The Ethan Hawke Effect: the Gen X Slacker Archetype and the subconscious conditioning of accepting substandard relationships.
May 4th, 2021
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Kim: This is episode 40 - this is sorta a nostalgia collision course with themes that have arisen during our online dating episodes and hipster episodes. Why there was such a big trend of so many of us cool girls making allowances for such lousy behavior from dudes in the aughts and through today- Well Amanda and I like to give some of this credit to what we call the Ethan Hawke Effect. Essentially a pop cultural haloing of the grungy gen-x anti hero archetype. So Welcome to our TED Talk. Amanda and I explore this and much more this week!
Ethan Hawke Effect
Amanda and I got to talking during the past like months and we were reminiscing a bit about old movies, dudes, role models dating, and trends and we were like what is the one thing in common? Well the movies and shows of the 90s that we grew up watching particularly the ones aimed at the more alternative counterculture kids and spoke to this new generation - and particularly Reality Bites.
As young girls and as we transitioned through extremely vulnerable and impressionable ages we had the Disney princesses and all that crap. But we kept growing and we continued to be impressionable through our teens and 20’s and like many of you growing up on 90’s heartthrobs - Amanda and I wanted to talk about what we like to call the Ethan Hawke effect - which really encapsulates the whole of the stereotype and genre and persisted during this era and then poured onto all the next generations.
Essentially the Gen X slacker dude is a mysterious sexy burnout, an emotionally unavailable loner, always in a band but may or may not hold down a steady job - he generally has some deep seeded wound or trauma - a stereotype which are literally ALL RED FLAGS, was the hot lead guy in many of the shows and movies that we watched in our formative years - especially for “alternative girls” - which hardwired a lot of us to ostensibly be attracted to these slacker dudes as we grew up into our 20’s in 30’s. We also witnessed how our female role models on the screens behave towards these men - giving us readily available excuses for their bad behaviors to use as crutches for YEARS to come as well as conditioned behaviors that were just subconsciously programmed.
Relationship expert Haley Quinn was the expert I referred to in last week's episode on fleabagging which is basically being in cyclical toxic choices again and again. She blames the entertainment industry in part and says “A lot of it comes down to unrealistic ideas around romance that are kept alive by books and films… if we expect love to be a constant on-again, off-again battle, then we may be more inclined to accept behaviour that we shouldn’t in our relationships''.
I think the same goes for the reflection of the type of person and the way relationship is being portrayed as acceptable in a lot of these movies and shows that we watched in our formative years as alternative girls to be attracted to ostensibly losers or slackers in our “20’s or 30s’s””
Amanda and I wanted to bring some evidence in. Let me kick us off with an easy target Mr Hawke in Reality Bites.
Reality Bites - Ethan Hawke Effect
So I know both Amanda and I could probably talk for days about this movie - I think this might be one of my favorite movies really and one that I have seen the most in my lifetime.
Now let me be preemptive - 1994 was like the cultural apex for the “slacker” , a directionless angst ridden Gen-X stereotype that came out of this recently defined generation of grunge and alternative kids. And selling out was the worst thing you could possibly do for this group. So this was the height of cool attitude particularly for men of subculture. This was plucked straight out of the music scene that couldn’t have been more influential at that time -so ultimately the trend started there and the entertainment industry picked up on it.
So, Ethan Hawke’s character - Troy Dire - is like foine. But THE WORST. He can’t keep a job, or a girlfriend, I don't even think he wants one, never seems to bathe and has some emotional stuntedness that makes him that perfect fixer upper with greasy hair that became super acceptable at the time. To top it off he is like one of those really intelligent, brooding slackers and Amanda - he is in a band (hey that’s my bike). Mt Kilimanjaro passing by every red flag as you make your way to the top. He spends much of the movie smirking and being a smart ass and generally treating Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder's character) like crap - but secretly having feelings for her. Lelaina has goals in life - she is an aspiring documentary filmmaker and was the valedictorian. She is pounding the pavement, and trying to make something of herself.
There is some strange tension and a love triangle between Troy and Ben Stiller’s character who is a bit of a square but is a music tv exec - and Troy just can’t really tell Lelena that he is romantically interested and instead is kinda gaslighty and condescending...yet and she feels a connection to his garbage sexiness - because “chemistry” amiright? - They sleep together and he literally walks out on her because he “can’t handle it”. They have a few swoon worthy moments but disguise what looks like your starter pack for dating via hitching your wagon to a dud that is going to cripple your potential.
