Something funny happened after a screening of Frances Ha.
My mother did not understand it.
Her confusion is odd because she is a bright, open woman with whom I have seen many more disturbing and controversial movies.
Closer comes to mind. We even went out to eat after that one. Imagine discussing a movie wherein a character shouts: “You like him coming in your face?!” while eating burritos and guac with your mother.
But talking about Frances Ha gave us trouble. The film articulated in a new and nuanced way what to my mother must appear the bizarre but to me has become the normal behaviors of my people — the ones I am clustered (clusterfucked?) in with because of the happenstance of my birth.
Though I generally hate generalizations (there are always exceptions to the rule), for clean and simple purposes here, I will refer to us collectively as The Millennials.
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s brainchild of a movie pinpointed moments of misery and momentum for one, rather normal girl in a big city, imbuing with gravity and value what is actually her very small and, relatively speaking, privileged life.
The film could be glorifying the all-too-common self-pity that seems to have pitted itself in the mind-grapes of many a Millennial. Or it could be critiquing this tendency toward narcissistic-sympathy. To me, the film’s strength was that it neither praised nor judged; it simply offered up to us a slice of modern life.
“Did you relate to that?” my mother asked, after we settled back into the car. I didn’t quite know how to respond. She knew my answer was “yes.” The movie was, after all, about a 20-something girl struggling to find a job, and I am, whenever sadly and simply boiled down, a 20-something girl struggling to find a job. But really, with this question my mother was posing the more baffled query: “Why?”
We felt very distant in those moments after the movie. And my mother and I have always been unusually communicative in a reserved way — i.e. I am cribbing here from The Great Gatsby as she is an English professor, and I am her goody-two-shoes daughter.
Or I was.
I used to, at least from an outside perspective, have my shit together. Just a couple years ago, I felt like I did not relate to my peers: What the fuck was their problem? They all seemed like a bunch of lazy alcoholics with pipe dreams and arrogant attitudes.
Then I decided to drop out of graduate school. I followed that up with a latent rebellious phase where I worked random part-time jobs that held no relation to my life goals and went out every week looking for free drinks and one-night stands.
My decision to leave school was due as much to a fiscally responsible reason (did I need to spend $100,000 for an MFA in film production to get an entry-level assistant job I didn’t want?) as to a fulfillment of an unrelenting desire to be interesting, to forge my own path, to explore different avenues of earning and expression, and eventually end up somewhere satisfactory with great stories of my struggles.
In the structure of school, I had seen where my life was heading, and for the first time, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like that goal, that plan, that ending.
I had always been a goal-oriented person before, and I still consider myself to be an ambitious person willing to work very hard to obtain what I want. But I am no longer wound so tight. I am happy to have no definite plans for my future, to feel free and be open to the possibilities of life.
But in doing and feeling thus — unique and unhinged — I have actually included myself in that large and similarly-minded category: My Generation.
Much has been written about The Millennials: about our selfishness, our fickleness, our blithe disregard for responsibility and consequences.
So let’s see: We can blame the economy or technology or…(you know for sure we won’t blame ourselves).
The economy has not, to be honest and mild, been great. People with college and even graduate degrees find themselves moving back in with their parents, labeled “boomerang kids.”
In Frances Ha, the heroine constantly struggles with money, though you never once have the feeling that she will be thrown out on the street and actually have to struggle. She has what the Internet calls: #firstworldproblems.
She is well-educated and obviously comes from a family that can lend her money or take her in if things get too bad. There is a devilishly delicious line delivered by her friend Sophie about Frances’s “artist” roommates: “Only rich people can afford to be artists in New York.” So many
Millennials are just passing as poor.
But it’s not just our parents we rely on to buoy us up.
There is also a certain ingrained confidence (or egotism) and idealism (or idiocy).
The moment that disturbed and angered my mother the most in Frances Ha was when our struggling-to-make-ends-meet anti-heroine is offered a job and flatly refuses it.
“I couldn’t believe that!” my mother said, outraged at such lunacy.
“But it’s not what she wanted,” I muttered in reply, knowing that I sounded petulant, emphasizing “want” over “need.” I saw my mother’s side, and she, bless her heart, tried to see mine: Frances’s pride would have been severely wounded, I argued. Working as a receptionist at a dance studio where she had once hoped to join the company would have melted any self-confidence she had.
“She could have at least taken the job,” my mother said, “to make some money while she looked for something else.” Valid point. But if I was in that situation, I wondered, would I have taken the job?
Despite the difficult job market, my peers and I seem to hold onto a steadfast belief that we can always go somewhere else and find something better.
Perhaps we have our computers to thank (or blame) for our fearlessness (or restlessness). The Internet opened up the world to us, made it feel like a much shorter leap to a new land and a new life. Teach English in Zimbabwe? Sure, I could do that! Quit a banking job in order to become an Internet singing/songwriting sensation because that’s what I’ve always truly in my heart-of-hearts wanted to do? Hey, why shouldn’t I give it a try?
These were not such tempting and obvious options for previous generations. Our grandparents and parents, for the most part, got jobs and stayed put, eeking out satisfaction from the life offered to them, not jumping ship at every sign of difficulty and treading water in order to give themselves time to “figure out” their lives.
We don’t choose one thing and feel compelled to commit to it (whatever it may be — a job, a town, a marriage) for sixty years. We love our choices, our freedom, our wild imaginings.
In another scene, Frances asks Sophie to tell her the “story of us.” Sophie dreams up ambitious goals for them, and I can’t deny that I have had similar conversations.
