Gen Z humor is the new Dadaist movement


Illustration by Hannah Paul

Elise Sanders, Columnist

Many people before me have written articles concerning millennial and Gen Z humor, wondering what the hell is going on. Surreal, nonsensical memes are in vogue and, thanks to social media, are created and shared at a rapid-fire pace. Gen Z humor, with its absurdity, is seen by many internet anthropologists as a new Dadaist movement. And, while I agree with this sentiment, I don’t believe we have truly come to an understanding of Gen Z culture. I believe that Gen Z mirrors the Lost Generation: both came of age during an unstable, political climate and became disillusioned with society, which led to the development of a Dadaist style of art, literature and humor as means to protest against the culture they grew up in.

Dadaism, essentially, was an avant-garde art movement that began shortly after the end of WWI. Dadaism was a protest to the society that allowed such a devastating and destructive war. It disapproved of the bourgeoisie and their influence on culture and politics; it called for a time without the rigid social, economic and political structures of society; it asked people to suspend their disbelief and abandon their biases. Dadaist art was nonsensical, strange and absurd. Absurd, in this context, refers to the philosophical Absurd, or the conflict between humanity’s search for meaning and value in an uncaring, meaningless universe.

For the Dadaists who belonged to the Lost Generation, WWI was a testament to the apathy of the universe. Their art and literature, nihilist as it was, illustrates a struggle between the youth of the world and the absurdity of the universe, where they are terrified of the purposelessness of it all, and yet, continue to try to find meaning for themselves. 

Gen Z grew up in a post-9/11 world. We grew up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We grew up while students at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High were shot dead. We grew up in the student debt crisis and the climate crisis. We grew up watching police beating and murdering people and our government throwing children into cages. We grew up anxious, distrusting and angry with the society we were raised in. And we wondered: how can things be so bad? Why are people so cruel, and what can we do? Is anybody listening to us? Does anyone care?

These anxieties are present in Gen Z memes, whether it’s a relatable joke about depression or a nonsensical anti-meme. Although they have different means (one addresses the anxiety directly while the other doesn’t), both memes express a frustration with the status quo. Both challenge the society that forced us to grow up world-weary, whether they are trying to draw attention to a specific issue, or are defying what is considered traditionally funny.

In this regard, Gen Z is the reflection in the Lost Generation’s mirror. Both are Sisyphus, struggling to push the boulder uphill alone in a society and, by extension, a universe that seems to have little regard for us. Our anxieties and anger dominate our attempts to cope: art, literature and humor. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”