Movies as a Generational Mirror — Part 2

Part 2: Generation X and Millennials  (This essay is the second of a two-part series)

Generational cohort theory asserts that much of our outlook and values comes to us between the ages of 10 and 20—when we first conceptualize and then step into the world as our adult selves. What was popular at the Cineplex when we were each in these formative years becomes a great portal into our own generational uniqueness.

When looking for generational trends in movies, it is not important what movies any one person liked to watch, what matters is what was popular (making money or winning awards) when people were stepping into their adulthoods.

What do the popular movies of your formative years say about your generation?

1983 to 1992 – What was popular as Generation X grew up?

  • Tootsie
    Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

    Click for a scene from Tootsie

  • Victor/Victoria
  • The Crying Game
  • Trading Places
  • Beverly Hills Cop
  • Aliens
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  • 3 Men and a Baby
  • Flashdance
  • Rambo
  • Platoon
  • Good Morning Vietnam
  • Dances with Wolves
  • Unforgiven
  • Batman
Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

Click to see the Home Alone trailer

  • Home Alone
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • Big
  • Honey I Shrunk the Kids
  • Dead Poets Society
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Goodfellas
  • Breakfast Club
    Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

    Click for a scene from the Breakfast Club


The Gen X Mirror:

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) grew up in a world in which the US had lost its first war, the grind of governance had diminished the luster of many of our nation’s leaders; one President had even resigned under the specter of unprecedented criminal activity. With this climate as a backdrop, the birth-rate plummeted, and the traditionally structured family fractured. Divorce and the single-parent household became common. These familial and socio-economic changes led to a generational corrosion of faith in the structures, traditions, and hierarchies that had long defined the culture and families.

The movies that were popular at the Cineplex when many Gen Xers were growing up reflect the gritty skepticism that would become a hallmark of this generation. So many of these movies directly challenge (dramatically in some–comically in others) traditional socio-economic, gender, and racial roles. Women are action heroes; black characters are prominent where whites are expected; rich and poor swap stations, and men and women switch places.

In addition to social roles dissolving, families in these movies have radically changed as well. In contrast to the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer movies, many of these films include and/or are made for children or young people—but almost all of these examples show young people disconnected from adults and direct parental involvement or supervision. Gen-X movies have latch-key kids everywhere—example upon example of kids raising themselves, kids whose parents are, for whatever reason, gone. Generation X is known as independent-minded and naturally skeptical of and guarded against formal and traditional institutions and commitments—all common themes that were playing out at the corner movie house.


2001 to 2010 – What was popular as Millennials grew up?

  • Harry Potter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6
    Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

    Click here to view trailers for all the Harry Potter films

  • Shrek 1, 2 and 3
  • Monster’s Inc
  • Star Wars: II and III
  • Night at the Museum
  • Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3
  • Avatar
  • Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers
  • War of the Worlds
  • Lord of the Rings 1, 2 and 3
Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

Click for scene from Spiderman 2

  • Spiderman 1, 2 and 3
  • Cars
  • X-Men 1, 2 and 3
  • Transformers 1 and 2
  • Iron Man
  • WALL-E
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Twilight
  • Crash
  • The Departed
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • Finding Nemo
    Millennial Emotional Intelligence | Understanding Millennials

    Click for a clip from Finding Nemo

The Millennial Mirror:

Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) are internet natives. Whereas most Gen Xers have had computer technology close by for much of their lives, Millennials have never known a world without internet connectivity and the veritable flood of options and data that this connectivity enables—Facebook, Twitter, wiki answers, free music to order, commercial-free TV geared to my age and tastes streaming on my hand-held device. These are just ground truths—as-is realities—to Millennials. No wonder the result is a generation feeling empowered and impatient for answers, inclusion and promotion.

As a generation, Millennials have both the benefit and curse of being parented by both Baby Boomers and Generation X—two generations that both experienced some alienation and disconnect from their parents’.  As a result, Millennials have been a fairly protected (some would say doted-on) group. In families, in schools, on teams–Millennials have long been the center of attention. As a result, Millennials tend to accept authority, being open (often eager) to engage with organizations and be a part of the system. As a generation, Millennials have a well-documented drive to community and social responsibility.

The movies that were popular as Millennials grew up (the youngest Millennials are still in high school) reflect this radical shift that has put young people at the center of things. In marked contrast to the other generations’ movie lists, nearly every film mentioned is either for or about kids or is made with a family audience in mind. Look back at the Boomer’s movie list (in Part 1 of this essay), and you see that there is scarcely a movie you could take a child to see—now it is odd for a movie to exclude this age group. This fact reinforces the idea that this generation (who were the target audience at the time) is at the center of the action.

Also of note is that most of the movies—while often animated and in the fantasy realm—actually have rather traditional narratives that are respectful of authority. There is a conservatism and traditional arc to most of these narratives. Through a struggle, the protagonist (a pretty clear “good guy or girl”) bests the antagonist. Do what you are supposed to do, and you’ll win in the end—these movies reinforce this generational value clearly and proudly.

Movies don’t create our values or behavioral patterns, but they do a very good job of reflecting and even explaining them. What’s going on in our culture right now? Well, let’s go down to the neighborhood Cineplex and find out.



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