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Happy Thirtieth Anniversary, “Reality Bites!”

This is the movie were Winona Ryder grew up before our eyes.

The most devastating scene in the 1994 Gen X classic Reality Bites comes when its protagonist, 23-year-old Lelaina Pierce (played by Winona Ryder) interviews for a job at the Houston Chronicle. She’s been fired from her job as an assistant at a local TV morning show, can’t make rent, and she is too proud to take a job at the Gap. The editor interviewing her is skeptical of her motives, noting her lack of relevant experience, but, over Lelaina’s insistence that newspapers are the watchdogs of society, gives her a one-question test to see if she’s got what it takes. “All right,” she asks Ryder’s character, “Define ‘irony.’ ”

Lelaina, flustered and in an elevator whose doors are closing, stammers. “It’s a noun,” she asserts. “It’s when something is . . . ironic?” she tries. “I know it when I see it!” she finally declares, as the doors shut on her opportunity. Defeated, she walks to a diner, where her friend and will-they-or-won’t-they paramour, the slacker-artist-philosopher Troy Dyer—played in a career-defining role by Ethan Hawke—commiserates with her over the trick question. “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning,” he says, before leaving her to ruminate at the counter by herself.

Lelaina’s job search is a memorable sequence in the film, motivated by her desire to avoid the only opportunity offered to her: taking a job at the Gap, which would mean the dreaded “selling out.” Thirty years later, that concept, which lies at the core of Reality Bites, is at least as undefined—and, perhaps, undefinable—as Gen Xers found “irony.” In our era of megaplatforms and personal brands, the notion of selling out seems almost quaint.

The behaviors that were considered sellouts in the era that Reality Bites chronicles are hardly taboo at this point. The entire tech industry has contorted itself around the idea of building a new app, product, or piece of software or hardware and then getting acquired by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google, which may just as quickly kill it as integrate it. Hip filmmakers pivot from making indie films with a singular vision to directing Marvel movies as soon as they’re able. Musicians, whose industry has been in a crisis around artist pay for decades—one that has only accelerated amid post-COVID venue consolidation and miserly streaming pay rates—no longer face any sort of taboo for licensing their music to commercials. Rather than resist being co-opted by a brand, pretty much everyone with an Instagram or TikTok account has been told that they are the brand, and that this passes for empowerment.

Helen Childress was twenty years old when she first wrote the screenplay that would become Reality Bites. At the time, the Houston native, like most Gen Xers with creative ambitions in the grunge era, struggled with the question of how to achieve her dreams while maintaining her integrity, and she infused that challenge into the fabric of the film. I asked her what she thought about that concept these days. “Now, there is no such thing as selling out,” she said. “I have two daughters who are actually really close to the age of the characters now, and I showed the movie to them. I said, ‘It’s about selling out,’ and they were like, ‘What is that?’ ” Childress did her best to define it: “That’s when you exploit something that’s important to you for commercial gain, or for the benefit of a corporation,” she told her daughters. “They were like, ‘What, you mean like a sponsored post?’ ”

Revisiting Reality Bites now, the movie isn’t exactly dated, despite the time capsule–like quality of the film’s aesthetic (everyone in it smokes, Ethan Hawke wears a vintage alternaboy haircut; Janeane Garafolo rocks babydoll dresses; grunge-era frontmen such as the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando and Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner bop around in background cameos). It’s more like watching a foreign film, the product of a culture with different values. The movie is deeply concerned with the concept of selling out, but it doesn’t feel the need to define what it is, or even why it was bad—as a pure product of its time, it takes for granted that audiences in 1994 would understand that whether or not to take corporate jobs was a defining choice in the characters’ young lives. In the same way that, say, Bollywood films don’t feel the need to explain why things start to feel ominous when a character who’s getting married is around her future mother-in-lawReality Bites assumes that the dilemma of selling out is self-evident to its viewers. As a product of the culture of the time, that tension is the water in which the film’s characters—and its original audience—swam.

Here’s how that tension plays out in the movie: Lelaina has graduated from college and finds herself living in Houston with her best friend (Garofolo) and Troy, who sleeps on their couch after getting fired from one in a string of jobs that he considers beneath him. Lelaina, an aspiring filmmaker, spends her nonwork hours chain-smoking, dancing with her friends, and accumulating footage for a documentary she’s making about life and love in the nineties. When she meets Michael, a young, ambitious TV executive yuppie (played by Ben Stiller, who also directs), the question of selling out is presented as a romantic choice: Does she want the passionate-but-broke life she could share with Troy or the career opportunities Michael represents? Will Lelaina sell out or not?

