Heaven forbid we let reality into politics

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2004

Vote for Me, a segment on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, is a sort of political Australian Idolwhere viewers can vote to choose a candidate to stand as an independent for the federal upper house.

The Labor icon Barry Jones had to back out of his role as a judge because nervous Labor senators thought the show might stop them from nailing the difficult third position on Labor’s senate ticket, says the journalist Matt Price.

The Dicko, Marcia and Mark of VFM are now the former Howard adviser Grahame Morris, journalist Lisa Wilkinson and the former independent MP Phil Cleary. These three have narrowed the applicants to 18 finalists. Viewers will vote to choose one candidate from each state.

Condemnation of this show is bipartisan and runs from the Prime Minister’s office down, the journalist Glenn Milne told Lateline. Political journalists have been asking whether VFM will distort democracy, affect the balance of power in the Senate or create a senator for Channel Seven. The criticisms of the show from the major political parties and political commentators have been predictable. But do they stack up?

Many have cited the $10,000 in campaign funds Seven is giving to successful candidates. But as the Orange Grove retail centre affair demonstrates, corporate donations to political parties are hardly new (the ALP is claiming they have no bearing on policy). Politicians protesting at Seven’s generosity therefore just sound like hardcore cocaine addicts criticising a teenager for inhaling when the joint is passed around.

The criticism that choosing political representatives via a television game show makes a mockery of democracy seems at first to be fairer. But how are our representatives chosen now? As has been noted recently, a talent for stacking branches and sitting through years of dreary party meetings are too often the key talents required of aspiring politicians.

Isn’t democracy already imperfect when so many of our representatives are the sons (and increasingly daughters, wives or sisters) of former government ministers, deputy PMs or MPs? Are Simon Crean, Larry Anthony, Alexander Downer, George Bush and even Kim Beazley really the best talent we have?

When Laurie Brereton announced his retirement media reports automatically mentioned a son, Anthony, as a potential candidate – his surname seemingly his most salient qualification.

What about the argument that VFM trivialises politics and turns it into showbiz and entertainment? Again, this is hardly a shocking new development: it’s a safe bet the spin doctors had showbiz and entertainment on their minds when Mark Latham visited the Big Brother house and Peter Costello tangoed with a python and Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

But while professional politicians see virtue in acting the fool or showing their Average Joe side, look out when Average Joe steps into the professional politicians’ domain. When Big Brotherdetainee Merlin protested against detention centres, Amanda Vanstone questioned his facts and his right to enter into the debate. Big Brother‘s host, Gretel Killeen, was outraged because he deviated from the scripted questions and the show’s running order.

When journalists express concerns about VFM, they too seem to be displaying a nervousness about the unpredictable, unruly element the untrained politician introduces into the reporting process. Journalists and politicians rely on each other for a relatively predictable and steady flow of leaks, exclusives, quotable quotes and suppressed angles more or less in time for each day’s deadline.

In her book about her experience on the Pauline Hanson campaign, the Herald journalist Margo Kingston’s frustrations with Hanson were often about her inability to play this political game, rather than the content of her policies.

Although Kingston worried about journalists in modern politics being reduced to theatre reviewers for an uninterested public, she ended up relishing the role of political game show host. She and her sister staged a meeting between Hanson and the then Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, in a shopping centre; at times she was Hanson’s unofficial media adviser; and she had a sleepover at the Hanson house that she banned her sister from reporting in The Age.

Politicians condemn VFM because it means real people and amateurs intruding on their turf, threatening the factional deals divvying up the seats of power even before an election is held.

Reality TV hosts dislike disobedient and political contestants taking over their turf and interfering with program running orders. Political journalists are wary of VFM because it means unpredictable real people entering their turf, threatening the relatively predictable process of putting together a story.

VFM may be flawed and crucial Senate seats are at stake. But when criticising the show, let’s not pretend our system is perfect. VFM could add a bit of colour and an element of surprise to the mostly established scripts of politics, reality TV and news reports. Worse things have happened.

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Straight line on marriage

First published by The Drum, 7 August 2009

On the way to work on a busy stretch of inner city Sydney road I can count 23 wedding-themed shops offering photography, bridesmaids frocks and bridal accessories, but mostly wedding dresses – from synthetic bright white powder puffs, to edgy and sexy designer gowns.

Like paparazzi light bulbs lining the red carpet, the window displays are so luminous that even in winter they practically demand sunglasses.

