” But shit, I’m sure the stereotype of helicopter parents raising little narcissists who can’t handle criticism and expect the world handed to them on a platter has some basis in reality, but I’m also sure that has always been a thing to some extent. (America, you had a not-especially-bright, entitled narcissist who had the world handed to him on a platter as a President for most of the 2000s, in case you’d forgotten.)
Beyond that, the anxiety around social media seems to concern the desire to construct some sort of separate, idealized identity for yourself. But look, people have been doing this for as long as society has existed. I mean, shit, what was Patrick Bateman but the idea of image construction taken to its logical extreme — a shell of a man, a man who was all veneer, whose whose sins (imagined or real) were never enough to fill the void within? Ellis himself agrees that the narcissistic, nihilistic teens he depicted in books like Less Than Zero aren’t so different from millennials, except that, “My generation realized that like most fantasies it was a somewhat dissatisfying lie and so we rebelled with irony and negativity and attitude or conveniently just checked-out because we had the luxury to do so. Our reality compared to Millennial reality wasn’t one of economic hardship. We had the luxury to be depressed and ironic and cool.”
Well, good for you. That luxury’s gone now, and it’s worth thinking about why Gen X is suddenly grabbing grimly onto the bandwagon marked “Millennial Hatred” — and why it’s writers who were lauded as the voice of their generation (shout out Elizabeth Wurtzel) who are leading the charge. In a preemptive defense, Ellis notes that he was also happy to criticize his own generation, and suggests that you can look at a generation with an eye that’s both critical and sympathetic. This is, of course, true, and I agree with his contention that one should “raise [oneself] above the din in an over-reactionary fear-based culture that considers criticism elitist.”
But there’s a difference between dismissing criticism out of hand as “hating” and dismissing criticism because it’s fucking asinine. Ellis’ work on Generation X — especially Less Than Zero and American Psycho — is excellent because he knows his subject matter intimately. His criticisms of the millennials fail because he doesn’t, and so he falls back on the same old clichés wheeled out by every other Gen X type railing at Kids These Days. As he wraps up his piece, Ellis claims, “I don’t feel like that old man complaining about the generation supplanting his.” He sure sounds like one, though.