IMage: young Americans

In ‘Young Americans’, Lance Bangs Lets Millennials Speak for Themselves

After watching Lance Bangs’ VICE and Scion AV series Young Americans, I was struck by the reality it lays bare: that the people who express opinions on Millennials, or Generation Y, are often granted a greater air of authority than the generation itself. Lazy, entitled, delusional, and selfish—these are just some of the the recycled descriptors leveled at this generation… my generation. But, Bangs, unlike others in his generation (and older), doesn’t make assumptions—he allows this generation to speak for itself, instead of having words stuffed in its collective mouth.

Writers and commentators, as in decades past,regularly trade on the Millennial psyche to make their money. Joel Stein is a prime example of this. His article, “The Me Me Me Generation,” was a piece of cynical and sensationalist opinion meant to extract a nice paycheck from Time magazine. Good for Joel. Way to make suckers of Time, I say. It shows there is a bit of the Generation X rebel in him yet! Maybe.

Am I making an assumption about Stein? Sure I am: one good turn deserves another. Especially when a journalist sees a few lazy, entitled Generation Y kids on the street, cites some questionable studies, make a few observations of social media and technology usage, and then extrapolates this all towards a general conclusion of epidemic, mass self-entitlement. And, like all provocation and sensationalism, it sells.

In Young Americans, however, Bangs doesn’t concentrate 80 million Americans into a single organism. Various ethnicities, sexual identities, and other strands of Generation Y are allowed to speak—to frame the debate. And while they may not speak for the generation as a whole (how could they?), they do present a facet of the whole. Many Millennials may see something of themselves in Bangs’ subjects. Others may not.

Going to the source is not unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street’s efforts at constructing its own media—to craft the message before others distort it.

Granted, Bangs is a film and TV industry veteran, but he allows these “young Americans,” who would otherwise be muzzled and subjected to a type of arrogant, misinformed cultural ventriloquism, to frame themselves. He could have colored the proceedings with his own commentary, but he doesn’t. And that is to his credit.

The first episode, “Coming to America,” delves into the immigrant or second generation immigrant experience. It’s an interesting move on Bangs’ part, because here he sort of deconstructs the idea that there is a uniform parental influence on this generation that gives rise to a legion of spoiled brats. The subjects only reveal a bit of themselves, so how could we possibly generalize the young American experience the way observers do with such vindictive, arrogant relish?

The “LGBT Experience” episode is another great cultural window, allowing the subjects to dive into that diverse group’s sexual identity and inter-personal politics. Sure, we’ve welcomed homosexuals into TV series and the workplace (to varying degrees), and examined some of the cultural repercussions; but have we really addressed the full LGBT experience? Not at all, and certainly not in the mainstream media. In as puritanical a country as America, the LGBT experience is only allowed to transgress so far across cultural taboos. The line is always being pushed, but not fast enough. And Bangs’ subjects reveal this experience, presenting the various shades of sexuality, gender roles, and labels in a way that turns a critical eye back on the LGBT community itself.

Episode 3, “Media Representations,” is equally fascinating, but probably for the exact opposite reason Bangs intended. He asks various subjects if they see and appreciate media representations of themselves. As expected, he gets some pretty typical responses. But, what is fascinating is that when we discuss any subject in the media, young Americans in this case, there is a filter in operation (Bangs’ subjects dissect this in the episode, “Cultural Stereotypes”).

To be specific, if an African-American doesn’t feel properly represented in a TV series, well that is to be expected because the media can hardly be bothered to portray reality at all! Everyone, from journalists and filmmakers to talking heads and religious fanatics, and all in between, are filtering life through their version of reality. So, in a sense, this episode reveals the futility in trying to represent anything. Takeaway? Never miss an opportunity to call a cultural observer out for their endless streams of bullshit.

The final words from Bangs’ subjects comes in Episode 8, “Where Are We Headed?”. The future—what does it hold for Generation Y? Bangs jumps immediately into the question to address the elephant in the room: sure, there is arrested development amongst Generation Y, but is it really laziness and entitlement? The first subject to answer, says:

“Part of it has to do with the fact that we can’t get a good start right off the bat, right? As soon as we get out of school we’re in debt. We don’t have any accumulated wealth, and we are living off our parents and… the older generation. It’s no wonder that we’re in this state of arrested development.”

“Part of” not all of this condition is attributable to student loan debt and a shit economy. It’s an acknowledgement that the answer to this question is as complex and varied as the generation itself. A generation that has its dreams and wants to contribute, but is, like other generations before it, struggling to pull it all together. There is nothing particularly unusual here.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, these individuals who get paychecks from observing and critiquing Generation Y (that’s you, Stein) just have short memories of their own experiences, and no sense of cultural history. Generation X was lost and lazy, and so were the Hippies, the Beats, and the Lost Generation. It’s a condition with a long history, in which a number of variables—social, political, economic, religious, etc.—were at play.

Millennials are particularly adroit at communicating their fears, failures, successes, and dreams via social media and other electronic forms of expression. In that sense, Young Americans can only provide an isolated, frozen moment in time. But, to sleep on Bangs’ series would be a mistake. Every story has a myriad of branching strands. And Young Americans is one node on the constantly evolving rhizome that is Generation Y.

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