They’ve also left me spending some time pondering why I’ve never been tempted to be covered in confetti. It has something to do with coming to adulthood when a particular feminist version of the Gen X grunge aesthetic was in vogue. The wedding dress, if it was worn at all, was worn ironically and at dress-up parties, after a lustful, writhing Madonna in the video clip Like a Virgin.

In more recent years my no-wedding stance has had more to do with the fact that I’m not sure how I could invite my gay and lesbian friends and family members to an event they can’t themselves hold.

I expect many will find this hard to believe. When Brad Pitt declared he was boycotting marriage until same-sex couples could wed, men everywhere metaphorically back slapped Pitt for coming up with possibly the world’s best excuse to avoid getting hitched.

I just wondered what was so difficult to understand (besides, would any straight bloke, even Brad Pitt, seriously invent a reason to avoid marrying Ange?).

What we should be asking is why we heterosexually-coupled are so intent on keeping the marriage business to ourselves – even while we’ve broken almost every other wedding rule going. Without blinking we routinely attend weddings where first husbands give away ex-wives to the next husband. Or weddings between straight couples where the best man is a woman, or where couples marry underwater or naked (or both simultaneously) to demonstrate how they are, like, straight but not straight.

Yet when it’s two women, or two men, we draw (a very straight) line.

Straight people, it seems, prefer gays take a supporting role in our wedding fantasies – like the Rupert Everett character who plays Julia Roberts’ faux fiancé in My Best Friend’s Wedding, or the ubiquitous gay wedding planner, most recently seen organising Carrie’s nuptials in the movie of Sex and the City.

Perhaps deep down many heterosexuals feel there’s too much to be gained from marriage – whether family approval and favourable inheritance plans, or added status in the workplace or society – to let non-straights in on the act.

The very same people who would abhor the idea of, say, a bar that said “whites only” will nevertheless gladly jump into the heterosexuals-only marriage club without a moment’s thought.

It’s true that some traditionalists argue same-sex marriage should never be allowed because matrimony is for producing children. But on that thinking we should ban weddings between the old, the infertile, or the avowedly childless – and force the rest to sign solemn declarations of their reproductive intentions.

It’s also true that many gays and lesbians don’t want to be married. But many heterosexuals don’t either – yet they are still free to marry, should their feelings and circumstances change.

To argue for same-sex marriage isn’t an argument in favour of marriage per se. It’s simply an argument for equality. And just as most minority battles have depended on the enlightened portion of the majority getting behind them, same-sex marriage isn’t ever going to get to the altar until its straight supporters vocally come out in support.

Like Sean Penn, who said when accepting his best actor Oscar for his portrayal of gay politician Harvey Milk: “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone”.

The Australian federal government recently removed many laws that discriminated against gays and lesbians in superannuation and many other areas, but Kevin Rudd has refused to budge on same-sex marriage, more than once affirming his conservative religious stance that marriage is something “between a man and a woman”.

Similarly in the US Obama has described marriage as “something sanctified between a man and a woman”.

But the tide seems to be turning. In the US, states such as New Hampshire, Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine either currently allow, or are about to introduce, same sex marriage, with New York set to follow.

Recently two close friends flew to the US and took a train to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to marry. The only way to take part in their ceremony was to wake up at 2am and watch the live video stream they’d organised on the internet.

Instead of sharing the moment with family and friends in Australia, they celebrated with sausage rolls and lamingtons in their rented New York apartment with gay friends they’d made online.

So I’m proposing straights stop proposing. Call it the “I won”t say I do until you can too” boycott.

If it works, Kevin Rudd may find out that same-sex marriage is just the stimulus package he is looking for. The boarded up shop fronts on my work route would come alive with names like Marrying Men and Lesbian Love for Life.

If the Sydney Mardi Gras is any guide, I’ll be in investing in some extra dark sunglasses.

Time this journey was cut short

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 2004

At the Coalition’s campaign launch John Howard spoke about his “journey to reinforce my values as an Australian”. In his National Press Club speech Mark Latham described the election as “a long journey for the Australian people”.

Every time another finalist on Australian Idol is voted off, the show’s hosts introduce video highlights of their “incredible journey”. Staff bulletins talk about “journeys” to become best practice employers, wedding guests can expect the couple to thank them for joining them on their “life journey”, and TV finance journalists describe a stock price as going on a “journey”. Even one of the questions in an HSC English question yesterday was “The journey not the destination matters”.

The word “journey” has never been so ubiquitous, yet the irony is we are living in an era when we’re supposed to be shunning travelling and staying put.

The nesting trend has often been attributed to our fears about an unsafe world – if we’re not renovating, we’re all supposed to be bunkering down at home and embalming our frequent flyer cards. So why are we all so keen to sound like self-help gurus with training wheels by throwing around the word journey with such earnest abandon?

In an evermore complex, fragmented and secular world, it no doubt helps to think there’s an overarching logic governing everything that happens to us – it’s all about your personal journey. No doubt the pervasiveness of the word “journey” at least partly stems from the popularity of a generally narcissistic new age self-help language.

On an episode of Big Brother, one contestant seriously pondered whether another contestant should leave the house because, hey, “maybe it’s part of her journey?” Spending a few weeks going from the spa to the fridge and to the Freedom couch and back again is not a journey: it’s a few weeks going from the spa to the fridge and to the Freedom couch and back again.

Another explanation for the word’s popularity may be the way in which corporate language has started sidelining terms associated with ends, such as “goals” and “targets”, in favour of what might be described as a more feminised speech. New management speak prefers words describing processes and relationships: “continuous improvements”, “client relationship management” – and workplace “journeys”.

A media and cinema literate generation is also increasingly familiar with scriptwriting terms such as “character arc”, so perhaps it’s only natural that we will cast ourselves as the main character on a journey in our movie.

It’s just one small word, but words are important to us – as the recent best-selling books about language by Lynne Truss and Don Watson have demonstrated. And it’s a word that seems indicative of a growing inward-looking self-obsession – one that seems to be taking over from real journeys that bring us into contact with others.

We will continue to overuse and misuse the word journey until we regain a better sense of proportion and the relative weight of things. A journey is not what happens when a major bank changes its interest rate, despite what the ad claims: it’s better used to describe, say, an escape from a dictatorial regime and a life-threatening trip on a leaky boat.

The new agers who helped popularise the j-word often borrow their ideas from a mish-mash of religions and cultures in a crude and superficial fashion.

So let’s not add to this pseudo-religious and pompously earnest approach by using the word for every single thing we do. As one of the characters in the now defunct TV show The Secret Life of Us noted: “There is no journey. Shit just happens.”

Grimm tales of a city obsessed with turning all into gold

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August 2003

It has almost become a cliche for TV reviewers to criticise the reality gap in popular dramas. The Secret Life of Us, for example, was criticised by Geoff Munro, director of the Centre for Youth Drug Studies, for failing to include any characters who don’t drink.

And political types roll their eyes when one of the show’s characters, Gabby – a former political staffer, union boss and now Labor Party candidate – comes across as uncomfortably naive, with her inability to understand game playing in local politics.

Perhaps the real naivety is in expecting shows based on escapism or fantasy to mirror real life. If we wanted this, we’d all be stalking doctors, lawyers and police officers to catch every excruciatingly dull second. Or we’d hire an Andy Warhol film.

But while we are so quick to criticise the lack of realism in these fantasy worlds, we seem very willing to buy into the fantasy of home renovating reality TV.

We seem quick to forget that reality TV producers – just like drama screenwriters – are naturally going to edit out the boring bits, simplify the complicated bits, and fast forward the time-consuming bits. No one was ever going to tune in to two years of The Block: Getting the Development Application Through Council.

And after the recent debate about real estate prices, perhaps it’s time to ask just how much these are caused by our willingness to believe fairytale stories of magic makeovers.

In real life, our desire to emulate these shows creates a market where the ante is constantly being upped: better homes, more expensive furnishings and builders who raise their prices as demand goes through the roof.

In these fairytales, Jamie Durie is little Rumpelstiltskin. He helps contestants locked in small rooms by King Packer to spin termite-infested floors and decorative straw artworks into real estate and ratings gold. Johanna Griggs is the fairy godmother whose magic wand can turn a horrendous pumpkin patch into an urban paradise.

Catherine Orenstein, the author of Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale, says the obsession in fairytales with the perfect home has its origins in the early 20th century, “when Americans began to glorify marriage and domesticity”. It started in Disney’s first full-length animated feature, the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has the cartoon heroine “whistling and singing with rabbits and deer while she cooks and scrubs the dwarfs’ pad”.

While Jamie and Johanna are righting wrongs, some of us are getting a little carried away with the fortune part of the tale. If the great Australian dream was once to buy your own home, it now seems to be to sell it for $100,000 above the reserve.

Now even children who haven’t yet learnt to read Little Red Riding Hood are getting caught up in the renovating frenzy. One real estate writer recounted being phoned by a four-year-old who demanded to know which was the “best apartment in The Block and how much it will sell for”. It wasn’t so long ago when 24-year-olds who showed even a passing interest in real estate were considered prematurely aged freaks.

With house prices the way they are, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that, for kids, owning your own home has become a fairytale story.

How coming up roses became a labour of love

First Published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 2003

So the breasts won. I am of course talking about Amanda, one of The Bachelor’s 25 wannabe brides, who attributed her freakishly voluminous chest to the result of a childhood love for Dolly Parton. This week Amanda won the race for Alex’s love (imagine JFK jnr without the bone structure).

The Bachelor is the latest reality show to hit our small screens, and it illustrates some fascinating connections between this new entertainment genre and the world of work, careers and job interviews.

Each week Alex, the one-man selection panel, whittled down candidates vying for the wife job. In a bizarre group marriage ritual he offered roses to the survivors of each week’s round of group dates, individual dates, necking and, in one episode, a rose-less contestant’s panic attack that required ambulance attendance. The bachelorettes – who included lawyers, nannies, accountants and a Julia Roberts look-alike – strove (and often failed terribly) to put their best bride face forward.

On the show’s website the bachelorettes listed their best qualities as if they were writing a killer resume. “I am comfortable in most all situations from elegant, upscale gatherings, to veging out in sweats watching football,” said one.

“I finished college with honours while holding two majors and a minor, and went for my MA in grad school and have a strong business sense,” said another.

In the modern workplace, success in a psychometric test can take you to the next level of interviews. In The Bachelor, bachelorettes whose preshow interviews indicated a personality fit with Alex scored an extra date.

It has become part of reality TV show lore that the shows are just one big job interview, as aspiring actors, exhibitionists and eccentrics seek to parlay their moment of humiliation into a slighter longer moment of real acting gigs (or at least a lucrative product endorsement). But, as a Monash University academic, Simon Cooper, has written, there is a more interesting connection between the world of reality TV and the world of work.

He believes the latest generation of game shows – where skill, knowledge and physical ability have been replaced by deceit, treachery and rapidly shifting alliances – are a “grim parody of [most people’s] working lives”.

In reality TV and the modern workplace a bunch of strangers, often with little in common, are thrown together and asked to get along. Reality TV contestants, like many employees, spend day after day with each other in an artificially constructed environment. Meanwhile, a faceless and seemingly omnipotent power asks them to co-operate in all sorts of complex and often meaningless tasks.

Reality TV producers now face the job of inventing ever more complicated ruses and inventive forms of torture as savvy contestants twig to the format. Similarly, the modern employer needs to think up new ways to trap job candidates into blurting out embarrassing facts and exposing themselves as unsuitable.

Last night Channel Seven screened the first instalment of the newest show in the genre, Joe Millionaire. The premise is the same as The Bachelor – except that “Joe” is not a millionaire, but a 28-year-old construction worker: he’s the nightmare job candidate who fakes his CV so outrageously that no one questions his credentials and he gets the job.

In an era of perpetual downsizing and restructuring, someone is always being voted off the island. In both the workplace and the reality game show, the ability to continually reinvent yourself and build new alliances is the key to survival.

It should have come as no surprise, says Cooper, “that the winner of the first Survivor was a management consultant”. In fact, it was management consultants who practically invented the reality TV genre. Before anyone had ever heard the words “the tribe has spoken”, management consultants were sending groups of executives off on weekend bonding camps where they were asked to carry each other blindfolded over hot coals while reciting their core values backwards.

The Bachelor’s Alex was also a management consultant. With Amanda describing her preshow job as “party planner and events manager”, they are a priest and priestess of two modern-day uber-professions – change management and image management.

So it almost came as a relief to hear the early reports from the internet (the US is already screening a new series) that Amanda and Alex really had found true love. That they were refusing all offers to endorse home loan packages for newlyweds or support bras.

But then came reports that all was not well in this made-on-TV romance. One internet report had Amanda shocked to discover, post-show, that her perfect match was “desperate for fame” and had even auditioned for Survivor before turning his sights on The Bachelor for his big Hollywood break.

“I guess I really don’t know him well at all,” she told Entertainment Tonight Online. Latest reports had Amanda scoring a job in her home town in Kansas as a DJ on a rock station.

