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Reality Bites, So Buy a Big Gulp

Ben Stiller builds on a media-created identity, as well as the training of a 'hip' audience, in order to romanticize the consumerism of the poor leisure class.
Bill Salzmann

Issue #19, March 1995

The first wave of media about Generation X — from Douglas Coupland's 1991 book by the same name, to the trade articles in periodicals like Advertising Age — literally told the audience what Generation X was all about. While early definitions of Generation X included all 40 million Americans born between 1964 and 1974, it quickly became clear that the Generation X identity was restricted to a much smaller group. Specifically, Generation X is white, upper-middle class, college-educated, located near urban centers, and lives primarily on the coasts. Generation X-ers are hip, ironic, lack motivation and suffer ennui. The biggest problem X-ers face, we are told, is that their college degrees aren't worth as much as their parents'.

By late 1993, this image of Generation X had become a cliche. At this point, the media focused its concern much less on the X-ers' material problems and opposition to the Baby-Boomers, and much more on the consumer identity of Generation X. Whereas previous definitions of Generation X gained *some* legitimacy by discussing material difficulties ('the job market for the college-educated is worse than it used to be'), Generation X was assumed to be based much more explicitly on patterns of consumption ('X-ers are wearing flannel this fall'). This was the beginning of the second wave of Generation X media, which sought less to define Generation X and more to address it as a single, unified group with common interests and backgrounds. The articles, books, and television shows of the second media wave no longer had to outline the boundaries of Generation X, or even mention 'Generation X' at all. The second wave could assume that the appropriate audience was familiar with the terms and boundaries of Generation X, because the first wave had already instilled the American popular consciousness with not only a literal definition of Generation X, but also a series of codes and symbols, all of which represented Generation X. Media producers could then 'hail' the appropriate audience, one which *defines itself* as Generation X, merely by including some of these codes and symbols.

Ben Stiller's 1994 tribute to Generation X, Reality Bites, provides an excellent example of this second wave of Generation X media. Starring Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, and Stiller himself. Reality Bites is about a group of friends negotiating their ways through contemporary urban life after graduation from college. Getting this film takes more than merely being a member of the X-er age cohort, or even a member of the more specific X-er description I mentioned earlier. Stiller assumes an audience which has been well-trained by the media. The privileged viewer must relate to the X-er identity and be accustomed to symbolic shorthand of film and advertising. Time is on Reality Bites side. Made three years after Douglas Coupland's Generation X, it builds on ideological hails, like seventies pop-culture and hyper-commodified foods, to signal a viewer who identifies him/herself as an X-er. 'Getting' Reality Bites represents a culmination of years of media training. Stillers audience is not only aware of Generation X signs and hails, but also the language of product placements, 'hip' consumerism, and music videos. Stiller can then use these tools first to engage the viewer, and then create an alternative consumerist ideology for Generation X.

We can see examples of fetishized products throughout the film, but one seems particularly fitting. 'The Big Gulp,' explains Lelaina in Reality Bites, 'was the most profound invention of my generation.' She then goes on to describe the mythic, almost magical, meaning of this 40 oz. drink: 'it provides all your essential nutrients,' 'makes [her] happy,' and represents her appreciation for simple, cheap commodities. In effect, she offers what we might call a Barthesian analysis of the myth of the Big Gulp. By including a self-aware and ironic explanation of a myth creation, Ben Stiller gives Roland Barthes take on ideology a curious challenge. How could a piece of ideologically-charged kitsch, like 'Reality Bites,' at once rely upon myth, while it points out the unnaturalness of myth?

Barthes wrote Mythologies during a time of modernist revelation, and he points out that a separation exists between a cultural object and the ideology it carries. Barthes seems to hope that by identifying the *un*natural, 'mythic' qualities we give commodities, he will be able to transform his readers from unwitting consumers to conscious spectators. As Barthes himself claims (Mythologies 119), this belief in an ahistorical meaning which supersedes the historical is similar to what Freud argues for in his case-studies, namely that a repressed meaning underlies the manifest content of dreams and fantasies. Barthes goals, however, seems to have more resonance with post-Freudian pop-psychologists who hope that merely recognizing the repressed desire can, in and of itself, stop the hysteria. To paraphrase some 80s pop-culture, knowing is only half the battle. One must act on ones knowledge to bring about change.

Much of Barthes audience may well have been aware of the consumerist myth, even as they participated in capitalism. Even as early as the 1950s, when Mythologies was written, cultural critic David Riesman mentions in The Lonely Crowd that a kind of consumer could be identified who felt superior to the ads, yet bought the advertised goods anyway. This is the audience who knew that emotion is unnaturally associated with goods, and scorned anyone who would believe such nonsense. Yet, their awareness was irrelevant to the advertisers, for it didn't hurt sales. Only if consciousness leads to action, can it be transformative. The consciousness of the 'superior' consumers was ineffectual because they behaved the same as those without this awareness.

