Last week, I sat outside the Café Gato Rojo smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and mulling over some poststructuralist text for a seminar I’m taking. I wore yellow pants and a flannel shirt, my face accented with thick-rimmed glasses. I was staring out aimlessly at the Yard, hunched over on the steps.
“Hipster Jose!” my friend Rebecca shouted when I self- effacingly described the scene to her. I swallowed the cursory “I’m-not-a-hipster-I-just-like-these-yellow-pants-and-Foucault” anxiety, and we settled on turning Hipster Jose into an alter ego. He is a twentysomething queer latino, he is well educated, he likes whiskey, and he lives young and wild and free. (Rebecca is a small white girl from Kansas, but sometimes she quotes Wiz Khalifa.)
“I’m sure I’ll see him around soon,” Rebecca said.
I thought about a scene in the first episode of “Girls,” when, in a fit of earnestness, Shoshana tells her bohemian cousin Jessa, “Oh my god, you’re so hip I could puke.” She means it as a compliment, but I receive it with an inkling of suspicion. Jessa is very hip—a little too hip. While a useful foil for the other characters, the too-trendy Jessa seems like a lie.
But here I am uncomfortably checking a few too many boxes in the pseudo-intellectual checklist and finding myself becoming something of a trope. It may be that descending into a world of typecasts can happen without much effort in college, one of the dangers of living with 6,500 other 18-22 year olds.
I get the sense, though, that this red brick hegemony is something more widespread that extends beyond Harvard. Meaningless as the archetypes of youth are, they reveal an impulse to categorize ourselves and to categorize others. In the midst of our approving nods (“that’s brilliant”) and our deep existential equivocations (“it’s, like, whatever”), we unthinkingly carve out niches for ourselves to avoid disappearing into the scenery, regardless of where we are. Staking claim to our own pose, we Instagram our lives to show everyone that we’re individuals.
At the heart of all these tropes is a deep anxiety about our own authenticity and the need to claim our own identities before someone else does. Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls,” Hannah, hits the nail right on the head when she flippantly outlines her day to her parents: “I have work, then a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.”
Today, we tend to think of this as a new problem of the millennial generation living in a state of drift. The thinking goes that a new drawn-out adolescence and a run of historical bad luck has stunted our generation and is turning us all into eccentric neurotics. Overeducated and underemployed in a bad economy, we’re told, college grads today are finding new ways to express themselves. This has various incarnations: the hipster intellectual, the affectless hacker, the fed-up activist, the tuned-out club kids, et cetera, et cetera.
The melodramatic anxieties of twentysomethings are, however, nothing new. Two decades ago, the zeitgeisty Generation X film Reality Bites—starring Winona Rider and Ethan Hawke—touched on similar themes. Rider’s character, Lelaina, looks at her automaton employer one day and, in a line suffused with 1990s camp, declares: “He’s so cheesy, I can’t watch him without crackers.” In a later scene, Hawke’s character, Troy, melodramatically references Shakespeare when he muses, “You have reached the winter of our discontent.”
“Millennial drift” might be true, but it is not unique: Our nervous quest for authenticity precedes us. It’s captured in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, when Paul Varjak confronts Holly Golightly: “You call yourself a free spirit, a ‘wild thing,’ and you’re terrified somebody’s gonna stick you in a cage.”
The big reveal at the end of Varjak’s speech is key: “Well baby, you’re already in that cage,” he says. “You built it yourself.”
Even a film released over 50 years ago is saturated with the same anxieties about authenticity, identity, and meaning that our generation lives out today. In the movie, they’re both good-looking and it’s all very meaningful and easy to parse.
In the practice of our daily lives, the markers of freedom and youth are harder to identify, and don’t lead to a neat and romantic denouement. The fear that we’ve trapped ourselves into a web of performances and a burden of cultural meanings is all-encompassing, but there’s no clear narrative.
There’s some truth to Hipster Jose, but there’s a lot of reduction too. The way I see it, today’s specter of hipsterdom is really just a red herring for other anxieties about the end of youth and beginning of adulthood. It’s the same story, maybe just told in a new, mass-cultural way.
At Harvard we say that we’re stifled by our workload and by the crushing pressure of our own ambitions. But that’s not quite it. We’re all anxious; none of us know why. We’re at that age.
Jose A. DelReal ’13 is a Social Studies concentrator in Lowell House. He refuses to move to Brooklyn after graduation.