There are a lot of articles out there where people are PISSED that she chooses Troy and not Ben. But the Zeitgeist of the time was to avoid selling out at all costs - so that ending up with Ben wouldn't have been in line with her generations philosophies but it sure did set a precedence for some serious. But ultimately for her to be a girlboss her best move would have been then to sell out and be with Ben who was literally a studio executive since she was an aspiring documentary filmmaker.
But if Lelena could make a boyfriend out of this guy - you can make a winner out of your loser then too! Because that is the ultimate goal right? Have a boyfriend - then all is swell in life - then end - that is the goal in life. Boyfriend makes life better, not you, not your passions. I just hope one day Lelaina dumps him to focus on her career.
My So called life - Jordan Catalano, played by Jared Leto
My So Called Life was THE 90s teenage show because it was so real in a way that Beverly Hills 90210 could never be. It only aired for one season and I’m still sad about it. It launched the careers of both Leto and Claire Danes, who played the protagonist, Angela Chase. She later won a Golden Globe for her performance. Critics and fans alike were SHOCKED when this show was cancelled. And I’m still holding a grudge about it.
One thing that I loved about My So Called Life (which made it different from 90210) is it wasn’t really about anything, other than what it’s like to be a teenager. There was no moral at the end of the episode, they didn’t cover “the issues” in the way 90210 did, and the characters looked like regular high school kids.
So I found this fan-written description of Jordan Catalano and I think it summarizes him the best:
“Jordan Catalano is a high school junior who was held back two years. After getting to know him more, Angela theorizes his lack of scholastic achievement is because he may be dyslexic. He is later diagnosed as a rudimentary reader with low literacy skills, partly because Angela signed him up for peer tutoring. As a result of his learning disability, Jordan ditches virtually every class but PE and shop, and, for half the season, English. He smokes cigarettes, often puts Visine in his eyes, and leans with his eyes closed as if he's trying not to look at things. Angela is fond of the way he leans.”
Jordan Catalano is the ultimate 90s rebel dude: He can get you a fake ID! But he’s sensitive! But he’s in a band called The Frozen Embryos. He wears flannel shirts, sweaters, and a black choker necklace.
Things Jordan did that were super lame but somehow okay because he was a tortured 90s dude: ignored Angelea, approached Angela with the idea that they should have sex since people already thought they did (?), breaks up with Angela because she’s not ready for sex, and hooks up with her best friend Rayanne!!!! Oh and last (but not least), he gets Brian Krakow (who is obsessed with her) to write a love letter that will help him win Angela back.
On the other side of the coin: Brian Krakow, straight A student, overachiever, clearly his mom dresses him...and also possibly an incel?
Cliff in Singles
So the ultimate Gen X slacker in Singles is Cliff played by Matt Dillon - as a soul patch wearing, 1992 Seattle sex symbol with with long flowing hair and the lead singer of a grunge band with literally Eddie Vedder who has a few cameos. Of course this one is set in Seattle and “his” girl Janet - played by Bridget Fonda - is someone he treats like crap. Of course - he still sees other people and she just chooses to look the other way. She is blind to literally all of these faults including the fact that Cliff, the peach, has photos of well endowed women plastered all over his apartment. She asks Cliff if her breasts are too small & he gives her an honest "Sometimes." answer.
One of my most memorable parts in the movie is when she is telling her friend all the things she looks for in a guy - someone who has their own place, a steady job, is responsible and appreciates her and who'll say "God bless you" when she sneezes - but has narrowed the list down considerably (aka settling or lowering your standards that really aren’t that tall of an order here) for just someone who will say "God bless you" when she sneezes. She puts Cliff to the test on this and fakes some sneezes and instead he tosses a box of tissues at her (yeah right Cliff has tissues) and tells her not to get him sick cuz he has a gig.
She does do the solid thing. - really. I mean this is really like a positive role model situation here. She breaks up with him and learns to be alone with herself. Which can be ultimately really hard. She has this great quote in the movie which is SO RARE “ Being alone. There’s a certain dignity to it.”
This same women Hayley Quinn has a really great Ted Talk called Searching for Love to Escape Ourselves about this where she says “Love, sex and dating are often venerated as 'the ultimate goal of life'. However how much of our quest for love is about avoiding being with ourselves? About facing reality? About creating our own direction? And in running away from ourselves in love, do we ultimately avoid the work needed to return to selfhood that will actually bring us happiness.”
