Angry Grizzly Bear on This Generation

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Seen the #THISGENERATION graphics yet? The generation referred to in this series of red posters isn’t mine—the awkward demographic between Generation X and the Millennials. thisgeneration3The generation in question isn’t the artist’s own cohort either. From what I can tell, he’s a salty old fella from the beginning of the Millennial spectrum. #THISGENERATION—the one harpooned in his simple red graphics—is that of my kids and current classmates.

I spend almost all of my time with #THISGENERATION. Like the artist, I am part of a university community filled with people who get younger and younger than me every semester. In my growing family and in my volunteer activities, most of the faces I see and voices I hear are those of #THISGENERATION. By my own choice, I move through their sphere, outnumbered by them, and perfectly content to be so. What have I found in their sphere? I’ve found the full breadth and depth of human character, intelligence, and kindness. It exists there just as it does among people my own age and among people much older than me. Humanity isn’t something we age into or out of. We’re all equally a part of it.

Of course, I have a huge problem with the way these red posters fail so utterly in representing how or why my children and my friends live the way they do. It’s part of my general revulsion for any sweeping statement made about an entire category of people, especially when those statements appear to be based on fanciful anecdotes unsubstantiated by any proper data and, frankly, smack of the petty mean-spiritedness.

thisgeneration1Let’s pursue a methodical close reading of a few of the posters. In this one, #THISGENERATION is hassled for going somewhere private to take pictures of themselves to post in public. Sure, this is a situation that has and will continue to showcase a whole lot of terrible youthful judgment. But let’s hold our noses, take a page out of the gun lobby’s script, and remind ourselves that cameras don’t exploit people, people exploit people.

When I was in university, my bestie had a cheap, nasty film-camera and pestered me into appearing in ridiculous pictures. She was a genius, I guess. We were taking selfies before there were selfies. I wish two things about those pictures were different: that they weren’t so blurry and that there were many, many more of them. I no longer look like I did when I was twenty. And I certainly don’t blame anyone who is twenty right now for

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An Aunthentic, Antique Selfie ca. 1994

understanding they will never be more beautiful and wanting to use the slick, cheap technology they have to document and revel in it. Heck, go ahead and pose in the bathroom if that’s the best place to relax and get a natural expression. Yes, some of today’s selfies will cause regret. That’s awful. But all those picture we don’t have from back in our day cause us a kind of regret too.

This one has more text so the weak points of its underlying assumptions are more glaring. First, the Candy Crush posts on my Facebook feed aren’t from #THISGENERATIONthisgeneration4 but from older people. Most of us won’t commit  to long, challenging gamer-ism so we play simple, free, throw-away games like Candy Crush. It’s mostly an old people game.

Beyond this sloppy misrepresentation, the larger problem with the comic is that it sets up a false dichotomy between online social contact and face-to-face contact. No one has to choose between these two options. Young people’s relationships span both social media and face-to-face life, just as they do for older people. The centre of young people’s social lives has shifted, moving toward a social space that didn’t exist in the past, the same way people’s relationships expanded to include phone calls during the twentieth century. However, the locus of new social contact points isn’t that different from what’s gone before it. My 19-year-old son observed that my 1990s social life required “a lot of legwork.” That’s true. But it wasn’t all about hoofing around, trying to find each other. We tied up our parents’ landlines, wrote notes to each other in class, wore earbuds and ignored our seatmates on public transit, sat together silently watching television because we had to share the same screen, bullied, and gossiped. Our social interactions weren’t always the rich, face-to-face encounters romanticized by “if you remember this your childhood was awesome” memes. My awkward generation also bored each other, hurt each other, wasted time, didn’t go outside enough, and let opportunities to enrich each other’s lives pass by.

In many ways, #THISGENERATION is more connected to their friends and acquaintances than young people have ever been. That can include being more connected to their parents. “So are you more of a friend-mom?” one of my classmates recently asked me. I do my fair-share of nagging and bossing but I do enjoy my kids. All those excruciating baby-years are paying off with these fantastic friends I made myself. That was the point of this parenting project all along— making people with whom to share my life. It’s come to include my online life.

I haven’t even mentioned the safety benefits of having kids in #THISGENERATION. When I was sixteen, my girls and I would get on a MetroTransit bus, leave Cole Harbour, and stay out until the last ferry brought us back from Halifax. We did this without any way for my parents to check on me, without anything in my pocket that could summon rescuers if something went wrong. My husband grew up in a rural area where he’d take a car and disappear into dark, icy prairies, unreachable for hours. I don’t know how our parents could stand it, and I’m glad I don’t have to.

How about this one?

thisgeneration5I was amused recently to read a twenty-year-old paper warning scholars they ought to take spoken literature (orature) more seriously since it was all #THISGENERATION was going to abide. In the early days of texting, a prominent Canadian author wrote a novel including a vision of the future where both written and spoken communication had morphed into flip-phone era texting shorthand. Of course, that hasn’t happened. #THISGENERATION doesn’t often use their phones as phones. When dealing with people at a distance, they prefer written over oral communication. A phone call means someone’s dead or in jail. #THISGENERATION has become extremely literate, plugging away on Tumblr writing heavy text posts about art and  relationships and social justice, learning creative writing in epic style on fan fiction sites, while older adults quip away in 140 characters. No one reads and writes more than #THISGENERATION.