But runner-up Trista proved that losing out on that job you really wanted often turns out to be for the best. She’s starring in The Bachelorette, and this time she gets to choose between 25 bachelors vying for her favours.

Naomi Wolf’s The Treehouse:The quest is for poetry but the outcome is prosaic

First published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 2006

The Treehouse

By Naomi Wolf

Virago, 320pp, $35

WHEN NAOMI WOLF turned 40, she and her father, Leonard, built a treehouse for her eight-year-old daughter, Rosa. Then she wrote a book about it. If this sounds dismissive, it’s at least partly so because I’d hoped for more from the woman who gave us The Beauty Myth.

To be fair, building a treehouse is really just a metaphor for the book’s bigger theme, which is “making your signature on the earth”. She asks her father – a poet, teacher and proto-beatnik who knew Allen Ginsberg and flirted with Anais Nin – to help her become an artist, a better teacher and a better person.

Wolf, fed up with the polemical world of politics, with talking rather than listening, and with Al Gore’s earth tones, had wanted to reacquaint herself with her childhood world of imagination: a world where her parents encouraged dreams of joining the circus and where her father bought a horse and planned Amazonian vacations when her family really needed a washing machine.

She uses the 12 writing lessons Leonard dusts off from his teaching days to structure her book. Each chapter title is a little homily that applies to life as much as it applies to art: “Destroy the Box”, “Do Nothing Without Passion”, “Speak in Your Own Voice”. Chapters then meander through numerous subjects: renovations at the derelict house she buys in the New England countryside, her friend Sophia’s romantic reawakening, the role of drugs in art and her father’s Jewish immigrant experience.

Through listening and offering wise words, Leonard apparently inspires people to quit bad jobs and bad relationships, to find “their poetry”, and Wolf wants to share his gift.

So she encourages young women she mentors to start a novel or write a business plan and urges an overworked friend to buy a flattering dress that makes her “bronze hair gleam”. At times it’s as if she’s channelling Oprah. Or What not to Wear’s Trinny and Susannah.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion this is Wolf’s mid-life-crisis book. Her writing has always used her personal experiences, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: she’s part of a long and fine feminist tradition. I suspect, too, her crisis may have a little to do with being part of the liberal left at a time when the right appears to be in perpetual ascendancy.

Whatever the reason, when she became Al Gore’s adviser her father rebuked her for wasting her talents: “The politicians and warriors of history who burned the libraries are mostly forgotten, but the poets and artists themselves have often survived.” It’s a comment that seems to have triggered Wolf’s about-face.

She spends much of The Treehouse grappling with her father’s mortality, yet her own mortality seems to be the book’s subtext. Unfortunately, the result reads like an extended (and not particularly good) creative writing exercise. Characters have “Byronic locks” and “deep brown bedroom eyes”. Her daughter is “dark-haired and pale and ironic”, her friend “golden-skinned and a bit fiendish”. Apart from Leonard, men are mostly peripheral, portrayed as either villains or knights. Leonard’s lessons (avoid cliches, ignore the trivial, edit) are all too often lost on Wolf.

But it’s strangely compelling at times. Wolf’s many Martha Stewart moments, hanging curtains or laying pavers, or her pique over a friend’s rude new boyfriend, perfectly illustrate that magazine law that says we’re fascinated by ordinary events in extraordinary people’s lives.

It was also intriguing to read the author of Fire with Fire, which urged women to grab hold of power through money and paid work, telling us to discover our “poetry”. But when conservatives are now claiming (with often spurious statistics) that women everywhere are embracing their inner housewife, it’s disconcerting to read of her retreat to domesticity.

As an overworked, overscheduled activist, it’s not surprising Wolf felt the need to slow down and grow herbs. But most women of her generation are probably less concerned with finding more domestic chores to occupy them, or the artist within (lovely idea that it is), than they are with more prosaic matters such as paying bills or finding partners and governments that won’t burden them with too much domestic responsibility.

Towards the end of The Treehouse, Leonard says everyone “has a destiny or task, and if he or she pursues it, that is his or her light”. He also says it’s the creative act, rather than being published, that gives the true writer meaning and joy, and Wolf passes this thought on to a struggling novelist. Unfortunately, the irony of then using this material for a book that was always going to find a publisher, despite being no masterpiece, seems to escape Wolf.

