What Makes a Gen-X Rom Com?
Updated: Feb 26, 2022
For the last few weeks at Every Rom Com we’ve been talking about some of the films we’ve dubbed “Gen-X Rom Coms” and the traits that mark them out as uniquely of their era. So far we’ve covered “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Heathers”, and “Singles.” And in upcoming episodes we’ll be covering “True Romance,” “Reality Bites”, “Go Fish”, and “Chasing Amy.” Though the films in our Gen-X Rom Com Series may seem wildly dissimilar, there are some common threads that link them all together.
The Time Period
One obvious indicator of a Gen-X film is the time period in which it was made. Officially, Generation X includes people born between 1965 and 1980. So the John Hughes and Brat Pack films of the 1980’s do seem to represent a different facet of Gen-X. For the purposes of our series, however, we’re looking at a later era of Gen-X films formed by a few key events.
First, the 1980’s ushered in a new era of demand for independent films, starting with the advent of video stores, and continuing with the breakout success of a number of independent films, most notably Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989. Soderbergh’s film earned 36 million off a 1.2 million dollar budget, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and brought industry attention to both the Sundance Film Festival and the film’s distributor, Miramax Films. It is widely credited as creating a culture in which young independent directors could get their work seen, helping to launch the careers of several of the filmmakers we’re covering in the series.
Second, in 1991 the term “Generation X” as we know it was coined by author Douglas Coupland with his novel, “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.” Though the generational label is often reduced to an association with alienated youth or slackers, Coupland’s origin story for the term links it to an underlying ideology. Coupland credits the term to a sociology book by Paul Fussell in which he described “an ‘X’ category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.” This description fits most of the main characters of the movies in our series.
Finally, grunge music and fashion exploded out of Seattle into the rest of the country with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in September 1991. Gen-X, which was sometimes described as “The MTV Generation”, took cues from the music and images pumped into their homes, and found a new style and anthem in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The famous lyrics: “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now/Entertain us” captured both the alienation and pop culture obsessions of 90’s youth culture.
The rom coms we’re covering for the series were part of the Gen-X zeitgeist, either predicting the next cultural moment, or shaped by these three cultural markers. We start in 1986 with Spike Lee’s feature debut “She’s Gotta Have It”, and end in 1997 with Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy.” Lee’s film is an early example of indie movie success, and his style and ingenuity influenced other Gen-X filmmakers including Smith. And while Gen-X infused films were being made even into the early 2000’s, by 1997 the the youngest members of Gen-X were coming of age, and the indie directors of the 90’s started moving on to bigger budgets and more mainstream projects.
Low-Budget Indie Filmmaking
Long before moving onto those bigger budgets, however, directors like Lee and Smith started their careers shooting in black and white, scouting cheap or free locations, and using unknown actors or even friends and family in their productions. Spike Lee’s early films were such a great example of clever, high-quality budget filmmaking that Kevin Smith thanked Lee, alongside several other indie directors “for leading the way” in the end credits of “Clerks.” Rose Troche’s “Go Fish”, released in 1994, was yet another entry in the black and white low-budget club, and, like Lee and Smith, Troche also experimented with her visual style and narrative devices. The highest budget film in our Gen-X Rom Com series is “True Romance”, coming in at 12.5 million.
The Presence of Gen-X Icons
Another clue that you’re dealing with a Gen-X movie is the presence of Gen-X icons, such as Christian Slater, Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Juliette Lewis, Matt Dillon, and a variety of other young, intelligent actors who broke out in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These actors were notable for moving between independent films, teen films that may have gotten them typecast in another era, and mainstream Hollywood movies. Keanu Reeves, for example, went from being Ted in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), to acting opposite River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991), to appearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992) opposite Winona Ryder in a matter of just a few years. Ethan Hawke also moved between mainstream films such as Disney’s “White Fang” and the independent world, where he made films including Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise”, another Gen-X rom com which we previously covered in episode 15 of the podcast. Linklater and other indie directors can also be called Gen-X icons, and Linklater’s earlier film “Slacker”, was partly responsible for popularizing the “slacker” as a Gen-X archetype.
Characters Who Are Slackers, Artists, or Non-Conformists
Every movie in our Gen-X series contains at least one, if not a whole ensemble, of characters who exemplify Gen-X archetypes or attitudes. In “She’s Gotta Have It” Nola is an artist, and one of her lovers, Mars, is chronically, and perhaps purposely, unemployed. In “Heathers”, JD wants to topple the high school hierarchy in a way the kids of “The Breakfast Club” would never have dreamt of. Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” both satirizes and honors the grunge musicians of Seattle, with Matt Dilllon in a comic role as the lead singer of the grunge band Citizen Dick, and his bandmates portrayed by the actual members of Pearl Jam. “Reality Bites” is perhaps the best expression of issues around non-conformity and art, as lead character Lelaina is faced with a choice to stay true to her artistic roots or “sell out” to capitalist society. This conflict is so central to the plot that it plays out in both her career and romantic choices. “Chasing Amy”, along with Kevin Smith’s earlier films, both documented and abetted the rise of nerd culture in Gen-X, shedding light on the world of comic creators and fans.
Grunge and Vintage Music & Fashion
Though many of the films in our series don’t overtly reference grunge music or fashion, most of the movies do at least bump into the occasional flannel shirt or alternative rock song. Of course the apex of grunge music and fashion in Gen-X rom coms is “Singles”, which might have owed its very release to the sudden explosion in popularity of grunge music. Crowe’s film includes performances and cameos from a wide variety of grunge musicians, including Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam.
