Gen X TikTok Recycles Late Cold War Culture

“Things have been so scary lately with Russia,” TikTok user @MojoX says with absolute seriousness in a post from early March, “that I went out and got myself a bomb shelter of Generation X”.

Cut to a photograph of a school desk – an image that conjures up, for generations of Americans through Gen X (including myself), memories of those wacky drills in which we prepared for the inevitable nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviets by stuffing ourselves under our desks.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in its second month, and as reports emerge that Russian nuclear forces have been placed on high alert, the culture of the end of the Cold War has taken a great comeback. Think of it as a Cultural Cold War 2.0, with Russia as the replacement for the former Soviet Union.

“Red Dawn,” the 1984 Patrick Swayze/Charlie Sheen/Jennifer Gray film about a group of small-town Colorado high school kids who fight off a Soviet ground invasion with a few shotguns and good guts, saw a surge popularity on streaming services following the Russian invasion. Sylvester Stallone’s boxing franchise’s 1985 “Rocky IV” also sees a post-invasion boom, in which the all-Italian-American hero fights a machine-like Soviet aggressor, Ivan Drago, played by the Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren. cup mode.

References to these films also materialized on TikTok following the invasion. “Don’t worry people. Generation X has been groomed for this since we were kids,” writes one such post in tribute to “Red Dawn,” followed by the obligatory “WOLVERINES! in all caps – a reference to the high school mascot that also serves as a battle cry for those high school guerrillas, who are fighting not only the Soviets but also their fired up Nicaraguan allies. (“Red Dawn” is the absurd peak of the Reagan era.)

Also prominent are the references to the 1983 TV movie “The Day After,” in which Jason Robards played a kind doctor in Lawrence, Kansas struggling with the devastation of a Soviet nuclear attack. The film, when it first aired on ABC, was a cultural event – ​​attracting an incredibly massive audience of 100 million (at a time when the US population was around 236 million) and terrorizing a generation of viewers with its scenes. of abject devastation. When I was in middle school, we took an entire period off social studies to seriously discuss it.

In the days following the invasion of Ukraine, TikTok user @Vampslayin posted a vintage report on the film’s social impact: “Who remembers watching this as a kid?”

“Yes,” replies @chefmichelleagnew. “It was and still is scary.”

“I was going to show a video,” says @diva_dee25 of the film in a post about the film, “but then I realized, when I watched the videos again, it sort of retraumatized me because I felt like I was back to the day I first watched this movie.

I was indeed rendered insomniac by “The Day After”. As NPR’s Neda Ulaby, who grew up in Lawrence and was there for filming, noted in a report marking the film’s 20th anniversary, “The Day After” landed amid intense Cold War bellicosity. and anti-Soviet paranoia. The year it was released, President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and the Soviets shot down a Korean commercial airliner that had accidentally veered into their airspace.

On the radio, songs like “99 Luftballons,” by German synth-pop band Nena, imagined a devastating war sparked by the innocent release of a few helium balloons into the air. The song appears as the soundtrack to another gag on TikTok which shows an image of a school desk emblazoned with the line, “I bought a Gen-X bomb shelter today.”

In retrospect, “The Day After” is hokey. The film hits its audience with an hour of heartfelt storytelling before it gets to the main event. When nuclear weapons finally arrive, the devastating effects of the bombs on people are rendered by showing the outlines of their skeletons, as if they were cartoons.

If you want to experience the fear of the end of the Cold War, I recommend “Threads”, a British film about nuclear annihilation broadcast on the BBC in 1984. Combining elements of mockumentaries and feature films , the film traces the lives (and grim deaths) of several individuals living in the English city of Sheffield in the days, months and years following a nuclear attack. Filmed brutally – sometimes juxtaposing stills with the clinical delivery of unseen newscasters – it evokes elements of French director Chris Marker’s stylish and devastating “La Jetée”.

As with other late Cold War cultures, “Threads” has also surfaced on TikTok.

These cultural artifacts, along with the Ukrainian war itself, are now water for the meme mill, often presented online through the lens of Gen X, the generation born between 1965 and 1980. A video posted on TikTok by @Kristanistan attributes disparities in leadership styles between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to generational differences.

Putin (born in 1952) is the boomer: “He is an authoritarian authoritarian who has no economic policy”, continues the narration. “He’s outdated.”

Cut to footage of Zelenskyy (b. 1978) in his olive suit, urging Ukrainian citizens to take up arms against an invasion. “So you’ve got this badass Gen Xer,” the narrator continues, “who’s sick of this boomer s—-.”

“Perhaps this is a plea,” the video concludes, “for the old leadership to pass the reins to the new.”

Many posts on social media portray Gen X as somehow uniquely suited to the time of Cold War 2.0. Now uncomfortably middle-aged (I’m 50), we’ve lived through the bomb drills, watched anxiety-provoking movies, and events like the “Miracle on Ice” take up space in our brains. (It would be the time, in 1980, when the American hockey team unexpectedly beat the Soviets 4-3 at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.)

What sets us apart from American baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), who also lived through the Cold War, is that, as a generation, we were too young to have a political stake in it. (I was 18 when the Berlin Wall came down.) Instead, in the United States at least, much of our memory is of watching it helplessly from the sidelines while hoping that a delirious hawk having access to the button would not be our death. everything.

“That’s why Gen X is taking this in stride,” reads the caption of a post from TikTok user @shelc21 as she listens to Alphaville’s “Forever Young” — another synth-pop track popular German on the anxieties of living in a nuclear world. Sample lyrics: “Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst / Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?”

It was a song I slow danced to in college.

In a recent TikTok video, a millennial panics over the invasion: “I’m so f——— tired of living through major historical events!” he fumes. Meanwhile, in a reaction post, a Gen Xer going by the handle @thatcrazyaunt stares at him, puzzled, as she grabs a glass of orange juice. A legend materializes under her: “Don’t have a cowherd. It is the behavior that triggers these historical events.

In a tweet posted in late February (which has since circulated on TikTok), comedian Jay Black offered the following advice to millennials and zoomers dealing with their “first episode of WWIII panic.” As he writes, “Find yourself a Gen X friend to go with you.”

The idea that Gen X, my generation of relentlessly scrutinized slackers, would come into its own amidst Cold War 2.0 is morbid and fun. So is the idea that a bunch of oldies who watched “The Day After” on TV are somehow ready to meet the moment – psychologically or otherwise. (The birth of Generation X, after all, largely coincides with the conversion of the military to an all-volunteer force in the United States in 1973, so I can’t say how well most of my generation turned out. would come out of it in an actual war. )

Generational divisions are always easy at best. (Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, after all, born in 1965, is technically a Gen Xer). and overwhelming uncertainty. And as we know from last time, hiding under our desks – well, that won’t save us from anything.

A still from director John Milius’ action drama ‘Red Dawn’, starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen.

What’s old is new again

James C. Tibbs