Pop Culture Commentary: The Rise of the “Boomer Doomer”

By Michael Marano

Hippie Boomers have morphed from being figures we were horrified to see victimized (think “Easy Rider”) to the kind of people that audiences are positively happy to see get their comeuppances.

Redneck shooting the hippie heroes at the end of Easy Rider. Would we be rooting for him today?

Summer, 1969.

At the end of Easy Rider, instant hippie (and Boomer) icons Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda are shot-gunned by workin’ man rednecks (“Why don’tcha git a haircut?”). It is a moment so traumatic to a generation that Stephen King in Danse Macabre called the film the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film,” with an ending that defined “the hate, paranoia, and fear” of the late ’60s.

Summer, 1970.

Hippies at screenings of Joe, identify star Peter Boyle with the titular blue collar character who uses a deer rifle to hunt down a commune of hippies. They yell to the screen “I’m going to shoot back, Joe!” to the point that the actor is worried he might get shot walking down 46th Street.

Autumn, 2018.

The last crowd-pleasing half of Panos Cosmatos’s film Mandy (set in 1982), features workin’ man, blue collar hero Nicolas Cage butchering a hippie collective of ’60s holdovers, including a few on gnarly bikes who might be the mutant, cinematic progeny of Hopper and Fonda.

Summer, 2019.

Quentin Tarantino invites audiences to enjoy a hippie slaughter: blue collar hero Brad Pitt throws a can of dog food into a counterculture chick’s nose and Leonardo DiCaprio finishes her off with a flame-thrower.

Spring, 2020.

Wendy, Benh Zeitlin’s riff on Peter Pan, gives us the Lost Boys as a tribe of grotesquely aged Boomers, responsible for the ecological destruction of their Island Paradise, while they still cling to what they perceive to be their youthful hippie innocence.

Fall, 2020.

According to its press release, The Film Detective reissues the 1971 killer hippie movie The Other Side of Madness because of the popularity of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the world of print, Emma Cline’s 2016 The Girls, a horror novel, garnered an almost unheard of $2 million advance for the first-time novelist. Her publisher outbid 11 other houses for a book that depicted Boomer hippies as monsters. Envisioning Boomers in an abominable light has become a motif in non-fiction studies, among them Bruce Cannon Gibney’s 2017 A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America (the book gave Boomer Jane Smiley pause when she reviewed it) and Joseph C. Sternberg’s 2019 work The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Future. And then there is Tarantino’s recently announced novelization of his screenplay for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, slated for a June, 2021 publication.

So, what happened? In the era of Easy Rider and Joe, violence inflicted on hippie Boomers inspired alarm, even despair. Today, a number of films (and a Blu-ray release) give us hippie Boomers as ogres to be slain or overcome. Boomers have morphed from being figures we were horrified to see victimized to those whom audiences cheer to see get their comeuppances, be it via the dog-food can thrown expertly by late Boomer/Early Gen X-er Brad Pitt playing a working-class hero stuntman, or by decapitation via a home-made axe wielded by late Boomer/Early Gen X-er Nicolas Cage in the role of a working-class hero lumberjack. Pitt and Cage’s characters are modern “Joe’s,” rehabilitated as Boomer Doomers, putting down the bad guys.

The transformation seems to have been triggered by a sense of betrayal, ideals trashed. The epigraph of Stephen King’s 1999 collection Hearts in Atlantis, which details his many disappointments with his generation, is a quote from the penultimate scene in the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film”… Peter Fonda’s line, “We blew it.”

The monster who symbolizes generational backstabbing in the current Boomer-phobic sentiment in film and The Girls is, of course, Charles Manson, the weird-looking, silly little man who took nice, Boomer kids and turned them into anti-social vampires. As children, the Manson Girls might have been daughters in the sitcoms riffed on in WandaVision. Cute Leslie Van Houten came from a good middle class home. Patricia Krenwinkel’s dad was an insurance guy who wore narrow ties, and her mom was a homemaker. Squeaky Fromme’s dad was an aeronautical engineer of The Right Stuff era, her mom stayed home, and Squeaky as a child was an adorable member of a dance troupe.

Manson is a character in Once Upon a Time (played by Damon Herriman, who also played Manson in Season Two of Netflix’s Mindhunter, a hit show over which Manson cast a semi-constant shadow). The Peter Pan in Wendy is a cult leader, not as vile as the Manson-surrogate antagonists of Other Side of Madness, Mandy, and The Girls, but one who nonetheless spirits kids from their parents to a dusty Neverland as isolated as the Spahn Ranch.