Jump ahead forty years, and one can see a culture industry that is aware of this consumer consciousness. Moreover, we live now in an era where consumer consciousness can actually aid in winning over consumers. Ads, movies, and even politicians know that they are addressing what my mentor, Kathleen Moran, dubbed the 'cynical spectator.' The culture industry, then, often creates a cynical spectator position which can exist *within* the terms (both ideological and narratological) of a particular cultural object. An example of this can be found in Sprites recent ad campaign, which targets a viewer who is familiar with the techniques of advertising. The radio ads feature an angry voice ironically exclaiming, 'I believe that wearing a particular brand of basketball shoes will make me play like Michael Jordan. I believe that drinking this soft drink will make me popular.' The ad *seems* to be deconstructing the nature of advertising. After all, it points to the ridiculousness of commodity fetishism by overtly stating the ideological message which most ads keep covertly hidden in images and associations. Sprite, however, *uses* the consumer fetishism which its commercials seem to reveal.

Reality Bites gives the viewer a similarly cynical version of Barthesian myths. Like many contemporary movies, Reality Bites chief topic is consumerism. Lelaina, Troy, and Vicki constitute a community of slackers who offer campy and cynical interpretations of commodities. Take Vicki's cynicism in the convenience market: Since the slackers lack the cash for a pizza, Lelaina suggests that they eat what she can acquire using her father's gas card. Vicki calls this 'eat[ing] gas.' Vicki's comment at once makes fun of the absurdity of this consumer transaction, as well as celebrates Lelaina's creativity in finding an ironic strategy for dealing with hunger. Lelaina's father, of course, had intended that the card be used only to buy gas. By limiting his financial aid to his daughter, Lelainas father believed he could begin to cut the apron strings. Creative and cynical, Lelaina figures out a hole in the system. Yet her strategy to beat her material scarcity does not in any way fix or escape the economic structure which creates them.

While Stiller imagines a group of young adults at a relative material disadvantage, he cannot imagine a solution to their need outside of consumerism. Their identities are too intimately connected to the products with which they surround themselves. Even though the characters reveal the ridiculousness of giving commodities magical qualities, the film makes them a 'natural' part of the slackers' surroundings. Indeed, the characters' primary mode of communication with each other is *through* their relationships with commodities. They circle around the television watching 70s re-runs, they shop, they enjoy Big Gulps. It's difficult to remember any scene in the movie in which the characters aren't displaying their relationships to commodities.

Reality Bites contains a type of advertising called product placement. In the forties and fifties, television shows like I Love Lucy would integrate advertisements into the show. Lucy might stop the plot to perform a skit about the usefulness of a product, or merely celebrate the smooth taste of Lucky Strikes. As evidenced by their omission in todays re-runs, these ads were not necessary to the plot and the scenes in which the products appear can be entirely cut out. Over the past ten years product placement ads have come back with a vengeance, only now they appear primarily in films, rather than television. Filmmakers are paid to include certain products in their films, and marketers target primarily upbeat films in order to give a positive association to their product. These ads are still mostly non-narrative, but now they are included in scenes which are integral to the plot.

Reality Bites displays the most recent shift in product placement advertising. Rather than merely taking a product and instilling it with the spirit of the film, Stiller instills his film with the spirit of particular products. Television ads most often depict packaged foods, like Pringles, as inspiring joyous community. Stiller depends on this image as he shows his characters bonding over such products.

Although Stiller gives the viewer a critical distance from particular fetishized objects, his inability to imagine a life apart from materialist desire creates an overall consumerist ideology. The cynicism provides a false 'inoculation' to the dominant ideology. That is, it presents a critique of consumer desire in order to recuperate consumerism as a whole. If we go back to the convenience store I can better illustrate my point. As the happy, but knowingly ironic, consumers bring their hyper-commodified food to the register, Vicki quips 'Did you know that Evian is naive spelled backwards?' Here, Vicki undermines the myth of bottled water — i.e., that imported water is of a higher quality than domestic; bottled water is better for one than tap water — by pointing out the hidden message behind the consumer ideology of buying water. Although she still buys the water, she makes it clear that she is better than the supposed 'naive' consumer (later personified by Mike) who would believe the myth. While the audience is in this cynical position of authority, Stiller slips in a plethora of product placements. We can clearly see all the products and their names. To complete the ad, the scene ends with a gleeful, music-video-like dance to 'My Sharona.' Stiller re-naturalizes the association between Pringles, Diet Coke, Evian and other products with fun, community, and, because of Vicki, hip consumerism.