We tell ourselves fairy tales about how great we’ll be. Like children, we enjoy comforting bedtime stories. We are still young enough to believe in impossible dreams.
So often, we Millenials play like we are cynical and talk like we are critical of everything, but inside, we are oh-so-secretly idealistic and sentimental.
Just look online: We already thrive upon 90s nostalgia. Multiple websites list everything from the best Nickelodeon TV shows to boy bands to celebrity trials.
For a long while I felt stunted at the year 2000, the change of millennium too much for me to process in my adolescence. 1998 still seemed like “just a couple years ago” deep into the late 00s.
Or perhaps 9/11 somehow arrested our development. The world seemed to be going along swimmingly, and then suddenly, it all changed — veering swiftly in a direction we had not planned.
We are children stunted by numbers.
And we are children fascinated by numbers — all those 0s and 1s putting on fantastical puppet shows before our eyes. Technology grew as the Millenials grew — childhood friends racing each other to the virtual sandbox.
I still remember those ancient grey blocks of preliminary personal computers and the text-only games, green on black. Now friends of mine are raising children who will never be baffled by a touchscreen. Instead, that thrill of discovery might be reserved for observations of the ancient art of cursive writing or the strange soft feel of a newspaper.
A subsection of us Millennials, The Hipsters, fetishize “outdated” items, as though we think collecting records and experimenting with film photography and rolling joints will give us depth — the sort of depth our parents obtained in the Radical Sixties. But our parents, The Hippies, had purpose: revolution, Civil Rights, stopping the war (we just ignored ours).
We don’t seem to understand that having cool “vintage” items doesn’t give us depth. In our possession, these things have become shells and shadows of their former worth; a Hipster sports the accoutrements of a Hippie but, beneath the flattering veneer, has none of his depth.
Go back a couple generations more — to my old buddy F. Scott and virile Hemingway and outspoken Gertrude Stein, all bashing around France. They had seen the horrors of war and the horrors of privileged America and had decided to exile themselves from their native country to explore new ground in literature, philosophy, and art. They changed language, invigorating it, allowing it to pour forth in great, rich streams that flowed and expanded.
Now, we have reduced it — poor, battered language — to keystrokes and abbrevs.
The Lost Generation was far more Found than we will ever be. We are terribly, terribly lost.
We are contradictory in the worst ways. We are frenetic but lazy, busy but free, educated but bewildered — blinking like newborn foals (newborn fools?), standing on shaky legs as we enter the “real world” in fits and starts.
We act supremely confident about everything…yet we are indecisive.
We worry about everything…except our future plans and others’ feelings.
We are well-educated…but we are ill-informed.
“I didn’t understand why she was so awkward,” my mother said about Frances. “She didn’t need to be.” My mother probably doesn’t know about Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and that’s probably best. Her Second-Wave-Feminist sense of empowerment would be offended by a MPDG’s neediness and wacky, desperate cries for attention.
But it is more than MPDG syndrome for Frances. In fact, Baumbach and Gerwig tried to steer the character from that mold and develop her into something truer — the result being that Frances’s awkwardness is indeed more cringe-inducing than charming.
I know people very much like Frances: constantly talking to fill the silence, fidgety and anxious, so petrified of being socially awkward that they make themselves so.
In school, we are taught it is right to be extroverted, to talk, to network, to schmooze. And so we are constantly putting on a performance of self, proffering our opinions as facts to anyone not wearing earbuds.
What is this constant need to be heard and validated? My mother hated the scene when Frances won’t leave her dance teacher alone, begging for feedback on what was, basically, her general existence.
I remember reading somewhere (see — I am a member of my generation. I recall some surface-level blurb but not the source or the context) about the negative effects of Mr. Rogers telling every kid he or she was special.
We were told we could be whatever we wanted when we grew up. We were handed trophies for every structured, sanctioned extracurricular activity hosted by helicopter parents. Perhaps we were nurtured too long, given too much.
And now we want more. Oh, how we want. What we want we can’t say for sure. We just have this grumbling, gluttonous desire pervading our daily lives. And with sticky childlike yearning, we stretch out our arms farther….
On the Internet, in music, TV, and movies, we see what we don’t have and we want it. We are fed images and blurbs. We devour them. We sink under their weight. Our social and cultural environment (which revolves so often now around money and fame, the rich and the famous, over and over again) leaves imprints upon us, programming our minds, shaping who we are. (I know. I read Judith Butler at my fancy college.)
Despite the fact that the Internet has opened up the possibilities of the world to us, we use its information poorly. We read about a million different subjects, but we only take the time to graze the surface, skim the fatty cream right off the top, regurgitate headlines and opinions at cocktail parties and keggers, but never really digest any meaning.
This access to the world’s endless wonders also, as I implied before, must contribute to our constant dissatisfaction and our dallying desire to seek elsewhere for happiness. We read about Zimbabwe or Austin online, and we begin to grow restless, believing that the grass really is greener on the other side. We see a viral video of a guy singing and dancing, and we believe we can do better than him.
And maybe we’ll get lucky, get rich, get famous. That will make us happy, right?
Once again, we dream out fantastic futures for ourselves: ones where we are recognized, validated, and finally satisfied.
Why else do we send our fruitless thoughts out into the void of cyberspace, crossing our fingers, preparing for that shot of adrenaline that a Like or a Retweet or a Heart gives us. Notice me! we cry. I am special! In this world of seven billion interconnected people, I am Unique! Smart!
Pretty! Funny! Relevant! Useful!
I know how that feels. I am, after all, a member of my generation, and I do the same. Hey, maybe that’s why I wrote this article.