Monday, April 7, 2014

One Millennial's Rainbow Connection: A Response to Elizabeth Hyde Stevens

As a very young child in the early 1990s, I had a great many television shows that I LOVED.  Garfield & Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Captain Planet were Saturday morning mainstays for me.  But before any of those masterpieces of animation pinged my pint-sized radar, there was the Muppet Family Christmas, featuring both the full repertoire of Muppets and the cast of characters on my first television love, Sesame Street.  I so loved watching the Muppet Family Christmas that I would demand to watch it every day, some years all the way until May or June after Christmas.  This is also to say nothing of just how frequently I have watched just about all of the Muppet Studios videos on Youtube (and sang along with many, often with friends), or of how vociferously I once asked my soon-to-be in-laws when I first met them "where they stood on the Muppets."  (Fortunately for all parties, they were--and are--resoundingly pro-Muppet.)

I tell you these potentially embarrassing factoids about my neuroses not as a means of public self-flagellation (though I am certainly not above that), but as a way of saying that I, as a card-carrying millennial (see above list of favorite childhood television shows for further proof if necessary), have been shaped as profoundly and dramatically as any member of Generation X by the Muppets, Sesame Street, and the kingdom that Jim Henson built.  Jim may have died when I was but a lad of four, but more than probably any public figure, his work shaped the ethos that I was instilled with as a child.

Knowing this (was she trying to bait me into doing something like this?!), my mom tagged me on Twitter with an exceptionally well thought-out article by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens that was posted to Salon this past weekend entitled, "Millennials Just Don't Get It!  How the Muppets Created Generation X."  I promised her I would write something here about it, because as a millennial, I'd like to think I get it.  Just a little bit.

Now, granted, I was born in 1986, and as Stevens notes in her work, Gen X sometimes is considered to extend all the way to 1984, so I am certainly on the elder end of the Millennial generation and may well be more apt to be influenced by the Muppets and Sesame Street than a Millennial born in, say, 1996.  But whereas Stevens suggests that, "A college freshman might feel just as emotional about Barney, Power Rangers and the Teletubbies. While I don’t have a high opinion of the lobotomized purple dinosaur, he was certainly a “touchstone” to 20-year-olds," I would gleefully note that not only do I share her massive disdain for the lobotomized purple dinosaur, I shared it even when said overly trite therapod really burst onto the scene in 1992, as my first-grade friends and I competed to make up the most vicious jingles possible to the unbearably cloying "I love you, you love me" song.  And don't even get me started on the Teletubbies (the Power Rangers, on the other hand, I will defend to the death.  They were awesome.  But the assignment of their power suit colors was pretty racist).

In other words: perhaps today's twentysomethings do feel just as attached to Barney and the Teletubbies.  But speaking as a twentysomething, I have yet to meet any.  I suspect the twentysomething who still loves Barney will someday rank right up there with Sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster by conspiracy theorists who go a-huntin' for elusive, rare, mystical beasts.

More to the point, though, is the reality that Stevens notes immediately afterward: We ALL have our nostalgia.  All of us.  And to consign the object of a millennial's nostalgia to a dopey dinosaur is to paint the generation that succeeds you with far too broad a brush.  And considering just how wide-ranging Gen X is--again, to quote Stevens, from at least 1961 to 1981--you would think that there would be more understanding and sensitivity to overly generalizing a generation.

Because to slap upon us millennials the label of "not getting it" is to, in fact, not get it: we may be obsessed with our smartphones and absorbed by our own special snowflake-iness (I have read the same awful articles that you have--and it has done wonders for my self-esteem.  Now I know that because I'm a millennial, I suck, and I'm sorry), but we also get that this is a community that we belong to by being a part of the human race.  Ironically, technology may have (read: probably has) isolated us in our one-on-one interactions, but it has made us more connected to the wider world than ever, and I believe that we, as a generation, have taken to heart the exact same values that Stevens lists off that she received from the Muppets: inclusion (look at how many millennials support marriage equality), global citizenship (look at how many of us believe in the importance of bettering the world), and education (we're on track to be the most educated generation in history).

Correlation without causation?  Maybe a bit.  Certainly, we had other major influences in our lives who have helped shape our destinies--the values of our Baby Boomer parents, the persistent torpor of the global economy, and a profound disillusionment with established institutions.  But the Muppets--and Sesame Street--mark, I believe, an exception which proves the rule to that disillusionment with institutions.  The Muppets have been around far longer than we, but because the values they espouse speak to not just one generation but to many, we are able to claim them as our own as well, just like the Gen X-ers.  Generation X is not the only generation to owe Jim Henson an immeasurable debt of gratitude.  We millennials are very much co-signers of said debt.

You may call us naive and self-absorbed if you want (we probably are, at least a little).  Say we are attached too much to the lobotomized purple dinosaur or to the Tubbies of Television (even though we probably aren't...seriously, has Buzzfeed EVER made one of those now-ubiquitous "Things you miss about your '90s childhood" articles that included Barney?).  Posit that we cannot possibly fathom your attachment to something that we ourselves are attached to, like Statler and Waldorf's incessant mockery, or Sam the Eagle's patriotism, or the Swedish Chef's...well, anything that the Swedish Chef does, really.  Or anything that his ingredients do to him.

You can argue any of those things.  But we millennials know in our special-snowflake hearts that we are able to claim the cultural heritage of the Muppets for ourselves as well.  Jim Henson may have died when we were very young--or even before we ourselves were born--but his creations continue to speak to us today, instructing us, teaching us, and guiding us like the Muppet Show of old.  And in this way, we millennials are not so unique after all.  Our connection to the Muppets is but one stripe of color in the Rainbow Connection that binds together lovers and dreamers alike...but it is a stripe of color that remains vibrant and vivid to behold.

Yours in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! I love the question "Where do you stand on the Muppets?"

    I want to say to all Millenials (technically I *may* be one - 1980) that I didn't intend the essay to be a dig on you. I meant it to celebrate Gen X. The editors added the "Millenials Just Don't Get It!" title as a form of clickbait - you click it because it mentions you. It's ingenious marketing, but not my original intent.

    I think there are many people younger than Gen X who were equally raised by the Muppets (especially those with older siblings and PBS-only homes). But I do think it drops off at some point, with those born in 1995 not really knowing who Jim Henson is or why he was such a great hero (the 2011 movie helped change that). But even if some younger Millennials don't remember Henson's work from childhood, I think they still, as you say Eric, display the Hensonlike values, and that may be due to other factors in the world, or to the Gen X musicians, comedians, and cultural messages when Millenials grew up. Or simply to their being pretty sharp in general :)

    I really enjoyed your thoughts, Eric. Thanks for your wise perspective.

    And be careful of the icy patch!