U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Whatever Happened to the “‘Me’ Decade”?

Last week, Gary Dahl, creator of the Pet Rock, passed away at the age of 78. For those of you who are too young to remember them, Pet Rocks were small, roughly egg-shaped stones sold, nestled in straw, in small cardboard boxes (complete with air holes) for $3.95. They came with an instruction manual for the care of the Pet Rock. Gary Dahl began marketing them in late 1975. And they became an enormous, instant cultural sensation. Dahl quickly sold over a million and a half Pet Rocks. In its typically thorough obituary for Gary Dahl, published on March 31 (thank goodness, as publishing it the next day might have made some mistake the story for an April Fools’ joke), the New York Times explained the Pet Rock sensation in the following way:

 [T]he concept of a “pet” that required no actual work and no real commitment resonated with the self-indulgent ’70s, and before long a cultural phenomenon was born.

This explanation struck me as simultaneously implausible and very interesting. It’s implausible because there was nothing very self-indulgent about the Pet Rock. It was inexpensive. It provided no immediate pleasure. It was relatively difficult to consume conspicuously, though the joke embodied in the Pet Rock was about, among other things, conspicuous consumption.

Here’s why I found the New York Times’ implausible explanation so interesting. The idea of the “self-indulgent ’70s” is a variation of one of the most common contemporary descriptions of that era: the ‘Me’ Decade. This description of the Seventies had extraordinary currency during that decade. But it is little reflected in the historiography of the Seventies. Recent books have characterized the Seventies as the age of Nixon, the beginning of an Age of Fracture, the beginning of the age of the culture wars, the key moment in the transformation of America from an industrial to a finance-driven economy, an age of fear, a period of working class decline, and a moment of political realignment in which the family and ideas about the family played key roles. But as far as I know the idea of the Seventies as the “‘Me’ Decade” has faded from the historical literature, though the Times’ obituary for Gary Dahl suggests it lives on in the public mind.

Though the phrase “The ‘Me’ Decade” may have been coined a few years earlier, its popularity took off following the publication of an essay by the journalist, novelist, and cultural critic Tom Wolfe entitled “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening” that appeared in the August 23, 1976, issue of New York magazine. Read nearly forty years later, Wolfe’s essay is learned, breezy, fun, and terribly thin in its argument. Since World War II, Wolfe argues, America has enjoyed nearly universal prosperity. “True,” he briefly admits, “nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums.”[1] But everyone else has money to burn following thirty years of prosperity:

In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money—$15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon—that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can’t even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath’s or Johnny Bench’s or Walt Frazier’s. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them.

But to the great disappointment of Ivy League-educated elites, who Wolfe also mocks and who had ideas for improving the lives of the less well off, the newly wealthy common man “took his money and ran.” He would “realize his potential as a human being” on his own terms. And these terms, according to Wolfe, could basically be summed up in one word: “ME!”

Wolfe begins his essay with a long, graphic anecdote about a woman at an est seminar obsessed with her hemorrhoids, which constantly threaten to destroy her feeling of sexiness that lies at the core of her self-understanding. This is pretty clearly a story of narcissism. But a lot of Wolfe’s other targets seem less clearly so. Jimmy Carter’s Baptism and Jerry Brown’s Zen post-Catholicism are also just about me.[2] Feminism is dismissed as entirely a me movement:

In 1961 a copywriter named Shirley Polykoff was working for the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency on the Clairol hair-dye account when she came up with the line: “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” In a single slogan she had summed up what might be described as the secular side of the Me Decade. “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a—!” (You have only to fill in the blank.)

This formula accounts for much of the popularity of the women’s-liberation or feminist movement. “What does a woman want?” said Freud. Perhaps there are women who want to humble men or reduce their power or achieve equality or even superiority for themselves and their sisters. But for every one such woman, there are nine who simply want to fill in the blank as they see fit. “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as . . . a free spirit!” (Instead of . . . a house slave: a cleaning woman, a cook, a nursemaid, a station-wagon hacker, and an occasional household sex aid.) But even that may be overstating it, because often the unconscious desire is nothing more than: Let’s talk about Me. The great unexpected dividend of the feminist movement has been to elevate an ordinary status—woman, housewife—to the level of drama. One’s very existence as a woman—as Me—becomes something all the world analyzes, agonizes over, draws cosmic conclusions from, or, in any event, takes seriously. Every woman becomes Emma Bovary, Cousin Bette, or Nora . . . or Erica Jong or Consuelo Sarah Baehr.

Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is also a me document, which encourages American married couples to insist on “communicating” about their “relationship” (both of these words appear in scare quotes; the latter, Wolfe declares, is a “signature word” of the Me Decade). After imagining a dialog in which a couple argue about the husband’s inability to properly wipe himself when he shits (if Wolfe’s characters are obsessed with me, Wolfe seems obsessed with their rear ends), Wolfe declares marriage counseling and group therapy for couples are also all about me.

At the end of the essay, Wolfe suggests that all of the contemporary Americans that he discusses (and there are many more than I’ve mentioned) are seeking religious or quasi-religious “ecstatic experiences.” America, he argues, is at the beginning of a Third Great Awakening. The first two Great Awakenings also began with a mass search for ecstatic experiences. But both helped bring about social transformation and community building. But because of the great luxury of American life in the second half of the twentieth century, this third Great Awakening will just be about excessive individualism. Wolfe concludes:

But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing—they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead—who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes . . . Me . . . Me . . . . Me . . . Me . . .

With the hindsight of several decades, the weaknesses of this argument seem clear. America was not universally prosperous, or even nearly universally prosperous, in the 1970s. Far from feeling like they’d never been wealthier, many Americans in the middle of that decade felt economical squeezed. Both inflation and unemployment were high. Economists and policy makers did not know what to do about this. The U.S. manufacturing base, and with it the quality jobs that had helped fuel post-World War II prosperity, was under threat from foreign competition. The OAPEC oil embargo had made it clear that other countries could disrupt American life with frightening ease. And many Americans were not able to afford est seminars or weekends at Esalen.

In addition to being entirely middle class (or wealthier), Wolfe’s characters seem entirely white…or at the very least devoid of ethnic cultural characteristics that might indicate that they were not. Wolfe also seems unable to see power at play. Movements like est and Scientology – both of which Wolfe presents as key examples of the Me Decade – are presented as if they were called into existence by individual adherents. Wolfe clearly dislikes both feminism and Jimmy Carter’s Baptist faith, but his insistence that both must be about me seems more like an irritable gesture than an argument.

In many ways, Wolfe’s essay on the Me Decade resembles Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, which appeared about three and half years later, in January, 1979. Like Wolfe, Lasch constructs an argument about how the structure of the American economy has created a psychological state that he characterizes as “narcissism.” And, also like Wolfe, Lasch hates feminism and sees it as an expression of his culture of narcissism. But all aspects of Lasch’s argument are subtler than Wolfe’s, from his understanding of the American economy, to his description of narcissism. And Lasch believes he’s describing an era longer than a decade. Though he points to aspects of ’70s culture similar to those on which Wolfe focuses, the ’60s also instantiate the culture of narcissism. None of this, of course, makes Lasch necessarily any more right than Wolfe, but it does explain why, four decades later, we’re still arguing over The Culture of Narcissism while Wolfe’s essay has largely faded from memory.

From the vantage point of the 2010s, the description of the Seventies as the Me Decade seems to explain little about the changes taking place in that period. Wolfe’s prediction that we’d describe the Seventies as the beginning of a Third Great Awakening has not come true. And the post-war prosperity that provided the foundation for Wolfe’s story seems, in retrospect, to have been disappearing even as Wolfe wrote.   Not only is “self-indulgence” not a particular meaningful explanation for the Pet Rock, it is not a very adequate description of the ’70s Zeitgeist as a whole.

But while I don’t think historians should revive the idea of the Me Decade, I do think that we need to grapple with the extraordinary popularity of the idea at the time, especially during the decade’s second half. Precisely because it does not look like a particularly accurate way to sum up the decade in hindsight, we need to think about why it seemed like an accurate way to do so at the time.

__________________________________________________

[1] This is, incidentally, the only mention of this group of people in the entire essay.

[2] Wolfe finds Carter’s Evangelical Christianity hilariously exotic, but makes a point of adding a footnote that discusses the even more “down-home and ecstatic” Primitive Baptist Church, of which Carter was not a member.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ve actually taught this essay to undergrads in a U.S. history survey, and they thought, as I do, that it was a terribly elitist attack on ordinary people and their desire to improve their lives. I’d say the same about Lasch’s notion of “therapeutic culture” and “narcissism” — it’s a devious way of dismissing the liberal desire for a fairer, more just society as nothing more than rank consumerism. In a sense, these essays came out of the same cultural milieu as the Hard Hat Riot or George Wallace bragging about running over antiwar protesters with his car: all represent a white conservative lament that everyone was getting a handout except them, that society was stacked against people who worked hard and kept their heads down, and that demands for the amelioration of suffering represented the destruction of Mayberryesque 1950s culture. What sets Wolfe apart from the others is his shrillness: even my students who watched Leave It To Beaver with approval thought Wolfe was being insulting.

  2. A great piece on the 1970s!

    One reason for the theme of ME Decade during the 70s was that the 70s was unprecedented and wild and there was an attempt to do new things with persona, discovery and so on and I think the newness was registered by Wolfe and Lasch as “Me” or “narcissism”. Although Wolfe is a conservative and Lasch was (partly) of the Left both men formed their ideas of what is right, just, correct, in the post New Deal climate which was probably not unlike Britain during the war years. Such a climate would have understood say, The Peace Corps but not, say, streaking or EST.

    We forget now how truly radical the 70s were. Radical in ways that the labels of Left and Right are problematic. Indeed a lot of what we call “the 60s” only became widespread (as well as altered) in the 1970s. In rejecting both the traditional Left’s dreams of consensus and the Right’s ideas about some solid tradition and hierarchy, the 1970s cultures were about trying to find another way. People who think in terms of civic mindedness would have certainly interpreted the 1970s in the codes of the old order and would have disapproved.

    Some writers have aimed to see past the older lens. Both Thomas Hine in The Great Funk and Bruce Schulman in The Seventies deal well with this. In many ways Age Of Fracture (a book that is otherwise mightily impressive) reminds me of a 1950s and 60s way of reading the 70s: Rodgers sees it as atomism, smallness etc. because he can’t see past the old dualism of individual and community.

  3. If pseudo-intellectual journalists at The New York Times, The American Conservative, and other places can continue to simplistically characterize the 1970s as “the Me Decade,” then they can also continue to characterize the late 1960s counterculture as influential and destructive (not merely about personal satisfaction or flourishing, but about decadence and Dionysian longings), and then those same journalists/pundits can also justify the rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. In sum, “the Me Decade” then makes some sense as a bridge period (a la Peter N. Carroll’s older historical narrative *It Seemed Like Nothing Happened*—i.e. it was just an unfocused transition period). – TL

  4. Is there any possibility that Wolfe was invoking “ecstatic experiences” ironically, or was he fairly illiterate religiously? The experience of ecstasy (Gr., ex- + -stasis) involves “standing outside” of the self, the dissolution of the self in the overwhelm of something greater — a decidedly NON-narcissistic reordering of one’s self and one’s world. I’ll have to re-read Wolfe’s essay and reevaluate his use of religious ideas to bolster these claims.

  5. Ben,
    What a great post! I think you’re absolutely right to identify anti-feminism as a common currency of this narrative, and I wonder how that should make us reconsider ostensibly feminist texts like Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Heidi Chronicles,” a play which absolutely buys into the Seventies-as-Me-Decade meme.

    • PS. I just discovered an amusing irony: the Clairol slogan that Wolfe quotes as evidence of the vacuousness of feminism is actually quoted on page 15 of The Feminine Mystique as evidence of the repressive power of the problem that has no name. She compares this ad campaign to the phenomenon of women refusing a cancer drug that was said to have “unfeminine” side effects.

Comments are closed.