Love-ins do not define Boomers in these books and films.

It’s not The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

It’s not Woodstock.

It’s not kids thwarting the will of that nasty old Mayor Bluster on Howdy Doody.

It’s Manson.

Perhaps Manson wasn’t a teratogen or mutagen that made his followers monsters. Maybe he just gave them permission to be socipaths. In Smiley’s review of Gibney’s polemic, she cites former Congressman (and current talk show host) Joe Walsh’s monstrous, tweeted response to Jimmy Kimmel’s Frank Capra’s-Regular-Guy-like plea for decent health care for all, inspired by the birth of Kimmel’s son, who has a heart defect: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anyone else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”

Walsh, a Boomer, was born in 1961. Contrast his Randian, Gordon Gekko, all-mine outlook to healthcare to that of Harry S. Truman, who said of polio at the start of the Baby Boom in 1945: “The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war…. [o]nly with a united front can we ever hope to win any war.” Ten years later, Jonas Salk’s reply to Edward R. Murrow’s question regarding who owned the polio vaccine Salk created was, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Walsh’s Tweet reflects the sociopathy Gibney explores his book, the variety of extreme conservatism that many believe that Boomers embrace. As Gibney told Vox: “Starting with Reagan, we saw this [Boomer centric] national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

The phrase “Starting with Reagan” is telling. The Boomer, consumer-driven mentality has been going on for decades, but now some are projecting that sociopathy back to the halcyon days of the ’60s. These filmmakers and authors are saying things were rotten almost from the beginning. Thus, the current popular and cultural awareness of Manson: a man who yammers yammered crazy, paranoid, white supremacist bullshit while promising to shepherd his Boomer faithful to a new utopia that demanded the subjugation of brown people, once he had led chosen whites through an apocalyptic American Carnage that he called “Helter Skelter.”

Things were rotten from the beginning, at least according to some. Thus the popular and political appeal of Manson: he yammers crazy, paranoid, white supremacist bullshit while promising to shepherd his Boomer faithful to a new utopia that demanded the subjugation of brown people, once he had led chosen whites through an apocalyptic American Carnage that he called “Helter Skelter.”

Damon Herriman as Charlie Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

On a national scale, we’ve seen Boomers, and former Hippies, become the acolytes of a newfangled Manson. A majority of Boomers supported Trump in 2016, pollster Silas Lee told The Hill.

Trump, like Mason, cultivated fears in white Boomers, born into shag-carpeted comfort and suckled by consumerism, that minorities would take over. And that meant the fall of the American Civilization. Like Manson, “only” Trump could lead them through this crisis. Pollster Lee said of Boomer support of Trump: “We are observing a demographic last stand, whereby many voters who were born in the late ’40s, they are in a climate of uncertainty, in particular, they feel economic anxiety, social anxiety.”

Trump, like Manson, encouraged his followers to be their worst selves, to the point that, as Adam Serwer articulated at length in The Atlantic, “the cruelty is the point” of Trumpism. (Though, to be fair to Walsh, despite his statement to Kimmel he’s renounced Trumpism because of its cruelty.)

Sadism defines the Manson movie knock offs and The Girls. Cruelty… and ridiculousness. The Manson of Once Upon a Time is an inane little weasel. The Manson surrogate of Mandy flies into a rage when his limp cock is mocked. The Svengali-like influence of the Manson surrogate in The Girls is proportional to the weak minds and character of his followers. The Peter Pan of Wendy is a bellowing brat prone to tantrums as he exiles his followers for the slightest deviation from his rules or hermetically sealed worldview.

We have now reached the point that the regular “Joe’s” of the world, once condemned as monsters for killing hippie Boomers, are now our heroes. The polarities of the “quintessential sixties counterculture horror film” have been reversed: his once-admired rebels “blew it” and metaphorically deserve death for having brought the country down. Roger McGuinn singing Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” at the close of Easy Rider is no longer ironic in today’s popular culture. It really is alright that they’re bleeding.

Since 1990, Michael Marano (www.michaelmarano.com) has been covering film for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite System program, Movie Magazine International, which airs in 111 markets in the US and Canada. He’s provided film reviews and pop culture commentary for a variety of national publications, and Tweets at @MikeMarano.