When Gen-X movies weren’t going grunge, they often turned to another Gen-X cultural trend - nostalgia for the fashion and music of the 1970’s. This had been ongoing in films throughout the 90’s, from the ABBA revival of “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert” to the eclectic soundtracks of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” In the rom com world, “Reality Bites” is a particularly good example of combining modern trends with nostalgia, with characters dressed in the full gamut of Gen-X fashion and songs from current bands like The Posies and Dinosaur Jr. sharing a soundtrack with throwbacks like “My Sharona” by The Knack and a cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” by Big Mountain.
References to Pop Culture
Filling movies and TV shows with pop culture references is fairly standard today, but this wasn’t always the case, especially outside comedies. The modern ubiquity of pop culture references might be credited to two Gen-X writer/directors, Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, both of whom wrote entire monologues or conversations centered around pop culture, without these discussions necessarily doing anything to advance their plots. The “Like a Virgin” speech in “Reservoir Dogs” and the “Death Star Contractor” discussion in “Clerks” are just two examples of memorable pop culture discussions in Gen-X films. “Chasing Amy” in turn, is known for its homage to the scene in “Jaws” where the main characters compare scars.
Not all of the films we chose for the Gen-X Rom Com Series reference pop culture in such a major way, but several do, including “Reality Bites”, in which characters discuss a Dr. Zaius figurine, reference Schoolhouse Rock, and re-enact commercials and TV movie tropes under the gaze of lead character Lelaina’s video camera.
Documentary or “Reality” Style Film-Making
Lelaina’s video camera leads us to another staple of the Gen-X film - scenes structured to seem like either documentaries or real footage being shot by a character in the film. In “She’s Gotta Have It” characters introduce themselves to the camera documentary-style, their initial appearances marked by title cards with their names. Characters also periodically address the camera directly in “Singles”, although in a more informal style. “Reality Bites” takes the focus on reality style footage further, as one of the film’s major stories is main character Lelaina’s attempts to make a documentary about her friends’ post-college malaise. The fate of Lelaina’s documentary is a not particularly well-disguised commentary on MTV’s “The Real World”, which was first released in 1992, and often credited as launching the reality TV revolution.
Questioning Heteronormativity and Relationship Norms
The Gen-X era also saw a surge of LGBTQ representation in film, particularly for gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters and stories. This had already begun in the 80’s with indie films such as “Desert Hearts” and “Parting Glances.” In the 90’s, however, LGBTQ characters began showing up more often in films with wider releases.
The first two films in our Gen-X Rom Com Series deal with an LGBTQ character and the issue of homophobia, albeit imperfectly. In addition to Nola’s three male lovers in “She’s Gotta Have It”, Nola has a lesbian friend named Opal. Though it’s refreshing to see Nola engaging with Opal without any awkwardness, Opal is unfortunately portrayed as a bit of a stereotype, continually pursuing Nola romantically, despite being rejected. Our second movie in the series, “Heathers” satirizes the homophobia that was so rampant in 80’s culture and movies. To modern audiences, accustomed to a more accepting world, the over-the-top satire in “Heathers” may read as insensitive or even homophobic itself. In 1989, however, the movie’s satire was a clear attempt to show the stupidity, hypocrisy, and cruelty caused by prejudice towards the LGBTQ community.
By the 90’s more realistic and likeable gay and lesbian characters were popping up in a variety of films, including several of the films in our series. In 1994’s “Reality Bites” Steve Zahn plays Lelaina’s gay roommate Sammy, who’s about to come out to his parents. Released the same year, “Go Fish” is the best example of LGBTQ representation in our series, portraying an all-lesbian cast looking for love in a tight-knit Chicago community. “Chasing Amy”, meanwhile, offers more complicated representation. Controversial both when it was released and today, “Chasing Amy” was often criticized for portraying a lesbian character who falls in love with a man. Whether you see the story as a male fantasy, a portrayal of sexual fluidity, or both, depends on the viewer.
In addition to greater representation for the LGBTQ community, Gen-X movies also continued a questioning of strict monogamy that had begun in the 60’s and 70’s. While characters in “Chasing Amy” dealt with sexual jealousy and brought up the possibility of a threesome, “She’s Gotta Have It” boldly portrayed Nola Darling’s polyamory before the term “polyamory” had even been coined. Several other movies that almost made our series also dealt with changing attitudes towards sexuality, including 1994’s “Threesome” and 1999’s “Splendor”, a Gregg Araki film featuring another woman with more than one lover.
Let Us Know Your Thoughts!
Despite any careful categorizing, at a certain point it also comes down to a feeling, a sense of what it felt like to be young in the 90’s. For me the Gen-X Rom Com series has been a trip back in time to the era when I was learning about love and life and the movies were my teachers. There’s no doubt that many of the movies on this list formed my identity at a crucial time. Are you a member of Gen-X? If so, what romantic comedies would you include as Gen-X rom coms? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your thoughts for a chance to be mentioned on the show! And stay tuned for more episodes; we’ll be releasing a new episode every two weeks!
A Partial List of Sources:
Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes by John Pierson
I Lost it At the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era by Tom Roston
More on “sex, lies and videotape”: https://www.flavorwire.com/472665/how-sex-lies-and-videotape-changed-indie-filmmaking-forever
More on the advent of the term “Gen X”: