Many cultural phenomena came out of the 1990s, so much so that much of the 2010s was spent chasing after ’90s nostalgia. There was something about that decade that so many people in our nation want to hold onto. The phrase “times were simpler” might help explain why this is so.
If there is one thing from the ’90s that our society hasn’t quite held onto, it is the phenomenon that I will dub, “F the world, no consequences.” In short, this is the angsty view of the world that is inherently self-focused and makes decisions without considering the possible consequences to yourself or others.
Due to this, in the media and overall culture among young people, an anti-work, struggle-to-survive mindset was born. As Millennials matured and Gen Z was born, this mindset was all but entirely erased.
In its place, Elle Woods and the Common Application came together to push a college-educated and hard-working culture. According to the Department of Education, in 2017, 20.4 million students attended colleges and universities across the country. To compare, in 1995 only 8.7 million students were enrolled in a college or university.
Two pieces of media, Jonathan Larson’s rock opera “RENT” and Ben Stiller’s directorial debut “Reality Bites,” best emulate this “F the world, no consequences” phenomenon.
“RENT” is a ’90s reimagining of Puccini’s classical opera “La Boheme” that deals with themes involving the AIDS epidemic and the life of the modern bohemian in New York’s Alphabet City.
The opening number of the same name follows main characters Mark Cohen and Roger Davis as they struggle to stay warm in the loft apartment they squat in. By the end of the song, the company comes to the lyrical conclusion that, “We’re not gonna pay / Last year’s rent / This year’s rent / Next year’s rent.”
Cohen is an aspiring filmmaker and Davis an AIDS-diagnosed musician. It is clear with Davis’s illness and Cohen’s recent breakup that the audience is meant to pity the men. After all, they are suffering, poor and have no work.
Cohen and Davis have an ex-friend named Benny Coffin III who has recently married rich. With his newfound money, he longs to open a cyber arts studio in the building where many homeless people are squatting. He offers both men full-paying jobs at his studio, as well as free housing at the loft they are currently squatting in.
Instead of declining for moral reasons regarding the homelessness issue, the men believe that Coffin is now a corporate sellout and is infringing upon their superior bohemian lifestyle. This is what I mean by “F the world, no consequences.”
The feature film “Reality Bites” has plot points similar to “RENT.” In “Reality Bites,” the recent valedictorian graduate Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) is struggling to find her way in the professional world. She works for a PBS-adjacent television network as a production assistant. On the side, she works on shooting and editing her slice-of-life titular documentary.
Similarly, Cohen in “RENT” records much of the events of the play for his documentary. Both fictional films are plot devices to showcase both the beautiful and ordinary aspects of their “F the world, no consequences” lifestyles.
Pierce ends up dating Michael Grates (Ben Stiller), who works at an MTV-adjacent network. He watches her documentary and thinks it’s brilliant, so he offers to show it to his higher-ups at MTV.
Meanwhile, Cohen gets a job at Buzzline, where he is doing creative work. It is unclear whether he becomes akin to a camera operator or some other media job. He earned said job with footage of a protest he originally took for his documentary.
After Pierce surrenders her documentary for MTV, they edit a trailer together for a possible television event. The proposed work isn’t what Pierce envisioned for her film and, instead of working with the network, she simply pulls her work from them altogether. This causes a breakup between her and Grates.
Later, in Act II of the musical, Cohen ends up quitting his position at Buzzline, as he thought his time spent working this “corporate position” was prohibiting him from focusing on his documentary. Once again, Cohen is broke by choice.
None of this is to discourage the sustained integrity of a work of art. Pierce is justified in her disappointment with how the trailer for her independent project turned out. However, is she justified in going so far as to estrange herself and her project from the network altogether?
The same can be said for Cohen’s situation. Not all artists can be tied down, especially when independent projects can be successful, given the right amount of luck and dedication. However, is he justified in quitting his job to continue his financial suffering for the gain of his film?
Both Pierce and Cohen’s storylines work to explain what exactly I mean by “F the world, no consequences.”
I’m not saying this concept is inherently bad. The idea of the modern-day bohemian, while not altogether true to the original concept of the lifestyle, is not inherently bad. I would argue that the counterculture that was derived from it in the 2000s and ’10s isn’t inherently good either.
In fact, one of the most fascinating concepts present in “F the world, no consequences” is the aversion to the wealthy.
In TikTok trends and viral tweets, it is becoming more and more apparent that Generation Z is reinventing this mindset. The first example of this is the desire for simple living and the dislike for the upper class. With popular sayings like “eat the rich,” Gen Z is reinventing the “F the world, no consequences” lifestyle.
However, unlike Pierce and Cohen, Generation Z seems to recognize that actions do most certainly have consequences, ones that can affect entire groups of people. For example, members of this youngest generation, in the most general sense, don’t allow themselves to sit with their suffering.
Their suffering is not what fuels their art, like Cohen and Pierce. Instead, the ways that they respond to that suffering push them to make art—not just make art, but propel change in the world around them.
While “Reality Bites” and “RENT” were happening around the AIDS epidemic, one could argue that neither say all that much about the issue at all. Yes, characters in each struggle with the virus, but nobody stands up to do anything about the systemic injustices surrounding AIDS treatment and LGBT+ inequality during that time.
Gen Z, on the other hand, has come together to propel the Black Lives Matter movement forward and vote in the recent election. They’ve taken “F the world, no consequences,” and molded it into “F the world, let’s change it.” They have harvested the ’90s serial angsty attitude and used it for social and individual gain.
While ’90s nostalgia is fortunately becoming less and less relevant, let’s hold onto the framework given to us by our Generation X and Millennial counterparts. “F the world, let’s change it,” is something to be proud of. It is something we should not abandon.