PRINT May 1989

Believe It or Not

American Myths

NO ONE HAS EVER identified him- or herself as a “yuppie”–– at least not recently. Like the tourist or the ideal viewer of network TV, the yuppie is always another. But the yuppie is also a historical construct: after a generation of “young urban professionals” were defined as a designated voting bloc, Newsweek declared 1984 the Year of the Yuppie (thus bearing out the prediction made by the authors of The Yuppie Handbook in the January 9 issue of People magazine).

Affirmation built into the very term, “yuppie” was conceived in the afterglow of the military action that made Grenada safe for American medical students (identified in the Handbook as “muppies”) and grew to maturity in the delirium of Reaganmania—a mass craze for which yuppie would eventually take the heat. Three-and-a-half years of media vilification later, USA Today (among other publications) used the October ’87 stock-market crash to run yuppie’s obit. Still, it would take a thermonuclear war to truly extinguish the creature: with some 75,000,000 boomers born between 1946 and 1966, yuppie constituted a potential 33 percent of the total population. Of course, this is to ignore, as America is wont, the exigencies of class: not every college-educated boomer makes yup. By Handbook standards, they must be “successful in a highly recognizable and lucrative field that’s valued by our culture.”

Yuppies were heavily concentrated in such mystifying service elites as data processing, financial management, public relations, and law. These glamorous workaholics bought their condos on the higher slopes of the increasingly inverted Pyramid that is America’s rusty economic base. While the masses gorged themselves on Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, yuppie constituted the cutting edge of consumption—the first to appreciate Hill Street Blues and The David Letterman Show, the original mass market for Laurie Anderson and Talking Heads, the arbiter of new ethnic cuisines, arcane kitchen appliances and condiments, and exercise regimens. As a lifestyle vanguard, yuppie was the heir to hippie. Yuppie narcissism, libertarianism, and contempt for polyester were implicit in hippie self-absorption, do-your-own-thing, and back-to-naturism. Psychedelic slang gave way to therapeutic psychobabble. The ’60s suggestion that “You are what you eat” was not only taken literally but globalized. Yuppies were defined exclusively by what they consumed.

In short, yuppie was an extension of the counterculture by other means—a stage in the eventual transformation of hippie to flabbie (fiftysomething lawyer/accountant/broker), grabbie (graying, retirement-bound baby-boomer), or bossie (burnt-out ’60s survivors). Hence the importance of The Big Chill, 1983, the first movie publicly to mourn the death of the ’60s and smugly suggest that it was all for the best. Nearly as significant were Nike’s bold appropriation, in 1987, of the Beatles’ “Revolution” to advertise their running shoes, and the two candidacies of Gary Hart, in 1983–84, and 1987. That Hart’s political career was destroyed by life-style crimes only served to reinforce the counterculture koan that the personal is the political.

Not surprisingly, the spectacle of mature hipness was played out during the Reagan years as situation comedy. Family Ties premiered on NBC in the autumn of 1982, shortly after E. T. created box office history and just before Rambo made his debut in First Blood. It provided the third icon for an unholy mid-’80s trinity in the diminutive person of Michael J. Fox. Transparently modeled on the family sitcoms of 25 years before, Family Ties was promoted as an “Ozzie and Harriet for the ’80s.” The hook was a reverse generation gap. Here, the parents were former campus radicals trying to integrate their ’60s values into the Reaganite wonderland wholeheartedly endorsed by their cute-obnoxious progeny, Alex (played by Fox). With this would-be conqueror, not yet “great,” the counterculture was born again.

Family Ties would ultimately become the second-most-popular show on television (after Cosby), but, like many breakthroughs, it started slowly, becoming a cult item for teenagers only after the emphasis shifted from ’60s parents to ’80s offspring. (That they are in fact identical is the tie that binds.) By the end of the 1983–84 season, Fox was not only a teen idol—America’s youngest proto-yuppie—he had also been embraced by the man whom the Wall Street Journal would dub America’s “most aged yuppie.” Declaring Family Ties his favorite television program, President Reagan went on to acknowledge the quintessential Fox movie vehicle, Back to the Future, in his 1986 State of the Union address by quoting one of the tag lines: “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”

Back to the Future, which combined the thematic of E. T. with the special effects of Family Ties, can be read as Alex’s fantasy—the story of an American Oedipus who learns to sublimate his regressive desire for the mother (projected back onto her in the film’s key scene) and accede to the rule of the father (patriarchal wimpiness being in the eye of the beholder), and is thus rewarded with an improved standard of living for the entire nuclear family. Not exactly a song by the Doors. Not for nothing did presenter Steven Spielberg describe this summer-of-’85 smash, the movie that knocked Rambo out of the top spot, as “the greatest episode of Leave It to Beaver ever made.”

Among other things, Back to the Future’s progressive devolution made it clear that the tension between the ’60s and the ’80s could be mediated by the comforting cultural forms of the ’50s. The same dynamic can be seen at work in ABC’s thirtysomething, 1987–, a belated television version of The Big Chill. Like Family Ties, thirtysomething is based on shared references to an undefined yet self-defining collective past—a counterculture that dares not speak its name. The principals are meant to be in their early 30s, but clearly experienced “1968” as something more than 12-year-olds. (This trope provides the ’60s/’80s tension in ABC’s latest “cult” sitcom, The Wonder Years.)

Back to the future or forward into the past: thirtysomething may have adapted the large cast and complex subplots of yuppie adventure shows Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law to family drama, but the series’ very first episode opened with an extended riff on Leave It to Beaver: “June I’m home!” “I’m in here, Ward!” (Significantly, both Family Ties and thirtysomething have featured accident-induced mock-Twilight Zone fantasies—the latter’s taking the form of a mock Dick Van Dyke Show.)

Some yuppie irony. Appearing barely a month before Black Monday, thirtysomething absorbed the full fury of the antiyuppie backlash. Television critics mocked the show’s blatant life-style cues and whining, self-absorbed protagonists. Even the Wall Street Journal was contemptuous of this “masterpiece in yuppie-vision,” celebrating “the hopes, the dreams, the Volvos” of the new Ward and June. But the Journal missed the underlying poignance—thirtysomething was not the “masterpiece” of yuppie-vision, but the massification. Exiled to a media black hole, yups were “telling it like it is.”

With thirtysomething, network TV has become the feedback system video artists like Peter Campus have always suggested it is. The show even used promotional spots in which Real People (actually, minor celebs) testified to the uncanny degree to which their domestic crises and inner life-styles were mirrored (even defined) by a TV series watched by millions. No wonder the individual yuppie was dead: nonexistent demographic group and nonexistent televiewer were one.

J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.