Being Michael Grates

stillerrealitybitesAbout a week or two ago, I came across a few articles filled with emotional hand-wringing on the part of the generation often referred to as Millenials.  I read about how there is a generational conflict between this younger generation, which seems to be dismayed that the world doesn’t think they are entitled to anything; and older generations, who wish these kids would get over themselves.  It’s accompanied by talk about the uphill battle this generation faces as it enters a very touchy employment situation–the job market, after all, is terrible–and will have an enormous amount of student loan debt.  There is also the sentiment of “You created this mess and we inherited it.”

I found myself thinking about how Millennials need to get over themselves and how they’re all entitled brats, but then I couldn’t help but be reminded of two decades ago when Generation X seemed to be facing the same problems.  I am sure that your average Millennial will tell me otherwise, but it seems that there is something universal here:  the up-and-coming generation takes crap from the older generation. And I also couldn’t help but watch Reality Bites, the 1994 Winona Ryder-Ethan Hawke film that attempted to capture the struggle that particular group of twentysomethings was going through at the time.  Watching it again–and I watch it every once in a while–I knew that I would have a slightly different perspective and perhaps even view at least one of the characters a different way.  Not surprisingly, the character I seemed to sympathize with more than I did when I first saw the movie as a teenager was Michael Grates.

Played by Ben Stiller, Michael Grates is a network exec at In Your Face TV (“It’s like MTV but with an edge”) whom Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce meets literally by accident when she chucks a cigarette out the window of her car and it lands in his front seat, causing him to panic and rear-end her.  Soon after, the two of them become romantically involved and Michael winds up being the romantic competition for Hawke’s Troy Dyer, a guy who is crashing at  Lelaina’s place because he got fired from his twelfth job.  Troy is almost a caricature of a ’90s-era slacker, with greasy hair, vintage clothing, and an attitude of superior intelligence without the work ethic.

I never liked Troy very much.  But when I was seventeen, I didn’t like Michael very much either.  As much as I saw through Troy’s bullshit, I thought Michael was smarmy and clearly epitomized a sell-out.  If anything, I was sympathetic toward Lelaina, who was struggling to make everyone in her life happy yet had no idea why she wasn’t.  I still feel for her–although that’s kind of the point of the movie, of course, because Stiller and Hawke’s characters are two-dimensional at best, developed only enough to make the audience want Lelaina to struggle with a choice (a choice that, funny enough, I’d see in the last scene of the last episode of My So-Called Life where Angela Chase is put in a position of choosing between Brian Krakow and Jordan Catalano).

But in those nearly nineteen years or so, I gained some perspective, and during these viewings found myself sympathizing with Michael.  It’s not surprising, though.  I had excellent grades, thought it was cool to wear a tie (oxford shirt, plaid tie, jeans with a braided leather belt), and wanted to be considered cool, which is what Michael seems like.  He wants to be the cool kid so he gets a job telling the cool kids what is cool.  Of course, he is an example of the great irony of a world run by dorks.  Being the person who tells people what’s cool doesn’t make him cool, as much as he tries.  There’s some serious over-compensation going on his office (vintage Planet of the Apes figures and cardboard cutouts of in-the-moment pop culture) and his wardrobe (he dresses like an extra from Melrose Place and his hair … well, it was the ’90s, after all), and while he is comfortable around Lelaina, he’s constantly flustered by Troy, who seems to go out of his way to make Michael feel uncomfortable and not cool.

Such is the nature of romantic competition but take that away and it seems like Troy is going out of his way to make Michael feel like they’re back in high school or something; in fact, Troy is exactly like some of the guys I went to high school with and whom I currently teach.  You know the type–very intelligent who are so “intelligent” to the point where they are arrogant about it and dealing with them makes me want to give my own version of Michael’s “Hey look at me, I’m Mr. Buddha on the Mountaintop!” rant.

I can’t decide, however, if I want to do that because I am now older and have more perspective or if I always was Michael.  Looking at what I wrote about my generation when I was seventeen, I see that what Millennials are griping about now is more out of generational habit than genuine angst, and that I was trying really hard to be witty as a high school editorial columnist.  I mean, it’s not that the up-and-coming generation doesn’t have legitimate complaints (I’m no longer up-and-coming and I still have complaints); but I can’t help but look with a sly eye at myself nineteen years ago.  There were times when I was channeling Holden Caulfield and his first-world problems, and while the perspective of someone in his mid-30s doesn’t make me better than anyone, at least Michael got off his ass instead of spouting bad pop culture-based witticisms from the couch upon which he crashed, right?

There are times when I watch Reality Bites and wonder where the characters are now (yes, I realize they are fictional characters, but when you’ve seen the movie as many times as I have, your mind starts to wander).  I can imagine that Michael is probably married with a kid and working at one of the bigger networks rather than a cable channel and that unless Troy did get off his ass at some point and get to work that Lelaina dumped him because she eventually hit that age where all of that couch philosopher bullshit gets old and tired.  Oh, and she took a course in marketing.  Because as much as I sympathize with Michael destroying her artistic vision, she really needed to be more savvy.


  1. Reblogged this on Red Lines and Highlights and commented:

    The third and last of a series of posts over at Pop Culture Affidavit that takes a look at movie characters from a different point of view. While this doesn’t so much have to do with teaching (though I do mention it), I thought that since I shared the others, I’d share this one. Enjoy!

  2. Hooray!

    Actually, there’s a whole other dichotomy going on. I’m 23 and half of my friends are now entrepreneurs with cars and fiancees and very loud, annoying opinions on organized religion.

    Meanwhile I can’t get a job because I haven’t had one in five years because nobody would accept my applications because I haven’t had one in five years because…

    And all this time I’m finishing school quite late (I’ll graduate a few days short of my 25th birthday), due to personal responsibility and budget cuts, and all the other remedial folk don’t seem to feel nearly as guilty as I. Let me tell you Tom, nowhere is the emerging class system more readily visible than among the young folk.

  3. Lelaina works in marketing, oh my, well I hope she likes it better than I do *wink*.

    I always sympathized with Michael, though I was always way too attracted to Troy, which honestly explains a lot of my life and relationship choices. I always related to Lelaina, and still do, to some degree and yes, I play the where are they now game, too. She dumped Troy when she realized “you and me and five bucks” has no staying power no matter how romantic it may sound. She isn’t with a Michael though…I’m not sure “who” she would be with.

    I really enjoyed this – thanks!

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