The Dirtbag Is Back

A returning cultural archetype is indifferent to power and extremely adept at enjoying meaninglessness. What a relief.

Stacks of TVs screening 'Beavis and Butthead,' 'Trailer Park Boys,' and 'Jackass'
Paramount+ / Netflix; Joanne Imperio / 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.

Such values, which have resurfaced across time in America, have a contemporary resonance. Trying to operate outside the parameters of conventional society can feel almost aspirational at a moment when social progress appears to be flagging. Gallup’s most recent annual U.S. survey measuring public confidence in the country’s major institutions found “historic lows” in Congress, police, and the criminal-justice system. The climate crisis looks more and more hopeless. Distrust of labor systems is widespread; to many, personal sacrifice for professional achievement now feels like a fool’s errand. Against a backdrop of decline, the dirtbag’s recalcitrance makes a certain kind of sense. Even the internet-born concept of “goblin mode”—the temporary, shameless indulgence of one’s id, potentially as a coping mechanism amid chaos—feels like a descendant of dirtbaggery. Call them unkempt, disruptive, or brash; at least dirtbags are honest.

In these times, entertainment’s goblin kings have reemerged—naturally, I’m referring to the new film Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe and to an upcoming fresh season of episodes introducing the Gen X cretins to Gen Z. Do the Universe finds the two heedless dillweeds ripping through the space-time continuum from the ’90s to the present day, where they promptly buy a superabundance of nachos and try to get laid. The joy of the film comes from their tunnel vision: Almost everything around them goes unnoticed, unprocessed, or dismissed. (That includes the entire planet, the majesty of which they briefly observe from space only for Butt-Head to gripe, “The Earth sucks.”) Watching characters who wouldn’t notice the apocalypse if society were smoldering at their feet is cathartic. Their ease with chaos can briefly be ours.

Beavis and Butthead sitting on a couch
Beavis and Butt-Head, entertainment’s goblin kings (Courtesy of Paramount+)

Indeed, the best dirtbag comedies offer dysfunction without drama—the release of rebellious or even destructive behavior without the apparent consequences of trauma or regret. The middle-aged delinquents of Jackass, who starred in the franchise’s best-reviewed film earlier this year, achieve this by balancing brutal stunts with a wholesome conviviality among their cast. Freakish scenarios end in hilarity, not just ambulance sirens. Meanwhile, the heroes of the long-running, mockumentary-style Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys exude Panglossian serenity from their jail cells. “Taking a break from dope is even a good kind of a break because then when you smoke dope again, you get a lot more fucked up,” reasons Ricky (played by Robb Wells) in the Season 1 finale. What a relief for viewers to watch doofuses wreak havoc and be able to laugh, not cry.

The pleasure of watching dirtbaggery also derives from its depiction of idiocy without evil. Early 2000s comedies such as Trailer Park Boys and the dirtbag cinema-verité cult classic FUBAR focus on frustrated, marginalized, yet unradicalized white males—a combination that rings differently in the January 6, “freedom convoy” era. These works are content to portray the buffoonery of such characters as mainly a threat to themselves, and their politics are broadly—and vaguely—anti-establishment. The central characters exaggerate negative masculine stereotypes like aggression and independence in service of excellent satire. But there’s no reconciling the affability of TV dirtbags with the real-life behavior of those who have been dealt a similar hand yet have chosen a darker path. Watching earlier episodes of Trailer Park Boys during the pandemic, I idly wondered which characters might fight a gas-station clerk over a mask mandate. (Outside the show, the cast has participated in a pro-vaccination campaign for the Nova Scotia government in character.)

Newer additions to the dirtbag canon take a more self-aware tone, however. In one of Do the Universe’s more overtly political bits, Beavis and Butt-Head attend a gender-studies lecture and emerge empowered by their discovery of white privilege, which they interpret as carte blanche to steal a cop car (correctly, it seems—they live to tell the tale, albeit from prison). In Canada, where a culturally specific permutation of dirtbags known as “hosers” have been a beloved national comedic stereotype since the 1980s, the Millennial sitcom Letterkenny offers a relatively diverse depiction of rural Ontario. In the titular town, members of myriad subgroups, such as farmers, meth cookers, and Native residents of a neighboring reservation, share a defiant outsider sensibility. But they also have a clear set of personal values, including helping friends in need, common respect, and no fighting at weddings. The show, which is expected to release its 11th season this year, models that dirtbaggery can be for everyone, that day-drinking layabouts can still get up to fight bigots.

By divorcing laziness from anti-intellectualism and white-male disenfranchisement, shows like Letterkenny allow the dirtbag to feel enviable—or escapist—again. Their characters’ lifestyles offer a seductive promise that we can slip away from the declining world order like disillusioned teens from so many stifling suburbs.

Johnny Knoxville is hit by a bull in 'Jackass Forever'
A middle-aged Johnny Knoxville gets hit by a bull in Jackass Forever. (Courtesy of Paramount+)

At the very least, they show that we can resist the tedious, superficial mores of polite society. Zsuzsi Gartner’s 2009 short story, Summer of the Flesh Eater, presents a group of cul-de-sac-dwelling husbands whose lives are encrusted with status signifiers: fig-infused martinis, drought-resistant native-grass lawns, book clubs parsing The Hours. Soon, they are disrupted by the arrival of a new neighbor, a mulleted, muscle-shirted macho man who opens beer bottles with his teeth and reaches down his jorts to “rearrange himself” mid-conversation. The resulting Manichean struggle between this gaggle of Frasier Cranes and their own personal trailer-park boy underscores the former’s false conflation of material goods with meaningful ideals. Dirtbags don’t care about purchased personae—in their hands, statement sneakers and overpriced quinoa puffs “are transformed from emblems of consumer culture into precisely what they always were: the detritus of modern life, the trash and the soon-to-be trash,” as the Iona University English professor Dean Defino wrote in a critical analysis of Trailer Park Boys. Their indifference slices through the pretense that anything we buy qualifies as a moral code.

Perhaps the archetypal dirtbag is actually what the Australian author Wendy Syfret calls “the sunny nihilist,” in her 2021 book of the same name. If we decide that success, status, and productivity don’t really matter—that ultimately we’re about as valuable to the planet as a raccoon and as likely to leave a lasting mark—maybe we’re more able to “take pleasure in the random existence we were wildly lucky to be gifted at all,” Syfret writes.

Trailer Park Boys’ creator, Mike Clattenburg, has said that the series isn’t intended to make fun of its characters but is “about the people playing the cards they’re dealt.” Our cards right now don’t look great: We’re living in a time of crisis, amid a pervasive feeling that everything’s getting stupider and sadder. This is a moment to reevaluate what we want to prioritize—even if, like the characters of Trailer Park Boys, it mostly boils down to spending more time goofing off with friends. We may not all wish to opt out of society and shotgun Miller Lites while blasting Megadeth. But we can still define fulfillment for ourselves. This, ultimately, is the wisdom of the dirtbag.