Conservatives Have Always Been Part of the Gen X Story. We Just Forgot.

Gen X Heathers legs in colorful tights and croquet mallets
Screenshot from Heathers, 1989/New World Pictures

I always notice when my generation is in the news, because we hardly ever are. So, last month I couldn’t help seeing that Gen X Twitter was abuzz over some polls showing that my little cohort — or at least its older half — are among the last blocs with a majority of devoted Trumpers. The findings are still eliciting dismay and surprise among the middle-aged in my social media feeds.

To explain this phenomenon, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times that many X’ers grew up enjoying the tail end of boomer prosperity while seeing the rubble of failed liberal policies from the pre-Reagan era. Meanwhile, our famous irony and skepticism makes us critical of “an emotivism and narcissism that millennial liberalism and boomer liberalism seem to share.” This is undoubtedly an apt analysis of some demographics within Gen X. But it isn’t the part of this news that interests me. I’m more interested in the fact that so many people are surprised.  To me, this bewilderment demonstrates one way our story keeps being told wrong.  

Here is a true story:

It’s the fall of 1989. I’m a high school freshman waiting for gym class to end and lunch to begin. My bobbed hair is dyed black. I’m wearing a faded black t-shirt with a houndstooth vest that belonged to my mom in the 1960s, cut off 501s, black tights and cheap cotton mary janes. To kill time before the bell I decide to reapply some bright red lipstick, which means enduring a cloud of Aqua Net that hovers above a wall of blond spiral perms giggling in front of the mirror. One of them turns to me and says, “Everyone wants to know why you wear that weird makeup.” 

She’s wearing teal mascara. 

“I was trying to look like you,” I say. “Did I get it wrong?”

She looks confused, “I can never tell when you’re joking.”

I leave to join a group of girls I’d been friends with in middle school. They’re not as bad as the spiral perm girls, but they’re still more Top 40 than Cocteau Twins. We walk to Circle K and they all sit in a line on the edge of the parking lot, eating little bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. I stand a few feet away wondering how they can just, like, sit there, all the same. I feel trapped.

“Hey, you in the vest. Come sit with us.” I turn and see a trio of sophomores in vintage cardigans and black eyeliner. They were like three fallen angels, smoking Camel lights and lounging on a picnic table, and they saved me from more than the Circle K parking lot. 

They were cool. They didn’t let just anyone sit with them, and once I was “in,” I didn’t either. We weren’t snobs…Ok, we kind of were, but we were also protecting ourselves. We were weirdos, misfits, and not-yet-out queer kids. Kids who knew the world wasn’t ok and power was untrustworthy. In those days we were all lumped together under the category “alternative.” We needed each other because most of the people around us (including members of our same generation) were brutal to oddballs. 

And yet somehow, as time passed, we became the leads in the Gen X story. The stereotype of Gen X became an alienated, eye-rolling slacker. And more than that, the very differences and experiences that gave us an outsider’s perspective were erased. The “slacker” had no race (because he was white). He had no class because he didn’t care about money (a sure sign he had enough of it). He was alienated just because he WAS Gen X. Like, people stopped talking about how our poster boy, Kurt Cobain was a working class weirdo from a conservative small town where, by his account, his peers regularly beat him up for being a “faggot,”and he hated being a poster boy for our generation. 

We were dubbed “slackers,” but I could count on my fingers the people I knew who actually watched Richard Linklater’s movie, Slacker. If more people had, they’d know the title is ironic. It’s not about being lazy or apathetic. It’s about rejecting mainstream capitalist culture and trying to build hyper local communities among the ruins of globalization.

We were always the minority. That was the whole point. Later in the ’90s, the spiral perm girls might have been wearing Gap flannels and Doc Martens, but they were the same people underneath. My point is, I could never relate to most people within a decade of my age, because most of them were conservative. 

Rebels who became the fashionable picture of the whole clan were just as annoyed with our own generation as we were with the ones who came before. When I was in college I tried to read Douglas Copland’s book Generation X, because it was supposed to encapsulate something important about us. I hated it. My friends and I saw those characters as a bunch of yuppies in training; marking time until their trust funds matured (is that what trust funds do?). They were older than me and they were upper middle class. I think that’s the Gen X Douthat is describing in his op-ed. 

The people he’s describing are the Fashion Club at the high school where Daria is an outcast. They’re the Heathers and the frat guy who tells Winona Ryder to “save your speeches for Malcolm X. I just want to get laid.” They are James Spader in Pretty in Pink and the girls who ask Molly Ringwald if she got her outfit at the “five and dime.” None of these stories would make sense if the main characters weren’t struggling against an unfair system, and if we didn’t recognize something about that system in our own lives. But somehow the fact that these are stories about power —  about race and class and gender, labor and consumption — disappears, and we all just remember ourselves as Molly Ringwald. 

While I’m writing this from the point of view of someone irritated by history’s double erasure of my existence (a subculture subsumed into the mainstream of a forgotten generation), I include myself in this critique. I’ve been guilty of discussing Gen X as though people like me were the majority and not, to quote Our Lady of Quiet Disaffection, Suzanne Vega, “on the outskirts and in the fringes…left of center wondering about you.” And I definitely could have done more in the ’90s and 2000s, when my own youth, whiteness and ability to class pass made it easy to think the arc of history would bend toward justice just because I hoped for it. 

Anyway, Pretty in Pink ends with Molly Ringwald kissing Andrew McCarthy in front of his BMW. Her happy ending is becoming bourgeois. So it’s true, we were taught to believe that if we went to college and worked hard, our future would look the same as or better than our Silent Generation and Boomer parents’. And for some older X’ers, the big sisters and brothers in my orbit, being conservative was a kind of rebellion against “the hippies”. Call it the Alex P. Keaton Phenomenon. For those who had money to begin with, sometimes the American Dream worked out. For others, the fact that it didn’t probably felt like a betrayal. 

And for some of us — who have been trying since the ‘90s to find some kind of stability without capitulating to bourgeois values and who were always skeptical of the American Dream; who wished John Hughes had stuck to the original ending with Andie and Duckie dancing together in working-class, “left of center” solidarity  — it was a call to wake up and start fighting. But that last group of us were always swimming against the mainstream. We shouldn’t be surprised if the brutality that surrounded us when we were young grew into Facebook “devil’s advocates” and cynical conservatism. 

Like every generation, the people within ours responded to the same social problems — environmental catastrophes, racial progress and injustices, economic booms and collapses — in different ways, shaped greatly by our positionality. And like every generation since the 1920s, ours has been reduced over time to a few shorthand characteristics. The confusing thing is that for us, fashion and pop culture made a handful of small anti-establishment subcultures into the template for the stereotype.

So, of course Generation X is full of conservatives and MAGA-lytes. It always has been. If you’re surprised by this, you’ve been hearing our stories the wrong way. 

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.