Stiller justifies this relation to myth, which keeps the audience simultaneously controlling and controlled by the fantasy, by providing a personification of the earnest, naive consumer who is completely lacking in the deliberate irony which surrounds the other characters. Reality Bites posits the critique of capitalism onto a version of the bad consumer Mike the yuppie, played by Stiller himself. With this critique of naive consumerism, Reality Bites removes from the hip consumers all the unsavory politics of 'selling out' to capitalism. Obviously a foil to Ethan Hawkes incessantly cynical Troy, Ben Stiller's Mike shows us consumerism without cynicism. Mike the yuppie is unable to understand the 'secret handshake' which would make him part of the group. He is the repulsive Other, the 'they' of Lelaina's angry valedictorian speech. The projection of naive consumerism upon Mike at once reduces the threat of the negative elements of materialist desire, and, as I have already mentioned, takes away the sense of complicity from the privileged audience. The Troy/Mike dichotomy offers many examples of this strategy. Throughout the movie, Troy recycles the language of pop-culture to show ironic excitement. His speech is riddled with slogans like, 'I'm bursting with fruit flavor,' or 'come on, be a Pepper,' showing his familiarity with the ridiculously enthusiastic language of advertising. Mike, on the other hand, uses the language of popular culture literally, without irony. While trying to cheer up Lelaina, Mike whines, 'Now who's the boss? Tony Danza? No. You are.' His sincerity, coupled with the spectator position of irony which Troy has by then taught the audience, leads the viewer to hold Mike in contempt. Its not consumerism which is bad; its naive consumerism, quoting television without giving a wink.

If it sounds like theres a certain lack of cynicism in the value of these products, thats because there is. While cynical spectatorship was prevalent in Boomer-targeted media, the Generation X media is moving towards another avenue — camp. I am not thinking of true camp, of course, but camp lite, a reified, rather unaware version of the gay method of myth creation. Both kinds of camp express a sincere enjoyment of a cultural object while they recognize a certain irony in that enjoyment. True camp, however, satirizes the objects original, unconscious form and therefore, depends on the idea of a naive mainstream. 1960s drag queens parodying Marilyn Monroe are an example of this kind of camp. Camp lite, on the other hand, doesn't really argue against anything. The camp lite spectator merely enjoys *that* he is enjoying the object. While both forms of camp, to some extent, seek to give the participants a questionable sense of control, camp lites sense of control is far more illusory. It contains only the shallowest sense of subversiveness, one that lacks the sense of satire of true camp and the bitterness of the cynical spectator.

It's difficult to find examples of camp lite, in the sense I mean, in the earlier Generation X works. Coupland's characters grudgingly work according to materialistic values, angrily lamenting the anxieties of capitalism. They are closer to the Sprite announcer, or The Big Chill's bitterly cynical tone. A camp lite perspective, on the other hand, is more upbeat, choosing a light irony over cynicism. Let me illustrate the difference by returning to Lelaina's Big Gulp. She gives her nostalgic representation of the Big Gulp just after teasing Mike about his materialism (he wears an Armani suit). She is, according to the movie, not materialistic because she can enjoy cheap commodities. Likewise, Troy can console Lelaina for the loss of her job, by insisting, 'All we need is a couple of smokes, two cups of coffee and conversation. You me and five bucks.' They create a kind of existential self which can appreciate minimal qualities of life.

Unable to perceive a life outside of consumerism, Stiller tries to show us the best kind of consumer to be. The film sends a message that life can be hard, but the best way to deal with it is by *embracing* consumerism with the awareness that the world is crumbling. As Troy puts it, 'Life is a series of chaotic tragedies and near-misses, so I take pleasure in the details. A quarter-pounder with cheese. Those are good.' Here, Troy explains the motivation of camp lite: addressing the problems of the world is futile, so one should simply enjoy little commodities. Troy, who is highly cynical about consumerism — advertising in particular — is positioned above consumerism in two ways: the cynical spectatorship mentioned in the earlier part of this essay and camp lite, a softening re-folding of cynicism back into not just consumerism, but consumer desire.

Revealing the terms of myth can be a hegemonic device. That is, admitting to a certain falsity of myth can make the ideology behind the myth more effective. Stiller creates an identity fraught with consumerism and political complacency. The various 'inoculations' and specious insights create an ideology which eludes Barthes' vision. According to Barthes, all one has to do to be outside ideology is to step outside the one, lone naive spectator position. In a time of multi-culturalism and multi-identitism, and its consequent target-marketing, a cultural critic must recognize the possibility of deconstructing one ideological structure, while being invested in another, parallel structure. The contemporary critic must also be wary of the belief that insight into an ideology can, in and of itself, protect the masses from the consequences of that ideology. Ben Stiller, by assuming an audience that is both cynical and yet emotionally invested in Generation X ideologies, assumes an audiences which falters on both of these pitfalls of cultural analysis. Stiller builds on a media-created identity, as well as the training of a 'hip' audience, in order to romanticize the consumerism of the poor leisure class. His strategy is particularly dangerous, because it give the audience a false sense of power and control. Feeling as if they are not under the ideological controls of capitalism, the audience is more likely to act as if it is.

Bill Salzmann wrote his senior thesis on Generation X ideology. He graduated from UC Berkeley last fall, and can be reached by e-mail at

Copyright © by Bill Salzman 1995. All rights reserved.