CW: Suicide, depression
F*ck I’m In My Twenties is a lighthearted book of cartoons written by Emma Koenig in 2012—the peak years of relatable comedy, where the joke was that some private experience you previously thought to be unique was actually shared by uncountable others. Like flipping to the cold side of the pillow, or microwaving your food by pressing the 30 second button over and over. Think peak Buzzfeed humor. I consumed Buzzfeed like comfort food in the early 2010s, greedily. The stuff was bland but fun, wholly inoffensive.
But reading F*ck I’m In My Twenties in 2019 as a 23-year-old was utterly alienating.
For context: I went to the Strand because I was depressed and looking for guidance in books, looking for some previous articulation of what I was feeling, some notion of how I might continue to live. I picked up Emma Koenig’s most recent book, Moan: Anonymous Essays on the Female Orgasm, and found the title of her first volume, thinking it might be an equally serious contemplation. I went downstairs and trolled the literary nonfiction section for Koenig’s name, but didn’t find anything. Eventually I sought help in a humiliating exchange where I had to say the title out loud and follow a man to the comedy aisle, where he extracted a book of fucking cartoons from the shelf. The Strand had priced the book at half its listing. I bought the thing anyways, out of commitment to the bit.
I read the whole book on the subway home, struck by my total inability to identify with her experience. We were both Northeastern white women: theater kids and writers, was it really that 2012 was so far away from 2019?
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, you’ll need to get an idea of her cartoon style (in the “relatable humor” vein of Buzzfeed/early 2010s internet). She draws a sloppy mouth saying, “GIVE ME THE BIGGEST PIECE, PLEASE!” and titles it, “repeatedly biting off more than I can chew.” The opposing drawing is captioned, “Moving Back In With Parents,” and shows three faces: happy, for “Day 1 – This is the best! Clean sheets! Home-cooked meals! Help with my laundry! Just like a hotel!”; straight-faced, for “Day 20 – Ok…so…the novelty is kind of starting to wear off”; and pissed, for “Day 45 – Somebody save me!” Just like early Buzzfeed, the “relatable humor” presumes a norm by suggesting a shared experience—often a white, coastal, and privileged norm.
(Buzzfeed worked through this problem by hiring more people of color and giving them the reins to create video content, but also siloed that content in channels targeted to specific races, which created and limited different opportunities: for example, smaller viewership but a more knowledgeable/relatable audience. There are pros and cons to Buzzfeed’s theoretical approach, but it seems notable that many of their original cast members, especially poc cast members, left the company to become independent creators.)
Koenig’s jokes are peppered with serious musings, like “in a way, I haven’t quite stopped mourning the end of my childhood,” and “There should be some kind of loyalty rewards program for getting hurt over and over again.” Then, she turns back to humor: “Did high school actually happen or was it just something I saw once on the CW?”
It’s not that I really disagree with anything Koenig says (though my high school certainly never got air time on the CW), it’s that no one can disagree with any of these vague truisms proffered as the experience of some hypothetical, middle-class, white twenty-something. Why even bother?
For context: I pick up the book again because it is sitting on my dusty keyboard, which I bought because I was determined to teach myself piano, a plan that has never truly worked. I have this notion that I need to be productive all the time: the remnants of competing for admission to elite colleges, then competing for elite spots at my elite college. This poisonous productivity works its way into my art, so whenever I am in pain I think it might be good, that I could be a martyr for the sake of my next song, or essay.
Right now I am in pain over a man who does not want to see me. It hurts because we were friends for years and now he is ghosting me. It hurts because I am so lonely, and that is exactly what repulses him. I understand the instinct he is acting on, cannot even blame him, really. Still, it sucks.
I am lonely because I have been clinically depressed for the past ten years. It’s hard for me to feel intimacy with other people, which keeps me from seeking it out entirely. I am so often frustrated by my difference, my total inability to relate without masking myself, that I spend most of my days alone. At the same time, I love people and desire friendship with others. Despite the constant potential for connection via social media, despite the constant reminders of old friends’ existence, I do not reach out. The only direct messages I receive are from strangers who want to fuck me. The more isolated I feel, the more I withdraw. And so the cycle continues to its logical conclusion: I am 23 and have no close friends.
But I am not alone in my loneliness. Joseph Bernstein reports in his essay, “Alienated, Alone and Angry: What the Digital Revolution Really Did to Us,” that the results of the Harris Poll’s Alienation Index, an alienation calculator that’s been measured for 50 years, indicate that feelings of alienation among American adults have increased by 40% between 1966 and 2018 (1966, incidentally, the same year HP began selling its first computer). According to Barna data, the majority of adults (62%) have 2-5 close friends, but 1/5 of adults report regularly or often feeling lonely (25% of whom are millennials, 24% of whom are Gen X-ers). Malcolm Harris points out in his book, Kids These Days, that younger generations (i.e. millennials and Gen Z-ers) have higher rates of depression and anxiety—and not due to diagnosis inflation. A recent BlueCross BlueShield report revealed that millennials were more likely to die young than Gen X-ers, and more likely to go from overdose, murder, or suicide. BlueCross BlueShield worries over millennials’ insurability, as they have also shown increasing substance abuse, anxiety, ADHD, and depression.
F*ck I’m in My Twenties is unrelatable because it presumes that young people can be related to, when, increasingly, the experience of being young involves a seeming incapacity to relate to others (or a strong desire not to relate to others due to the misery of private life). Maybe 62% of people have a handful of close friends, but more and more, there are people like me: living their youth in solitude. While the early 2010s was hopeful about social media’s capacity to facilitate relation (especially relating to each other’s private experiences, previously unthinkable to relay to others), the joke got old pretty quickly: the joke of being known in this shallow, “relatable” way. Because there was no specific person, no real life relationship behind the relatable experience, there was little reward either. Like how a friend will always make you laugh harder than a meme, and you can’t explain it, the way you might explain a meme. There’s just something about that person.
For context: I went to the Strand because I wanted to do something other than cry for a little while. My friend had committed suicide the week before. My friend whose writing was seared in my memory, who had taught me so much for the seven years we’d known each other. The second person I’d slept with; I’d always been a little in love with them. We’d drifted apart in recent years and I felt guilty for never reaching out. I was logical enough not to blame myself, but still felt guilt in waves. It made me think a lot about my own suicidal ideation, and who might feel this way if I made the jump. I would feel guilty about inducing hypothetical guilt in those people and choose not to die—then decide that this was progress. We gather the little victories we can.
For context: turns out Emma Koenig is Ezra Koenig’s sister, because, of course she is. When you search her name online, the first hit is a New York Times article whose title compares her to Claire Danes’ character in My So-Called Life. That character who was such an everywoman, so supposedly representative of all teen girls everywhere, that she came to define a generation and I can’t even remember her name. I watched My So-Called Life in middle school with my best friends, performed the ritualistic obsessing over Jordan Catalano like so many of my foremothers. One time the DVD player started skipping so this one part played over and over, some sex scene infinitely raunchier than the rest of the show. The volume was turned up accidentally (by a dog’s paw? a stray, sitting bottom?), calling the babysitter downstairs in an embarrassed furor. We laughed about it for years, then began to lose touch as we attended different schools, as our parents moved out of the neighborhood. Koenig is right; I am 23 and won’t stop mourning the end of my childhood. I have digital contact with all of those girls, now young women—access to extensive visual records of how they live their days. But there isn’t a single platform for our threadbare old friendship that I would use to say hey, do you remember that time the babysitter thought we were watching porn? It meant so much to me.
is still figuring it out.