Search Something: Who is the Current Standard-Bearer for the Successful Twentysomething?

Is Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls, the successful ‘face’ of twentysomethings?

Now, before you stop reading, this isn’t about extolling the talents of Ms. Dunham, nor is it about deriding them.  (In truth, being the non-cable person that I am, I’ve seen maybe five minutes of Girls via clips and promos).  This is about a broader question  most recently stirred by Elizabeth Wurtzel at the Daily Beast:  who is the current standard-bearer for the successful twentysomething?

In a piece titled, “From Led Zepplin to Breaking Bad: The Lamest Generation,”  Wurtzel argues, among other things, that Lena Dunham is the only successful twentysomething in the world of, “high art and entertainment.”   All of the other artistic acclaim, she contends, is bestowed exclusively on forty and fifty-year-old stars like Julianna Margulies of The Good Wife and Kevin Spacey from House of Cards.  Thus, twentysomethings are just lifeless, boring nothings.

Her assertions were not well-received.  Dozens of user comments characterize them as, “cheap,” “unoriginal,” and yes, “lame.”  One commenter was so aggrieved as to declare, “I’m about to lose it with all this GEN X crap about the failings of Milllennials.”  And the people over at Slate took the disagreement even further, publishing a full rebuttal boldly headlined: “Lena Dunham isn’t a millennial.”  In it, author Anna North laments that older generations have mistakenly interpreted Dunham’s unflattering twentysomething characterizations on Girls as an accurate representation of the generation.  That they’ve accepted this idea out of convenient vilification during hard economic times, and ignored numerous studies citing the many new difficulties twentysomethings are facing.

Whatever the merits of her argument, however, North’s rebuttal leaves wholly unanswered the question Wurtzel’s piece unintentionally poses: who is the current standard-bearer for the successful twentysomething?  Who else may it be besides Lena Dunham?

To answer this question, let’s broaden the scope beyond just television and look at some candidates from across the pop culture spectrum.

Unknown-9        Mark Zuckerberg (29)

 As the chairman and CEO of Facebook, Inc., Mark Zuckerberg has revolutionized what it means to be  ‘social.’ He’s revolutionized what it means to be a ‘friend.’  And in less than ten years, he’s connected over one billion people across the world for a cool $19 billion profit.  Not bad for a college dorm room project.

Awards and recognition:  Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” (2010); The Jerusalem Post’s “Most Influential Jew” (2011, 2012, 2013); subject of The Social Network film (2010)

Unknown-7         Mike Krieger (27) and Kevin Systrom (29)

 In 2010, Kevin Systrom and Matt Krieger made iphone selfies a whole lot cooler (or not) with their  invention of the Instagram photo app.   Over 100 million users have since made their sometimes mediocre photos look beautiful with one of Instagram’s many unique filters, and shared them with the world.  Wanna make your photo look like a print from the 1970s?  There’s a filter for that.  Wanna make your photo look washed out?  There’s a filter for that too.  Now everyone’s a ‘gifted’ photographer.

Instagram was sold to Facebook for an unprecedented $1 billion in 2012.

Unknown-11        Veronica Roth (25)

 She may not be a household name yet, but when her best-selling debut novel, Divergent, hits movie screens next year, she’s bound to become one.  Based on a dystopian Chicago society, Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been captivating young adult readers since the first book hit the shelves in May, 2011.  The dystopian theme may remind some readers of another megahit, The Hunger Games, but her books are undoubtedly engrossing in their own right.  She followed up her smash opening success with the second installment, Insurgent, a year later.  And the final book is set to drop in just a few short weeks.

Awards and recognition:  New York Times best-selling author (2011, 2012); Goodreads’ Favorite Book of 2011; Goodreads‘ Best Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction (2012)

images        Frank Ocean (25)

 Frank Ocean spent much of his early music career in the shadows, ghostwriting for big-name artists Justin Bieber and John Legend.  But when he debuted his own records in 2011 and 2012, he literally came out with a bang.  His first record, Nostalgia, Ultra, was met with critical acclaim and controversy, as other artists didn’t approve of him sampling their music for his own songs.  Ocean’s release of Channel Orange the next year was met with more acclaim and controversy.  But this time, it was personal.  Writing about the inspiration for his new songs in an open letter, he revealed that he was once in a same-sex relationship.  This revelation challenged the frequently homophobic music industry, and signaled a shift in diversity and societal acceptance for all artists.

Awards and recognition:  2 Grammy Awards for various categories (2013); 3 MTV Video Music Award nominations for various categories (2012); 2 BET Hip Hop Award nominations (2011); GQ Magazine’s “Rookie of the Year (2011)

images-1        Jennifer Lawrence (23)

 If you haven’t heard of this actress, you probably don’t watch a lot of TV, or movies, or surf the internet because once you’ve heard of her, you’ve heard of her.  Jennifer Lawrence first gained mass attention when she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in Winter’s Bone.  And although she didn’t win the trophy that night, she’s been winning the hearts of many millennials ever since with her particularly unusual candor and wicked sense of humor.  Most recently, she blasted unnamed movie producers for threatening to fire her over her weight.  “If anyone tries to whisper the word ‘diet,’ I’m like, ‘You can go f—k yourself,” she told Harper’s Bazaar UK.

