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Sadie Stein on 90s irony


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For The Paris Review Daily, Sadie Stein writes about irony in the 1990s, before it was coopted as a branding strategy, or corporatized by the likes of precocious teenagers a la Tavi Gevinson and Rookie Mag. It’s a gentle, rather than sardonic irony she writes about. What would be the equivalent of 90s irony today? Faux-angst?

Check out the text below.

In middle school, my friend Marissa and I thought it was pretty darn hilarious to give each other the most inappropriate birthday cards possible. I don’t mean those pre-snark Shoebox greetings full of foul-mouthed grandmas; that would have been tantamount to buying into the earnest Hallmark industrial complex. Instead, we’d look for cards for nephews and stepfathers and babies, and then present them with the hand-knitted scarves and mixtapes we’d made each other. It doesn’t sound funny now. But it was a different time—and I don’t just mean junior high.

In my day, we made our own irony. Without wishing to invoke the proverbial snow-walking grandparent, it’s still important to remember that greeting-card window between Spy magazine and Gawker, between Andy Warhol and someecards, between SNL and the Internet. The time, in short, when people dealt in the currency of subversion, but it wasn’t our gold standard.There’s a reason that the mom humor of fifties commercial art juxtaposed with louche captions seemed deliciously wicked then, and why it feels tame now—we were used to doing all that in our heads.
I was particularly hipped on those Kim Anderson photos we’ve all seen a million times: black-and-white art shots of adorable little kids, sometimes dressed in oversize grown-up garb, and sometimes kissing. Oftentimes, these images featured a Schindler’s List–style splash of color.

I found these pictures troubling. Sometimes I would rant about it in the manner of waggish thirteen-year-olds, invoking the words “child abuse,” but my aversion was real. For a small child, merely having to hold hands with the wrong kindergartener during buddy-system caterpillar walks can be galling. Imagine having to smooch! Even if you found one of those Pepé Le Pew­­–ish little boys who goes around kissing people, what were the odds, realistically, of finding two?

For some reason, the local stationery store had a wide selection of these cards. I experimented with different ones: two kids smooching on a dock in front of a steamer ship (the boy in some kind of oversize captain’s getup), a small hobo going a-courtin’, a tiny couple eating ice-cream cones in what look like reject costumes from Fried Green Tomatoes. Eventually, I settled on one that seemed perfect in its horrifying simplicity: a four-year-old swain extending a pink-shaded rose to a female tot of similar age. The text inside the card read, “Forgive Me.”

I gave the “Forgive Me” card to Marissa three times, once leaving it in her locker for no reason. Then I started giving them to everyone: my other friends, my brother, my parents. I stockpiled them. It became an all-purpose, anytime joke.

What an innocent time! What gentle irony! JonBenet Ramsey was still alive. We didn’t even have tweens yet. Kim Anderson still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, but her pictures retain their creepy factor, I think. They’ve lost none of their impact. Yes, their irony isn’t as potent as it once was—but irony has a short shelf life.

*Image above courtesy Kim Anderson via The Paris Review