Countless articles and blog posts have decried Millennials (or those born in the period spanning the early 1980s to the early 2000s) for their supposed narcissism and refusal to assume the trappings of so-called normal adult life. Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha, soon to come out on DVD, looks at a twentysomething woman in New York City who seemingly fits the description of the entitled, underemployed Gen Y-er.
At 27, Vassar grad Frances doesn’t appear to be maturing—she’s regressing. While her peers have already made significant strides in their careers and are committing to long-term relationships, she hops from apartment to apartment, barely making rent each month through her increasingly limited work at a dance studio and sustaining herself on childlike tales she and best friend Sophie spin about their future accomplishments. Yet even while showing Frances making poor choices, Baumbach refuses to cast judgment, instead presenting a nuanced and sensitive portrait of a young woman awkwardly coming into her own.
A variety of other works have addressed the concept of the coming-of-age story that takes place not during high school or even college but among those in their twenties still finding themselves. The Brooklyn-based characters of the HBO show Girls have a similar outsider’s perspective when it comes to adulthood; like Frances, grown-up life is something they’re peering at, sometimes wistfully, often fearfully, from afar. Two years out of college when the show opens, main character Hannah Horvath (played by writer, producer, and showrunner Lena Dunham) is attempting to turn her no-strings-attached flings with crass, manipulative Adam into a real relationship and working as an unpaid intern with her exasperated parents subsidizing her living expenses. Though Hannah’s opium-fueled declaration in the season one opener that she represents “a voice of a generation” may be overblown, the numerous blog recaps and pieces analyzing the show episode by episode indicate that it has resonated, both with young adults and those seeking to understand them.
Dunham’s first film, Tiny Furniture, made two years before Girls, explored many of the same themes and served as a template for the show. Aura, played by Dunham, moves back into her mother’s TriBeCa apartment after graduating college. Though she makes tentative forays into maturity—obtaining a job as a hostess as she tries to make sense of her career options, becoming involved with two different men—Aura consistently retreats to a familiar childhood role, seeking comfort in her mother’s bed at night and constantly bickering with her younger sister.
Set in New York City, the short-lived and little-known animated MTV series Downtown follows shy, nerdy Alex, who lives with his parents, works a dead-end job at a copy shop, and is devoted to his passion of collecting comic books and action figures. Though this quirky offering lasted only one season, it demonstrated Alex wrestling with adulthood: the series opener finds Alex selling off some of his toys in order to move into his own place and in later episodes, he reexamines his “childish” pursuits such as games and comic conventions.
Launched ten years ago, Questionable Content (QC), a daily web comic about a tight-knit group of hipsters in their 20s, mixes snarky, slice-of-life observations and indie-rock references with relationship and personal drama. QC initially centers on Marten, an aspiring musician stuck in an unfulfilling office job, and the sexual tension between him and Faye, a sarcastic Southern-born barista who moves in with him after a fire leaves her without a place of her own. However, the social circle soon broadens to encompass others from a variety of subcultures: Dora, a former goth girl with a passion for death metal; ditzy, emo Raven; anxiety- and OCD-riddled Hannelore; and Marigold, a socially awkward manga and anime devotee. Though the daily four-panel comic is mostly fueled by witty banter among protagonists, over the years, larger arcs have emerged, involving romantic hookups, relationship woes, and friendship issues.
Although a failure to achieve the hallmarks of “real” adulthood is often linked to Millennials, several works either created or set during previous decades illustrate that this phenomenon isn’t all that new. Set in the early 1980s, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot follows three recent graduates of Brown University. Aloof and bipolar Leonard and academic religious studies major Mitchell both lust after prim, sweet Madeleine during college. Upon graduation, all three attempt to find purpose in their lives: Madeleine and Leonard impetuously decide to marry while Mitchell wanders from country to country, still yearning for Madeleine.
The protagonist of Mike Nichol’s classic 1967 film The Graduate, based on a novel by Charles Webb, defined the concept of the well-educated twentysomething overwhelmed and confused at the prospect of adulthood. Recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock returns from the East Coast with a slew of accolades and achievements behind him but feels himself drifting—in his parents’ swimming pool and through life—from an affair with Mrs. Robinson, an old family friend, into an ill-conceived infatuation and obsession with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine.
This column was contributed by LJ associate editor Mahnaz Dar.