As I read The Treehouse, I kept thinking: “But Naomi, perhaps politics is your poetry?” It certainly seems that poetry itself isn’t. I suspect The Beauty Myth will be read many generations hence, but I’m afraid The Treehouse will be largely forgotten next month.

Shiny, happy people

First published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 2006

The World According to Y

By Rebecca Huntley

Allen & Unwin, 218pp, $24.95

After the gloom of the ’80s, the next generation arises optimistic and confident.

A TYPICAL MEMBER of generation Y has started up one or two businesses by age 21, wears Playboy bunny T-shirts (the girls) or bum cleavage (the boys), downloads tracks from the web by a band that formed yesterday, and is always texting 15 best buddies with blow-by-blow accounts of each day. Right?

Well, yes, and no. In The World According to Y, Rebecca Huntley says Yers, aged 18 to 24, are a contradictory lot. They are sexualised earlier than previous generations, but have fewer teenage pregnancies than the older generation X. They are filling pews at Hillsong, but are tolerant of gay and alternative lifestyles.

They are promiscuous consumers, but attend rallies supporting exploited garment workers, clutching Naomi Klein’s No Logo. They live at home for longer, but friends are the centre of their lives. They are obsessed with mobility and freedom yet worry about home ownership earlier than generation X did.

It’s almost compulsory for each generation to trash the next one (a gen X friend calls gen Y “generation whine”). But Huntley – who interviewed more than 50 subjects for her book – is a much more sympathetic and thoughtful commentator than that. She argues gen Y’s defining characteristics are optimism and confidence, particularly when compared with gen X. The deeply pessimistic gen X (to which she belongs) grew up fearing nuclear annihilation, unemployment and AIDS.

Yers, Huntley’s argument goes, were mostly planned children born to older parents in smaller families. They felt special and wanted. Born into a world of constant change, they deal with uncertainty with far less self-pity and anger than Xers, who remember the promise of a secure life. Where gen X felt abandoned, gen Y feels treasured and protected.

Is an entire generation of optimists really possible? Huntley persuasively backs up her claim with interviews, as well as national health and wellbeing studies. Events such as September 11, 2001, have apparently done little to shake gen Y’s confidence. Most dramatically, she notes youth suicide levels have fallen after peaking in 1997.

While the angsty actress Winona Ryder in Reality Bites defined a generation of slackers and stoners, perky Reese Witherspoon as the pink-clad Elle in Legally Blonde seems to be the emblematic gen Y character. I was less convinced by Huntley’s extension of this argument: where gen X culture supposedly celebrated being an outsider, gen Y films and TV shows celebrate being popular and an insider. Where does this put Mean Girls, featuring gen Y starlet Lindsay Lohan, which portrays the viciousness of the in-crowd?

Huntley’s related argument, that Yers are largely conformist, seems at odds with the diversity of her interviewees (young mums, a consultant, a political staffer, gay and straight, and so on).

Despite the diversity, I still missed a sense of complexity in individual gen Y lives. Most interviewees appear simply as a first name (sometimes their occupation is given) followed by a short quote to reinforce a general point. But the PhD-wielding Huntley deserves much praise for her accessible style; she wears her considerable research lightly.

Her chapter on brands is particularly interesting. Apparently, Yers (who have been intensely scrutinised by marketers since birth) really do believe the consumer is king. Ever-confident gen Y believes its tastes will dictate what products succeed and fail. Yers know that their status as voters or workers, homeowners or parents, amounts to little when compared with their power as consumers.

A chapter on body image also convincingly argues Yers really are a new species. For girls, cosmetic surgery is so, like, whatever. For Y boys, a great body is no longer a happy by-product of sporting achievement, it is an end in itself and achieved through diet and exercise.

Huntley was moved to write about Y when, after a decade of teaching, she suddenly noticed her students were no longer just like her only younger. I was similarly struck when a gen Y student in a university class I tutored nominated having a commercial image as an essential quality for a journalist. This understanding of the importance of image, along with awareness that they, too, are brands they will need to market in the new economy, is something gen Y seems to intuitively understand.

Huntley says her book is an early call on how gen Y will shape, and be shaped by, the future. As she notes, they are yet to face the challenges of mortgages, marriages, careers and families. As teens and young adults, gen X traversed the fluorescent, effervescent pop of Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go in 1984 to the flannelette-clad ennui marked by Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Let’s hope the Yers’ optimism keeps them downloading happier soundtracks than that.

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