  1. Nicole Veneto on March 19, 2021 at 10:38 am

    Contributing my two cents as a Millennial with Boomer parents: I’ve always found the political turn from counterculture hippies to yuppie centrists of the Boomer generation fascinating. Both my parents were hippies, my dad being a drummer in the 1970s; you can probably imagine the sort of scene my dear old dad was in back then. He’s since moved politically center, if not conservative leaning (we’ve had our arguments). On the other hand, my mom was a teen hippie in the 70s immersed in second-wave feminism and although she’s since politically checked out, she’s nonetheless very progressive minded. I suppose the sense, at least with my progressively-minded generational peers, is that our parents’ generation “sold out” their views by kowtowing to the forces of neoliberalism (knowing that your parents were once really cool and then finding out they gave up on their radically minded idealism is pretty depressing), or that they really weren’t that radical in the first place (ex. a lot of criticisms of second-wave feminism from contemporary feminists focus on its essentializing of womanhood as exclusionary to trans women).

  2. Steve Provizer on March 20, 2021 at 9:59 am

    Yes, promoting an agenda of withdrawing from Vietnam, equality for women, civil rights for black and brown people and non-discrimination against gay people certainly justifies a retroactive backlash against Boomers. [I am one and was, I suppose, a “hippie”].

    • Morgan on March 21, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      As a millennial/gen Z cusper, this is the attitude that sends me over the edge with you people. Don’t cling to a few things you think you’ve done right. Continue the work and step up because you damn well have the power to do so . There’s still a lot wrong with this world. Also, don’t tell me you’re too old and tired to, or that you’re too old for change. Adapt and help. Otherwise, it is perfectly acceptable to call you as old and tired as you have apparently resigned yourself to be. There are 100-somethings in other countries trying to do their part, why can’t you?

      • Steve Provizer on March 22, 2021 at 5:52 pm

        Morgan–you have no idea what I did, what I do and what I will do. Don’t call out “you people” when you know nothing about them. Show me where in my comment it says I’m resigned. Your comment is the sort of ad hominem nonsense that triggered my comment in the first place.

        • Morgan on March 23, 2021 at 9:52 am

          A powerful and humbling lesson to learn at a younger age — we do not choose how we are remembered. That power belongs to the generations below us and how we treat them, generally. We may be remembered for being a grandmother, grandfather, uncle, etc. by a few special people as individuals, but our generation will be ultimately judged widely by the leaders we elect, the political decisions they make, the positive effects of our innovations, a smattering of pop icons (that will slowly be forgotten), and our response to calls to action from those below us. Defensiveness doesn’t add to any of this discussion, I’m afraid. However, I thank your generation for giving me this insight while I still have many years left.

  3. Daniel Gewertz on March 24, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    My basic thought here is that no generation in old age resembles what they were like when young and making their social-artistic mark. The so-called ‘greatest generation’ did get through the depression and WW2 when young, and were well-suited to thrive as young adults in the booming 1950s. But they were also well-suited to grow more and more conservative, ultimately voting for Reagan in 1980, thinking of him as the return of their Hollywood-bred delusions of American greatness. They were childlike when old. They were not the greatest generation, just the grey-est generation.
    There is so much to say about, and so much wrong with, the thesis of Gibney’s book, and the general anti-hippie attitude. So, it can’t be all said here and now. I see that Gibney is a founding partner of PayPal, a venture capitalist, and his slam of hippies is basically a horror that there was such things as hippies in the first place. The hippies were unable to do the impossible — utterly transform society. Instead of a political force, I think of the true hippies as more like a poetic symbol: flashing a message that America was going in a drastically wrong direction, and we needed to have a total and complete rebirth. A delusional dream at best, but dreams have their place. But my basic point is that no generation is able to change government and social/financial systems when they are in their teens and 20s, the age-range when they are most themselves. In any generation, those most driven to power and financial success join the establishment. But artistically and culturally… that is another thing entirely. I am proud that– being born in 1950 — I come from a generation that created the music of the era spanning 1965 to 1990. The only span of music I can think of as great as that was the jazz, blues, country, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway of my parent’s generation. When you think of what came afterward, it is a shame and a desert. Sure, young people defend recent music trends, but that’s just their (perfectly natural) defensive generational pride talking. The idea that a massively popular music can also be truly great art has left us. I grieve the loss.
    (It was different with film. The ‘silver age’ of Hollywood — the great wave of personal, highly artistic, visionary Hollywood-made movies of the 1970s — consisted of movies made by directors born far before 1946. Teens and 20 year-olds were not allowed to direct right off the bat, of course. Spielberg was the fist baby-boom director, born in 1946, and he was no hippie, just a driven, talented kid who dreamed of celluloid, not lysergic acid.)
    The first time I heard anti-hippie/boomer talk was by punk-rock fans (often Ivy League types posing as punkers) in about 1980 putting down hippie music and their millions of fans. Despite the silly excesses of the most stalwart hippie bands, I was shocked at the punkers cruel anti-baby boomer attitude. In order to be cool, they needed to put down 30 year-olds as ancient fools! All these decades later, I would put Sly & the Family Stone up against The Dead Boys with confidence.
    As far as society goes, the causes that were born in the ’60s & ’70s are not to be sniffed at. I know a number of people who are still activists in their own ’70s. And if a generation can be put down for spawning the Clinton presidency, what generation in the last 75 years isn’t guilty of birthing bad presidents? When was Jimmy Carter born? 1924. When was the first President Bush born? 1924. Ultimately, in middle and old age, there are no “great generations.” But there is great music. And it survives its own generation.

