Originally published in The Atlantic

This summer, the “dirtbags” have taken over screens. You know them when you see them. A paragon of the form is Eddie Munson from Stranger Things: Repeating his senior year of high school, Eddie sells weed, leads the Dungeons and Dragons club, and strikes most of the townsfolk as a plausible Satanist. He is alternately goofy and intimidating, with a love of heavy metal and a mullet one imagines smells of stale beer. In FX/Hulu’s new series The Bear, the protagonist, Carmy, represents another version of the grubby archetype—a tattooed, greasily rakish kind of man who seems unstable yet wields a certain allure.

“Dirtbag” refers not just to an appearance and a lifestyle, but also
to a certain worldview. The term has roots in the culture of mountain sports: It’s proudly claimed by those who forsake office jobs to live in their vans, eat ramen, do acid, and climb rocks. Because of these peripatetic associations, the label suggests not a mere sloven, but someone defecting from a situation they feel is going nowhere, whether that’s high-school geography class or society at large. It connotes a bemused nihilism and a commitment to living by one’s own rules. For the dirtbag, hygiene is optional, dumbassery is frequent, and a gritty kind of enlightenment might just be tenable.

This story originally appeared in The Atlantic, July 2022. To read the full story, click here.

© Adrienne Matei 2017