birenboim

Ben Stainton

“Well, what about Andrew?”

I had been single on the Princeton campus for about a month when my friends sat me down for a serious talk about “moving on.” I had been moping around for too long, they explained, and it was time to start dating, seeing other people, hooking up, or whatever I wanted to call it (disclaimer: this will NOT be an article about the “hook-up” culture, though it begins promisingly enough). After brainstorming a few ideas–Asher was in too many of my classes and Henry was, after much consideration, just too weird–they came to Andrew, a politics major who played the guitar and wore boat shoes that were decidedly un-obnoxious. “Andrew is just your type!” they exclaimed.

I rejected him on the spot: “Andrew? But he’s so earnest!” With that, the conversation continued unremarkably: we came to basically no conclusions and eventually settled on a different, probably more “feminist” topic. Truth to be told, it was strange for us to be discussing our romantic options like we were deciding which hoagie to get at the Wa. But something else about the conversation made me feel funny the whole rest of the day. I realized that I couldn’t stop thinking about my rejection of Andrew (unbeknownst to him). What did it mean to be “too earnest” and why had my friends accepted it as obvious grounds for rejection, like it was some kind of kiss of death?

The “earnest” guy is pretty easy for me to spot nowadays. He is the guy who loves school without exception and without doubt. He doesn’t have a Twitter account. He probably has given girls flowers or written one a love song. He really adores his eating club. He responds to your joking text message with just “lol”—no joke of his own to contribute. It’s not that he’s not funny per se—it’s that he reserves sarcasm and irony for very specific situations, not as a first instinct. He approaches life sincerely and authentically and you know how he feels because he says it. He’s a good guy.

I’ve never been the type of girl to nurture a “bad boy” streak. Nor is the “bad boy” of today, I would argue, the motorcycle-driving, leather-jacket clad James Dean of yesteryear. In fact, most of the bad boys I’ve known could also fall into the category of “hipster;” cultivating an oh-so-cool vibe of indifference. And while I’ve never worn a beanie and the last time I was offered cigarettes I got so flustered I dropped about 50 of them on the Ivy dance floor, the conversation about Andrew made me wonder: when did I, by no stretch of the imagination a “hipster,” become so cynical and sarcastic that earnestness was a turn-off?

Cultural critics have written about the use of irony in everyday life for much of the last decade. When Christy Wampole dubbed the 2000s the ironic age in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald argued in The Atlantic that sincerity, and not irony, is what defines our generation. Pointing to more mainstream developments in our culture like the popularity of shows such as “Modern Family” or even bands like Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, Fitzgerald maintained that the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11 left a “New Sincerity” in its wake. Wampole, Fitzgerald implied, was not a cultural anthropologist so much as a “hipster hater.”

Comparing these two articles seems to yield a perfect conclusion: irony and cynicism is merely the ethos of a subculture, and not of the mainstream. This is easy enough to swallow. But even after doing this “research,” I found that I was still puzzled as to where I had developed my own ironic streak. If irony was only part of the sub-culture, why was it informing my rather mainstream life?

I wondered whether it was a problem specific to Princeton. To some extent, I felt like my connection to irony and cynicism was linked with my understanding of intelligence. Perhaps Princeton students, as part of our not-so-secret Ivy League snobbery, tend as a group to confuse earnestness with stupidity. But I know plenty of Princeton students, many of whom far smarter than I, who rarely use sarcasm. I then considered if the problem was rooted in my own group of friends at school. Since coming to Princeton, I very quickly found my way among a group that could best be described as “comedy people.” Certainly since making these friends I had come to value laughter more deeply – my sense of humor sharpened and gained some edge beyond that of the typical college student. Nevertheless, I can think of plenty of hilarious friends who rely more on character work, slapstick, and “the absurd” to make people laugh than on deadpan alone.

Most likely my reliance on irony was caused by a combination of these factors: the super-smart culture at Princeton and the reliance on deadpan in comedy to name a few (and I’m probably more of a “hipster” than I had imagined or would like to admit). More importantly, however, I’ve concluded that my reliance on sarcasm in this specific situation reflects a desire to dodge important issues and seem uncaring when it comes to romantic relationships. Certainly I use irony as a defense mechanism when it comes to guys, fearing that my own earnestness will land me in a trap and I will be the one “wanting more.” But I would argue my reliance on sarcasm in the context of “love and lust” is part of a broader attempt to appear totally calm and collected in all walks of life. For me, and I think for many others, “cool” has come to mean “indifferent” and sincerity has suffered as a result.

Making the connection between sarcasm and my desire to appear uncaring was a wake-up call for me. We all care very deeply about certain things, and it shouldn’t be “uncool” to take something seriously or to be authentically engaged. And if it is “cooler,” fuck it: the best and most accomplished people I know in this life are those who care very deeply, whether it’s about their family, their country, a sports game, or even a Broadway musical. Irony is a great tool to make light of situations, but shouldn’t be used to keep us at a distance from life. Get your hands dirty: try the thing you roll your eyes at. Say what you want to say and let yourself care. It’s not like I’ll be giving up sarcasm entirely any time soon –I do go to college and Woody Allen is as important to my Jewish family as Genesis. But maybe I should give Andrew—and if not Andrew (boat shoes really can’t be worn un-obnoxiously, after all) at least the brand of “good guy” earnestness he stands for—a chance.