Reality Bites 1994

A Den of Slack: ‘Reality Bites’ As a Generational Cautionary Tale

Reality Bites‘ central idea is that selling out is no match for following your heart, and good things will come. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Reality Bites
Ben Stiller
Universal Pictures
18 February 1994

“I was really gonna be something by the age of 23,” Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) solemnly tells her best friend and emblem of the Generation X slacker image, Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), in the film Reality Bites. “Honey, all you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself,” he replies. It’s certainly the most heartfelt and relatable moment in the film, which at the time was billed as a Gen X romantic comedy but is now more of a cautionary tale.

Reality Bites, which turns 30 this month, was very much the epitome of 1990s cinema in that it was written for Gen X by a member of Gen X. While the film is remembered as being the feature-length directorial debut of actor Ben Stiller, who plays yuppie television producer Michael Grates, Reality Bites was written by a woman, Helen Childress. Similar to the phenomenon that would become the television sitcom Friends, Childress wrote the screenplay based on her 20-something friends and their personalities.

While Reality Bites would secure its legacy as a Generation X hallmark, the film reads somewhat differently today when taken in the context of the markers that would come to define both generations that followed Gen X, which would be Millennials and Gen Z. In a culture where mainstream media is still all too quick to blame the decline of countless industries on the differing consumerism of Millennials, Reality Bites is almost a fantasy. A world where young 20-somethings can financially afford the option to be angsty and apprehensive about starting adult life rather than face brutal economic hardships the minute they set foot outside of their university graduation.

Indeed, Reality Bites is a film about selling out and Gen X’s preoccupation with it. “It seems, now, that the historical meaning of Gen X’s famous aversion to selling out cannot really be understood without considering the world that was being actively created by our parents in the years of our generation’s formative experiences,” wrote Justin E.H. Smith for Harper’s last year. Generation X is the latchkey generation, the kids that came of age with minimal parental supervision in the years when women had just started leaving the kitchen for the workforce and when afterschool daycare was not yet invented.

“We tried, and we failed, to save the world from our parents—that is, to reverse or at least slow down the degeneration of the hopes that they themselves had once cherished,” wrote Smith. “And because we failed, we have been written out of history.” While Gen X hasn’t been wiped from history, they are arguably lost in the shuffle of arguments between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Gen X, otherwise known as those born between 1965 and 1980, is the generation that was told they would never amount to anything, so why even bother trying? They had to keep themselves fed and educated by way of Brady Bunch reruns instead of the Mary Kate and Ashley world that even the youngest of Millennials had the chance to experience.

Thus, Generation X developed this cultural image almost as a perpetual teenager. These “slackers” didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives because they feared growing up and becoming like their parents. As Lelaina and Troy’s friend Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) says, “I don’t want to get married because I see how my parents are.” She describes them as practically brother and sister at this point because they go to the bathroom with the door open. What could be worse than that?

Likewise, Troy, who supposedly has a high IQ and is just ten units away from a degree in philosophy, gives up on ever wanting anything in life besides couch surfing, suffering through one minimum wage job after another, and dedicating any free time leftover to his coffeehouse garage band, Hey That’s My Bike.

He claims it’s because his father, whom he only saw a few times a year after his parents divorced when he was five years old, gave his life to an assembly line job and then, out of the blue, wound up on his deathbed from terminal prostate cancer. “So I take pleasure in the details,” he says. A quarter pounder with cheese, the sky about ten minutes before it rains, a moment when your laughter becomes a cackle. “And I sit back, and I smoke my Camel Straights, and I ride my own melt.” Which is all well and good, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Reality Bites portrays these young people as so jaded and weighed down by life because they are children of divorce, because they came of age in a time of HIV/AIDS, and because the adult world apparently does not want to give them a chance to thrive as who they are. The only character whose plight seems even remotely applicable in the 21st century is Sammy (Steve Zahn), who forces himself to come out as gay to his mother in order to begin living his own authentic adult life.

“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,” says Lelaina in her valedictorian speech at their university convocation. It’s a sentiment that almost makes the group’s struggles feel real in our current “nobody wants to work anymore” age. Ultimately, it makes the plot of Reality Bites all the more distant from the struggles of the generations to follow, who would enter the job market in either a recession or a pandemic, with the constant threat of climate change looming overhead.

Sure, one could argue that everyone is entitled to a period of youthful, generational angst—the urge to resist becoming like your parents, the desire to be different, and even change the world with what you want to do or say. Sooner or later, however, reality comes home to roost, which is what Reality Bites quite literally strives to say. But when you consider that, according to The New York Times, the 1990s was one of the most economically affluent periods of American history, the urge to lose sympathy for Lelaina, Troy, Vickie, and Sammy overpowers.

Throughout the film, Lelaina chronicles the life experiences of herself and her friends for a documentary about young people finding their way in the world “with no role models”. They don’t want to accept their parents’ BMW hand-me-downs because of what it symbolizes. Troy doesn’t want to finish his degree or get a 9-to-5 job because it means surrendering to the phonies. Lelaina doesn’t want to work part-time, making minimum wage at the Gap under Vickie’s management when she loses her job because she was valedictorian of her university, she’s surely destined for more.

Reality Bites’ blatant attempt at romanticizing the struggles of Gen X 20-somethings makes for a cozy 1990s rom-com at the end of a long day of adulting, sure, but its plot is virtually laughable when compared to the generational struggles of Millennials and Gen Z. This is not to say that any struggles members of Gen X might have faced while coming of age were never valid. Quite the opposite. They were valid in 1994. Just not so much now.

As Bourree Lam of Refinery29 pointed out in 2018, “Being unemployed isn’t glamorous if you’ve experienced it, and that was the case in 2008 for too many people.” Specifically, young adults are just finishing their degrees and entering the workforce. This is why I can imagine any number of my friends jumping at the chance to be hired in any position at the Gap after being fired elsewhere because at least it means some money in our pockets to pay some of our bills.

To be engaged in stable employment is a gift, one that Lelaina and her friends take for granted in Reality Bites. And why shouldn’t they have? They had the option to resist professionalism and be slackers if they wanted to, and that was considered cool. “To be a slacker millennial is to be a loser,” wrote Lam. “A non-starter. Not getting that money. Not doing you.” Before long, Millennials would become the generation of both hustle and burnout culture. But that’s a story for another day.

Reality Bites ultimately accomplishes its goal of portraying Generation X 20-somethings through a deeply sentimentalized lens. Back when getting high on your friend’s couch, watching reruns of One Day at a Time, and playing Good Times drinking games was the epitome of “doing you”. The implication is that one day, in the not-so-distant future, all of these friends will grow up. They would likely accept an offer of stable employment they were resisting, maybe even marry and start families.

In the context of Reality Bites, all of these things are available to the characters; they just don’t want them, which appears incredibly silly watching as a 20-something in 2024. The film ends with Lelaina and Troy finally succumbing to their attraction to each other, Lelaina having broken up with Ben Stiller’s character Michael, the antithesis of Troy. By having Lelaina and Troy inevitably end up together, it hammers home the film’s central idea that selling out is no match for following your heart, and good things will come to you. Which, again, is all well and good. But it still doesn’t pay the bills.