In a blog post about the concept of “selling out” in the tech industry last year, tech and culture writer Anil Dash touched on Reality Bites, observing that “in contemporary culture, the ‘sellout’ character’s framing as a villain would likely be incoherent to many.” We live in an age, he noted, in which artists all have ancillary products that they market to coincide with their music or movies, in order to try to navigate a fractured attention economy. It’s seen as—at worst—politically neutral by fans when Travis Scott does a little cobranding with McDonald’s, or when Post Malone partners with Raising Cane’s to sell soda cups with his face on them. To today’s viewers, Dash wrote, “being savvy about getting work in front of an audience would be difficult to portray as an act of villainy.” In the film, Michael betrays Lelaina’s trust by taking her documentary footage to the TV network he works for (In Your Face TV, an MTV stand-in), a move that initially thrills her but becomes devastating when she sees her footage cut up in a way that makes her and her friends look cartoonish. Troy, the emotionally unavailable layabout who sleeps on her couch and plays coffee shop gigs with a rock band that doesn’t practice enough, turns out to be right.

Childress can explain exactly where that viewpoint came from. “In the music scene in Houston in the late eighties and early nineties, there was a concern—they didn’t want Houston to turn into Seattle. They didn’t want to sign with major labels. They were happy playing Last Concert Cafe or Cabaret Voltaire and getting paid in T-shirts, if at all,” Childress told me. “It was so prevalent in the era that it was natural to have that be the whole plot of the movie.” She recognizes that the culture has changed since those days. “I don’t think you could do that today,” she told me. “I mean, I don’t even know what that would look like.”

The taboo against selling out has some roots in the music world, and it accelerated in the early nineties, when Nirvana’s Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson’s Dangerous atop the Billboard 200, setting off a feeding frenzy among major record labels to find other independent bands that might break through in a similar way. As music writer Dan Ozzi depicts in his 2021 book, Sellout, that sent corporate A&R executives into punk rock clubs and DIY venues, waving contracts at seemingly anyone who appeared onstage, and those communities pushed back. After Green Day emerged out of that scene in the Bay Area, for instance, Berkeley’s beloved punk club 924 Gilman Street placed a ban on major-label artists on its stage, choosing its culture over the money and prestige that hosting MTV superstars would bring.

“We didn’t want Gilman to be the farm league for the majors,” booker Jesse Luscious told Ozzi. A scene that had been built to give artists and audiences who felt like outcasts a place to come together was suddenly on MTV every day, and every time a band took a deal, it brought more and more corporate influence into a community that existed specifically to resist it. “Selling out,” in that context, meant selling not just your own work, but a piece of the community that you were a part of to major labels and MTV, which were unwelcome.

Childress described Reality Bites as a “last gasp” of that mindset. (“It’s not a prescient movie,” she laughed.) But she does miss it. “What strikes me about my daughters and their Gen Z friends is that there’s so much awareness of how we’re speaking to each other, things like that, and that’s great—but it’s interesting, because it prioritizes this personal narrative,” she said. “There’s a little bit of a blind spot in terms of how your actions and your life are determined by the influence these really, really large corporations have. And it’s funny, because when we made the movie, they weren’t that large. There was no Google, or Amazon. There was an Apple, but they were in a slump. But there was still an awareness of not wanting to sell out. It’s kind of ironic.” She laughed. “I guess we’ve finally defined it.”

I wanted to better understand whether the tension at the heart of Reality Bites makes sense to a young audience, so I called Selome Hailu, a film critic and reporter at Variety who graduated from the University of Texas in 2021. After watching Reality Bites for the first time, she told me she connected with the movie more than she expected. “It’s very specifically Gen X, but I still found it pretty resonant and relatable,” she told me. She’s in a part of her life in which she and her friends are figuring out what their careers will look like, what their long-term plans will be, and what pursuits might just be for now, she said—so she came into Reality Bites ready to explore those themes. “It’s funny, because the whole disaffection of Gen X in their youth translates into this reputation Gen X has now of just being like, ‘Oh, the world sucks, so we don’t have to do anything about it,’ which is kind of posited as the opposite of Gen Z,” she said. “But watching this made me think that maybe I’ve been a little judgy, and I actually have more in common with them, because that’s still the conversation that I’m filtering the world through.”

As an elder millennial, I was too young to engage with the questions of Reality Bites when I first saw it. I was thirteen years old when the film was released, so the movie seemed more aspirational to me than reflective. I didn’t ponder the meaning of selling out so much as I hoped I could live in a cool house with hardwood floors with my friends when I was the same age as Ethan Hawke’s character. To this day, I don’t know if having such a simple but materialistic ambition makes me more like Troy or Michael. Nonetheless, I found the fact that these concerns cross generations reassuring. Childress struggled with the question of selling out in writing Reality Bites at a time when I was more interested in the Aladdin soundtrack than Nevermind. Now I’ve got a mortgage and a job writing about this for an outlet that’ll sell advertising alongside it—things I know I’m fortunate to have, but which still occasionally make me question myself: You used to write poetry! Hailu, meanwhile, wasn’t born when Reality Bites hit theaters, yet she and her friends struggle with the same things.

Maybe the question, in other words, isn’t, What was selling out? Maybe the question is, Why don’t we tell stories about it in ways that look like the struggles young people have around the concept today?