Times are tough right now. It’s hard not to feel beaten down by the relentless barrage of bad news and hopeless futures. During such periods, we can turn to pop culture for a fluffy distraction or look to the arts for the voices and opinions we desperately need. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible and indeed common for our popcorn fare to subvert and challenge audiences’ expectations. Right now, the work that seems the most popular with audiences is rooted in that most beloved and prickly of concepts: nostalgia. The pop culture landscape has become dominated by blasts from the past and echoes to the movies, books, television shows, and music that made us who we are. If you were an '80s or '90s kid, then these times are perfect for you.
Where to start?
There’s the wildfire success of the Star Wars revival, as well as Marvel’s dives into self-conscious nostalgia, such as Thor: Ragnarok’s giddy 1980s neo-aesthetic. Disney has spent decades turning nostalgic comfort into a fine art, but it’s the recent array of live-action remakes of animated classics that has seen the box-office numbers grow. Ready Player One is currently the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year. Stranger Things doesn’t just revel in the visuals of the 1980s, it revives the horror-adventure genre markers of Stephen King and Amblin, all to huge success. Gamers went wild for the elegantly executed remake of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, and they’re eagerly awaiting the same results with the upcoming Spyro Reignited. Bruno Mars’ entire career may as well be named “Thank You, Nostalgia!” Wonder Woman’s about to arrive in 1984, complete with Chris Pine in a fanny pack. Even the world of documentaries has taken viewers back to their childhoods, as the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? became a surprise smash hit at the box office. Nostalgia has always been a good way to appeal to audiences.
There is nothing like the comforting embrace of the rose-tinted past, when you were a kid and politics didn’t exist in your worldview because you were too busy watching Jem and the Holograms and asking your parents to take you to the Star Wars: A New Hope anniversary screening. It’s a return to an analog life, one without the internet and the often-smothering weight it carries. Obviously, it’s a lie to claim that things were easier or better back in the “good old days,” and that mindset is often used as an excuse to perpetuate bigoted ideas. Yet the concept at its most benign remains intoxicating: Wouldn’t we all like a return to when things were simpler and less terrifying?
If you’re a downtrodden millennial who grew up in a period of prosperity but now must survive as an adult during the slump, all while the older generations blame you for all the world’s ills, nostalgia can be a salve to our wounds. Dr. Tim Wildschut, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, told Grazia of the ways that nostalgia can be a force for good. "Our research indicates that nostalgia can have many positive effects: It increases a sense of social connectedness, it boosts self-esteem, it imbues life with meaning, it fosters a sense of continuity across time. These are all important psychological functions."
Nostalgia provides us with a chance to look inward and to more deeply understand the pop culture that made us who we are. There’s a thrill in looking back on the stories you devoured as a kid and being aware enough to understand how influenced you were by them. Nostalgia can subvert our ideas, but it can also reflect them back at us in shiny new ways that ease our sadness. It can show us a sanitized reality that is nonetheless a comfort to us, or it can refresh our worldviews by exposing the stuff we never saw the first time around.
Svetlana Boym put forward the notion of two driving forces of nostalgia: restorative and reflective. The former is defined by an urge to recapture what we remember as a simpler time, while the latter is more wistful for someone we know can never truly return. Restorative nostalgia, Boym noted, "returns and rebuilds one’s homeland with paranoid determination," while reflective nostalgia can be more ironic or knowingly silly, something restorative nostalgia shirks. "Nostalgia can be a poetic creation, an individual mechanism of survival, a countercultural practice, a poison, and a cure. It is up to us to take responsibility of our nostalgia and not let others 'prefabricate' it for us."
That idea can be tough to swallow when all you want is a fluffy reminder of easier times. This is why some people feel personally attacked when the markers of their nostalgic past are questioned or criticized. When you have tied so much of your personality and worth to, say, that cartoon you loved as a kid, it will inevitably be hard to move on when it’s remade for a new audience and you’re not part of that target demographic. Nostalgia is privilege; not all of us can look back on our childhoods and the time we grew up in with thoughts of ceaseless calm, especially if you didn’t grow up white, middle-class, or in a stable region. It may have seemed like that when you were young and didn’t watch the news, but that doesn’t mean the political turmoil, economic strife, or societal bigotry didn’t happen. The stability of nostalgia is all too often a myth, and the pop culture that created that bubble doesn’t always stand up to the test of time.
Primarily, we’re in an age of reflective nostalgia with our pop culture, but we’re also in a transformative time. It’s not enough for us to remake or revive these properties a few decades later. One cannot live on nostalgia alone, so we evolve. Disney remakes its classic animated films but updates the gender politics to fit modern tastes. She-Ra and the ThunderCats get makeovers for a new generation of kids. Remakes like Ghostbusters center women over the expected crowd of white dudes. Not only does this brand of nostalgia look different, but it’s being made by different people too, as women and people of color get the opportunities previously denied to them to tell the stories that shaped our past.
There’s no better example of this evolutionary nostalgia than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Following on from the more traditional and familiar structure of The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson smashed all expectations and forced the franchise into the future. It was still undeniably a Star Wars film, but one that challenged fans in their understanding of its iconic characters. Luke Skywalker was not the legendary Jedi of old, the heroes didn’t look like they did in the original films, the lines between good and bad had never been so blurred, and the toxic bombast of male heroes was cut down to size. This wasn’t the Star Wars of your past, and that upset a lot of people. Yet it was completely necessary. These stories, as with all pop culture, must look forward or risk falling into irrelevance. These properties are too interesting, too valued, and too loved to be allowed to fall into disrepair or become relics of a bygone age. The glow of nostalgia can co-exist alongside a hunger for change, and that’s fueling us more than ever. We want comfort, but we also want the next generations of kids to have something worth investing in.
Nostalgia should not cloister us from the world; it should open doors and inspire us to do what past generations did for us. Perhaps that’s the real salve of pop culture during our dark times. It inspires us to find the light and move forward, guiding those behind us.