Of course - since it is a movie - Cliff realizes he has been a total ding dong and comes crawling back. And has to win her over by just being nice. But LORD what a bad lesson. Getting back with your ex - and expecting a different outcome like he has changed into this incredible different soul has a tendency to not be true. So - yet another lie perpetrated by the entertainment industry to give women false hope.
Dylan Beverly Hills 90210
I am not ashamed to admit that I have seen every episode of 90210 at least half a dozen times, even the crappy late seasons where everyone is boring and...my number one crush Dylan McKay is absent
Dylan McKay, as played by ultimate heart throb Luke Perry (seriously, my crush for him knows no end and I am still in denial that he has passed away).
Dylan McKay appeared in my life at just the right time to solidify himself as the male archetype that appeals most to me: middle school. He was deep, he was tortured, he loved books as much as I did, and he was wildly handsome (even when he wore his pants with one suspender strap down). When I have re-watched the show as an adult, I have laughed and laughed at just how campy and dark his character is. Just a caricature of James Dean, with a 90s spin. But still, the way he made me feel in 7th grade still lives on in my heart.
Dylan McKay is an extraordinarily rich kid, so he never has to work, he has his own home even though he’s in high school, he surfs, he travels. He drives a vintage Porsche convertible. He is quiet, he is angry, but he loves poetry and the great writers. He’s also an alcoholic at the age of 16...like already goes to AA meetings, so clearly there is a dark, party boy past there...and while he slips into drugs and alcohol here and there, it’s only because he’s so tortured!
He’s a good guy ostensibly--the show goes out of its way to show Dylan doing “good things” all the time. But he’s kind of dick, too. He loses his temper in just the ultimate red flag first date with Brenda. Eventually he starts dating Brenda’s best friend Kelly, ruining the relationship forever.
I can’t talk about sexy bad male characters that ruined dating for me without talking about Christian Slater, another heartthrob of the late 80s/early 90s. I look back now, and I’m like, “ehhhh” but there was a boy who went to my school, his name was Jay Fleegle and I swear he looked so much like Christian Slater that I obsessed over him for a big chunk of 10th grade. Years later, I ran into him in Philly where I was visiting my boyfriend. I had just taken a shit ton of Triaminic because I had a cold, and I sat on a bench with a super stoned Jay Fleegle, thinking that it might be one of the happiest moments of my life.
Christian Slater was often compared to a young Jack Nicholson and I can’t disagree with that. He has that vibe, the eyebrows, the delivery...and he was in several sort of iconic movies: Heathers and Gleaming the Cube (about skaters) in 1989, Pump Up the Volume (where he runs a pirate radio station) in 1990, True Romance and Untamed Heart in 1993. And lots of big blockbuster films that I had forgotten about, including Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Interview with a Vampire, Young Guns II
But no role was sexier, more destructive to all of young, romantic minds that his role as JD in Heathers.
First off, I just found out today that Heathers is intended to be a satire.
And secondly, the writer originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct it because he thought that Kubrick nailed the satire of Dr. Strangelove and thought he could do the same.
I can see that it is a satire now, but as a middle school kid who was somehow allowed to rent this film from the video store (and watched it like 10 times over one weekend), it seemed just like the purest, sexiest movie I had ever seen....and the cherry on top was that the popular kids were assholes and the all got what they deserved.
JD is a loner, a transfer from another school and he and Veronica (played by Winona Ryder) immediately gravitate towards one another...eventually having sex on her parents lawn amidst an abandoned croquet game. The chemistry between these two is so powerful….I wonder if they ever hang out IRL? He literally says “Our love is god.” Which, I guess doesn’t mean anything but sounds super deep when you’re in middle school.
Anyway, the plot goes off the rails, JD is murdering people via Veronica, they frame it all as suicide, and eventually JD plots to blow up the school (and eventually blows himself up).
So yeah, not the best dating material...but once again, THERE’S JUST SOMETHING ABOUT JD. And I’m sure Christian Slater is a big part of it. He nails that role; his performance is iconic! But his character is incredibly damaged, he has a terrible relationship with his father, his mother died via suicide, and he is vindictive but obsessed.
This fan summary really nails his character: “Veronica breaks it off with J.D. not long into their relationship due to him murdering three of their classmates. He continues to try to win her back with no avail and eventually decides to kill her, too.”
Ummmmm...but once again, I thought this was somehow sexy?