The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Down and out and extremely online? No problem: Just enter a new ‘era.’

Rebound from a breakup with a ‘Reputation era.’ Rebrand your failure as a ‘flop era.’ No calamity is too great or small to be romanticized as an ‘era’ on social media.

(Dominic Bugatto/Illustration for The Washington Post)

One evening in July, Jenny Lewis was feeling especially broke after maxing out her credit card at Trader Joe’s. So she took out her phone and recorded a video of herself standing on the sidewalk, tulips peeking out of her tote, and posted it to TikTok with Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie En Rose” playing in the background.

“idk about y’all but i’m in my baguette and cheese and flowers era,” wrote Lewis, 29, who works at a literary agency. “my wasting money era. my bougie overpriced dickensian peasant food era. my ignore my cascading credit card debt era… my denial era.”

Lewis’s TikTok was part of our “Era” era, a trend that’s flooded social media all summer, in which people present changes in their life, style or attitude by announcing, with a self-aware dramatic flair, that they have entered a new “era.”

What does it mean to be entering an era? It’s a way of taking ownership of your own story, even (especially) the messy parts. You’re slamming the door on one chapter of your life and emphatically striding into the next. You decide an era has begun and therefore you are in it. Your declaration makes it so.

Maybe you’re in your “flop era” — a period of humiliation, failure and defeat. This coinage has been around since about 2008, though it’s enjoyed a recent resurgence. Think of a pop star whose album fails to scale the charts, or of a grizzled, weary Ben Affleck, struggling under an unwieldy stack of Dunkin’ coffee cups.

Or perhaps you’re in your “villain era,” which is less about being actually evil and more about not letting other people’s perceptions and expectations dictate your behavior. On TikTok, users often invoke Sydney Sweeney’s “Euphoria” character, Cassie, saying, “If that makes me a villain, so f----ing be it.”

Or you could be strutting into your “Reputation” era, as in Taylor Swift’s album: daring any man to wrong you; promising vengeance to guys foolhardy enough to cheat, lie or leave; wearing dark lipstick.

A cheekily named “era” undercuts whatever hardship gives it shape: Why say you’re overwhelmed by grief, money troubles or loneliness (sad, embarrassing) when you could be in your “Fleabag era” (chic, cool)?

“I think there’s a dissociative aspect of it: I’m watching myself live a life, I can pretend it’s not me living,” said Rebecca Jennings, who covers internet culture for Vox. At the same time, “It’s very much for ourselves,” she says. “You’re romanticizing whatever you’re going through by calling it an ‘era.’ It helps you think of your life as a little bit more meaningful than it might be.”

The fact that so many “eras” focus on mortifying or difficult experiences makes the meme all the more likely to stick, says Sylvia Sierra, linguist and author of Millennials Talking Media. “That has a lot of social capital online … to be self-deprecating, to not take yourself too seriously, to make light of unpleasant topics.”

Those who grew up online have an innate “understanding that their self-presentation is a form of narrative creation,” says Rusty Foster, internet critic and author of the Today in Tabs newsletter. Why be burdened with the shame of feeling like a failure when you can just say, hey, it’s only a flop era?

“It’s a way of framing how you feel as a moment that not only allows for change but requires it,” Foster says. The darker eras — like the “villain era” — are a way to “give yourself permission to experiment with, ‘What if I were a villain?’ And maybe incorporate that into your normal era.”

Online, civilians act like celebrities — or, maybe more to the point, protagonists. They aspire to main character energy. They’re doing it for the plot. Of course it follows that every shift in taste and mood constitutes a new era.

Eras, and the excitement they confetti on the everyday, were especially appealing during the pandemic lockdowns. For people stuck at home with nothing to do except feel insane (“entering my ‘Yellow Wallpaper’ era”), the over-the-top theatricality of deeming a nonevent an “era” provided safe, non-covid-related drama to otherwise ordinary, interminable months. A wardrobe change debuted a new persona; a haircut was a new identity altogether. Why would you just be “watching ‘The Sopranos’ ” when you could be “entering my Jersey era, my gabagool era, my ‘Chris Moltisanti is the best Chris’ era, my kissing-men-on-both-cheeks-and-sometimes-on-the-mouth-just-to-say-hello era”?

If you don’t spend a lot of time online, the use of “era” to describe something as quotidian as a new hairstyle or attitude probably sounds ridiculous. But the juxtaposition between the grandiosity of language and the mundanity of life is the whole point. Hyperbole is the natural mode of internet-speak, says Jennings, the internet culture reporter. People write “lol” online while sitting silently at their keyboards, and fans who think “I have a crush on Harry Styles” will instead write “I want Harry Styles to run me over with his car.”

But why is era, specifically, the word that caught on?

Online, it serves as a neat opposite to another popular term, “moment” — as in, this song or artist or destination is “having a moment.” Offline, it has an appropriate scientific precedent: In geology, eras are defined by their beginnings and endings, demarcated by an event so enormous and dramatic (e.g. a mass extinction) that evidence of it can be found basically everywhere, says Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Take the Mesozoic era, a.k.a. the era in which the dinosaurs lived. For early geologists trying to determine when that era ended, the extinction of the dinosaurs offered two no-duh pieces of evidence: one, there were no more dinosaurs; two: there was a layer of rock with geologic evidence of the asteroid impact in places as far flung as New Zealand, India, Argentina and the United States.

“We can line those up and say, ‘The end of an era: Here it is,’ ” Carrano says.

Even without consulting the dinosaur expert who kindly indulged our call, people online have landed on the geologic term that emotionally aligns with its colloquial use. “Era” signals authority (unlike “period,” whose boundaries, Carrano reports, are still debated by experts) and grandeur, but with limits (unlike “eon,” which sounds like it means eternity).

The use of “era” to describe beginnings and endings in one’s personal life also echoes the way the term “season” is used in certain spiritual circles. (“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven” — you might recognize this idea from Ecclesiastes, or from the Byrds song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”)

Seasons and eras “are very related,” says Angie Hong, a Christian writer, speaker and worship leader. “I see them going hand in hand.” Seasons are sent down by God, she says, but “we are not meant to just be passive recipients. We’re meant to be active and engaged in the world . . . So I think the announcing of the era, the manifesting of it, is really a statement of: ‘I am going to engage. I am going to declare that I’m going to live my life with what I’ve been given. I’m receiving this, I’m not going to take it lying down.’ ”

One key quality that seasons and eras share: They don’t last forever. “It’s just one flop, not a flop era,” Keara Sullivan, a stand-up comedian in New York City, said in a tongue-in-cheek TikTok playing on the trend. “And sometimes, after the hardest flop, comes the biggest slay.”

Though she’s in on the joke, Sullivan has found, in all sincerity, that referring to her own disappointments as eras has helped her get over some painful experiences. She was ghosted by a guy she was dating and told herself it was time to “enter my ‘Reputation’ era,” she says, like “a woman scorned.” She was pleased to find the hyperbole had “this inverse effect. Using the bigger language helps you see that it’s not a big deal.”

Lewis says her TikTok about her peasant food era was just her making fun of herself.(“For me to be sitting there and buying a baguette and cheese and flowers, like I’m in ‘Les Mis’ or something, what do I think I am?”) But as she scrolled through the comments, she found people recognized their own eras in hers, and related to her coping mechanism of choice.

“There are only so many ways that you can deal with being in such a weird place in your life before you have to cultivate an ironic detachment from it, and a coolness to be like, ‘This is just temporary. I’m just in this romantic era of my life where I have no money, or where I am making all of these mistakes,’ ” she says. “And just kind of embrace it in this ironic way. Because how else are you supposed to deal with it?”

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