  4. Daniel Gewertz on March 24, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    One more thing: As far as the essay goes, it is bizarre to think hippies are conflated with the Manson gang. I don’t think that’s a trend at all. Movies are always looking for bad guys with guns. Hippies are boring in comparison to killers. Fifty years ago the Manson killings and the Altamont killings were considered to bode the end of the Peace & Love era. (It was not. But long-haired types were viewed more fearfully for a while.) When Brad Pitt killed the Manson-like maniacs in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” I felt joy. Tarantino succeeded in momentarily wiping out the horrible history of the Mansons in my mind. I loved the film! And I was once a semi-hippie!

  5. tim jackson on March 28, 2021 at 8:59 pm

    I appreciate venture capitalist Bruce Gibney’s tirade against the boomers and their dereliction of generational duty. As a charter member of this maligned crop of elders I can take a well-argued whipping and chuckle at Nicole Veneto’s comment, “my dad [was] a drummer in the 1970s; you can probably imagine the sort of scene my dear old dad was in back then”. Having spent my life, not just as a drummer, but in the arts in general, I encourage any fantasies as to “what it was like”.

    Nevertheless, nearly everyone I know, struggling or successful, writers, musicians, filmmakers, performers, teachers as well as lawyers, doctors, and so forth absorbed the values with which we came of age and remain committed to social justice, community, equality with a reasonable questioning of authority. We’re not all the American Psychos of Gibney’s sweeping analysis. After all, it was Reagan born in 1911, whose Hollywood grin hoodwinked the country widening the gap between the rich and the poor, ignored the aids epidemic, and purportedly said after the Kent State shootings: “If it takes a bloodbath, then let’s get it over with.” Selfish? Divisive? I look to Ronnie and W. for lots of blame.

    One can buy the arguments and humor of A Generation of Sociopaths or OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind, or Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future, and others, but it was Trump who took it over the top. I tried to comprehend what had happened by reading the exposés by turncoat staffers, the two Bob Woodward books, Mary Trump’s book, watching Capital in the 21st Century, Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, Where’s My Roy Cohn, and Get me Roger Stone. There appears to have been a perfect storm for Trump to rally mobs with all the methods of a cult leader: Manson for masses.

    Indeed, cults were popping up in multiple books and films. I found some solace in understanding the cult mentality. As public service – here are a few suggestions:

    As mentioned in the review there is The Girls. Other good reads include Member of the Family (a Manson member memoir), Astral Weeks (with the Lyman Family), Creepy Crawling, and more to the point Losing Reality: On Cults, and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry and finally The Cult of Trump. In film, Jesse Moss’s five-part Netflix series The Family exposes how this Christian group influences Washington. They started the National Prayer Breakfasts and have far-reaching influence and global ambition. Others depict the psychology behind cults, self-help gurus, and followers: The Vow series, Holy Hell (the Buddhafield cult), Wild, Wild Kingdom (Rajneesh Movement), The Source, Prophet’s Prey, The End of the World Cult, Children of the Stars, The Last Stop, Yes, God, Yes , the Love Fraud series, endless Waco examinations, and narrative films like Charlie Says, The Master, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Midsommar.
    I went down a rabbit hole watching these, and there are many more.

    It seems I’m not alone in finding some comfort in understanding the appeal of what Robert Jay Lifton called “the widespread attraction to cultist certainty and the primal nature of the cultist drama”. Gibney can blame boomers for their “generational plunder” but others of us did everything we could to stop the madness shy of taking a cue from Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers running into traffic screaming: “Listen everyone. They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next…!

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