None of this is meant as a glib “the kids are alright” brush-off of how hard growing up is for young people and the elders caught in the blast-zone. Things like pervasive online pornography, harassment, the permanence of online gaffes, and the ways compulsive gaming and social media activity can rob the achievements and relationships kids need to build their futures are all serious problems. So let’s stop snickering and get serious. #THISGENERATION ought to be able to look to older people for support, help, and love to ease their way. We can’t support people when we’re sneering at them. We can’t understand them when we’re oversimplifying them. We can’t show them much of anything if all we see can in them is their worst.

If Looks Could Kill: Why My Characters Have No Eye Colours

In preparation for an upcoming multi-author book event, I’ve been reading novels outside my usual range of Can-lit and literary fiction.  The atypical reading choices I’ve been making have been eye-opening – literally.  So far, what’s struck me most in my venture into crowd-pleasing commercial fiction is the diligent reporting of characters’ eye-colours.

Maybe everything I know is wrong but for me, all on its own, the colour of a person’s eyes determines nothing about how they experience life.  Okay, I admit my blue-eyed family may do more than the average amount of squinting in bright light.  And if I ever produce a brown-eyed child while married to my fellow blue-eyed husband, it would add some horrible drama to our home-life.  But most of the time, iris pigment is not the crucial narrative factor a random sample of Western pop-fiction might lead us to believe it must be.

Mentioning eye colour in literature can be a nice touch — like writing at length about a sunset or the ocean or whatever. (Writers can get away with a lot in the name of world-building.)  And in the right context, eye colours can be important story elements.  In Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, Judy Garland closes her eyes and tests Fred Astaire’s devotion by challenging him to remember her eye colour.  Even as a kid watching the old movie on TV with my mum, I knew this was an important moment.  It advances the plot, reveals something about each of the characters, and it’s hecka sweet.  Well done, 1940s film-makers.  Look at you, making eye color genuinely relevant and letting it arise organically from the narrative.  That’s how it’s done.

The same could be said for any detailed description of characters’ looks.  Descriptions can work to propel the story, motivate actions, explain character traits.  But sometimes they’re dumped into a story apropos of nothing.  It’s as if we’re driving along an icy street and someone yanks up the parking brake and we’re flying in a circle for a moment, calling out eye and hair colours, spinning out of the true direction we’d been traveling.  Or it’s like the story has deteriorated into a junior high school Language Arts lesson and we’re now outside the narrative reading a “character sketch.”  At their best, character sketches are just exercises meant for the writer’s purposes.  They’re notebook scribbles, not even first drafts, and certainly not good reading.

I hope all of that sounds technical and reasonable.  Here’s a personal reason why I write without bothering to explain the minutiae what everyone looks like: I don’t care.  I honestly do not care what people look like.  That’s not to say I’m any less shallow than anyone else – I care far too much about how people smell – but it is to say that when I’m choosing what to pay attention to, a person’s looks aren’t all that compelling.

When I’m acting as creator of a book-world, I let everyone look the way readers want to imagine them.  That’s done by forgoing physical descriptions I don’t need for plot and thematic reasons.  Giving up the creative control that comes with dictating everyone’s colour palette is worth the sacrifice if that’s what it takes to keep physical traits from interfering with everything else I’m trying to say.

Describing a human being’s looks – even a fictitious human being’s – is actually not like describing a sunset.  It might feel idle and innocuous but it’s not.  Sunsets don’t come with politics.  People do.  Spelling out physical descriptions can introduce prejudices and tropes that distance readers.  If that’s what an author wants (and sometimes it is), carry on, I guess.  Descriptions also run the risk of fueling male gazes and other sources of negative stereotypes. They can end up assuring readers certain appearance-based prejudices are right and fair.  I have a revulsion to abetting that.

In the novel Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland deliberately withholds the information that the narrator, a woman, is overweight.  He allows the reader to discover her through what she does and says and only later introduces what she looks like.  The delayed fat-reveal is brilliant.  I was surprised at how it affected me.  I am not a fat-shamer.  I’m not fat myself (she rushed to say) but during my most intensive baby-raising years I was a bit of a chubby-chick.  It runs in my family.  I love fat people.  I understand on a deeply personal level that they are not lazy or greedy or bad.  And it meant I was shocked at how my vision of Coupland’s character unwittingly changed for the worse after I read she was fat.

To add another layer of complexity, Coupland’s narrator challenges the reader, saying we must have been able to tell she was fat before the reveal, as if something so fundamental must have been visible all along.  Of course, it wasn’t.  Her looks don’t make her any less human or relatable as a character.  But it’s only through withholding a physical description and showing us our own reactions to it that Coupland demonstrates the depths of our appearance-based prejudices and how easy it is for writers to be complicit in maintaining them.

By the way, Judy Garland’s eyes – they were brown.