 But the Silver Linings Playbook and Hunger Games star is certainly not wanting for work.  She      currently has seven films set to release within the next few years, and is rumored to be filming an eighth.

Awards and recognition:  Oscar for Leading Actress (2013); Oscar nomination for Leading Actress (2011); Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (2013); Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture (2011);  Independent Spirit Awards Best Female Lead (2013); Independent Spirit Awards Best Female Lead nomination (2011); SAG Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role (2013);  SAG Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role (2011); Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” (2013)

Unknown-4        Ezra Klein (29)

 In a political climate where empty rhetoric is king, journalist Ezra Klein has succeeded largely with its opposite: hard data.  Starting the “Klein/Singer: Political Consulting on the Cheap” blog while still undergraduate at UCLA, he became a prolific writer of policy economics and eventually gained the attention of established publications.  He joined the staff at American Prospect a mere four years later, and eventually secured a spot at the Washington Post.  His current work, which analyzes economic and healthcare policy, has quickly become one of the paper’s most popular blogs and has made him a regular in Washington chatter circles.

 In addition to his work on “Wonkblog,” Klein is also writes for Bloomberg and is a frequent MSNBC contributor.

Awards and recognition:  GQ Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful People in Washington” (2011); The Week’s Blogger of the Year (2010); Time Magazine’s “25 Best Financial Blogs” (2011)

Unknown-3        LeBron James (28)

 LeBron James is loved.  He’s hated.  And he’s among  America’s most influential athletes.   A high school phenom, LeBron entered the NBA ranks after graduation and immediately became a star player and endorser.  His flashy basketball style and endorsements deals with Coca-ColaDunkin’ BrandsMcDonald’s, NikeState Farm, and Samsung made him almost impossible to ignore.  The controversial departure from the Cleveland Cavilers seven years later only added to the media frenzy.  Since joining the Miami Heat, LeBron’s influence has steadily increased, and as of this year, he is the highest paid basketball player in the world.

Awards and recognition:   NBA Champion (2012, 2013); NBA Finals MVP (2012, 2013); NBA MVP (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013); NBA Rookie of the Year (2004); NBA Scoring Champion (2008); NBA All-Star (9x); Olympic Medalist (2004, 2008, 2012) Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year”

Unknown-1       Lady Gaga (27)

Since bursting onto the music scene in 2008 and 2009 with her album, The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga has been compared to such decade-defining artists as Madonna and Prince.  Her catchy songs, which initially gained notice in Europe and small gay bars, soon became worldwide hits, and so did she.  Her outlandish outfits and musical performances only heightened her popularity, blurring the lines between creativity and ‘crazy’ (art).

Lady Gaga has since lent her outspoken style to such causes as gay rights and animal rights.  Her 2011 hit, “Born This Way,” was seen by many as a gay rights anthem for a new generation.

Awards and recognition: 5 Grammy Awards for various categories (2009-2011);  Emmy Award for Outstanding Picture Editing (2011);  American Music Award for Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist (2010); 3 Brit Awards for various categories (2010); 8 MTV Europe Music Awards (2009-2011); 13 MTV Video Music Awards (2009-2011)

Unknown-2        Chris Colfer (23)

He’s probably best known for his portrayal of Kurt Hummel on Fox’s Glee, but Chris Colfer isn’t  just a twentysomething actor.  He’s a twentysomething actor, singer, writer, and producer.  In the span of five years, he’s written two books, a film script, and filmed multiple seasons of Glee.  And the multi-talented multi-tasker is showing no signs of slowing down, as he is currently working on another asylum-themed film script set to shoot next summer.

Awards and recognition: Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Series (2011); Primetime Emmy Award nominee for Outstanding Supporting Actor (2010, 2011); People’s Choice Award for Favorite Comedic TV Actor (2012); Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” (2011); New York Times best-selling author (2012)

So, who is the standard-bearer for the successful twentysomething?  Is it someone listed above, or it another face that is completely missing?  (There were at least ten other candidates on my list who just missed the cut.  And I am woefully aware that Latinos are not represented on the final list).  And how should that ‘face’ be determined?

In the end, we probably won’t agree on one face as most representative of the successful twentysomething.  The reaction to Wertzul’s original piece certainly demonstrates that reality.  But that’s okay because divergent opinions are the result of different experiences and different backgrounds.  To say that one person, such as Lena Dunham, or Mark Zuckerberg, or LeBron James is the quintessential example of a successful twentysomething would be to discredit the diverse nature of this generation’s success.  Millennials aren’t just successful in the television arts, they’re successful in the fields of technology, music, film, sports, writing, journalism, and television.  (Not to mention the other occupational fields that don’t receive mainstream attention).  And although twentysomethings who live in the United States do share a common Western experience, there is still something unique about the experiences among people  of different races, sexualities, abilities, and levels of economic opportunity.

So, no.  Lena Denham isn’t the successful face of the twentysomething.  She’s one of the many successful faces in a successfully diverse generation that cannot, and will not be narrowly defined.

Note:  I must acknowledge that Wikipedia and IMDb helped me fill in some details for these profiles.  (Oh, how my old college profs would shudder).  I keep up on my pop culture knowledge, but I am not an encyclopedia.  

Image sources:  [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9]

– l  xo


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