Soraya Roberts | Longreads | July 2019 | 7 minutes ( 1,978 words)
“The sickness rolled through me in great waves.” Whenever I’m sick, I read The Bell Jar. I know, ironic, but there’s a chapter where Sylvia Plath describes her central character having food poisoning and it always makes me feel better — her ability to capture how urgent it feels, how relentless, how it reduces you to a vehicle for vomit and diarrhea. How cleansed you are afterwards just for you to do it all over again, eventually. It’s comforting that someone writing two decades before I was even born not only experienced this exact feeling, but could reproduce it so clearly. “There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
Nostalgia is a kind of vomiting. It’s not like you re-watch your favorite parts of Heathers because bile compels you to. But there’s the same idea of deconstructed repetition, although in nostalgia’s case, it’s so you can climb back into your memories, where you can lock yourself into a space untroubled by reality. It’s a thing that keeps coming up (sorry) because of how we manufacture culture now — not just online but in a world owned by big media. There has always been significant reworking of past cultures, but I don’t think popular culture was ever the commodity it is now, where Mickey Mouse isn’t just a drawing but an intellectual property (IP). At no other time has mainstream culture felt like such an opiate, so tied to appealing to mass comfort. Out of this comes the new season of the bingeable Netflix series Stranger Things, which is less its own story than a collection of its creators’ pop culture memories; Disney churns out live-action remakes of every one of its films until the elephants come home; and then there are the countless stories in the press celebrating the anniversaries of every movie/show/album ever made.
I guess you can’t really blame anyone for wanting to keep puking up the past when the present is so insufferable. Except anyone is not everyone, and the relief is a ruse.
“Usually after a good puke you feel better right away,” Plath wrote. And, yes, I was excited to watch the third season of Stranger Things. After getting past five whole minutes of some eye-glazing Russian backstory, I was rewarded with a teen girl with super powers making out with the boy who loves her to the strains of Corey Hart’s “Never Surrender” (1985). Then came the super-hot-despite-the-mullet-and-pornstache jerk lifeguard strutting shirtless and glistening past a row of salivating housewives to The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” (1978). But the apex of the season was a montage of the teen girl from that first scene and her best friend modeling colorful clothes to Madonna’s “Material Girl” (1985; apparently this season had a “healthy” music budget). Unfortunately, that only happens in episode two. As the season keeps going and the references start piling up — Back to the Future, Die Hard, The Thing, The Neverending Story, Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Aliens, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, WarGames, Stand by Me, The Goonies, Evil Dead, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Jurassic Park — they become less charming and more eye-rolling to the point of sudden exhaustion, as if someone made you look through every snapshot from your childhood at warp speed.
Nostalgia was Stranger Things’ selling point from the start. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer pitched the series to Netflix with a pocket full of references. “We took an old Stephen King book cover and had a lot of images from the movies that inspired us,” Ross told The Guardian in 2017. “We also made a fake trailer, where we took 30-something clips from movies.” More recently, the show’s producer, Dan Cohen, has been very clear that “the legacy of Spielberg’s filmmaking is always coursing through the veins of Stranger Things.” Spielberg, of course, established event cinema as we know it in 1975 with the release of Jaws, which would eventually lead to the land of IP. In general, intellectual property is any creative content that can be copyrighted, but in the current climate it’s usually synonymous with a pre-existing brand — see any old Disney movie — that acts as a near-guaranteed pay day, as opposed to the risk of an original idea. The IP is a sure thing, less a piece of art than a product for sale.
“We thought we would appeal to people like us who grew up on this kind of storytelling,” Ross said. “We were just harking back to the classics.” The sheer volume of references in Stranger Things has become something of a joke online, a soft spot for the people behind it, who believe focusing on its allusions is reductive (this season’s repeated denunciations of consumerism suggest some very hurt feelings). And, of course, much of filmmaking and television making is steeped in homage — every artist builds on the work that came before. But there’s a difference between the productive purging of William Shakespeare and even Walt Disney, who digested the work of their predecessors in order to produce something novel, and Disney Inc. and Netflix upchucking the past to sate our basest nostalgic instincts.
Disney doesn’t even pretend to do anything more than that. The company that forced me to learn the term “IP” just earned a global $923 million to date from its live-action Aladdin remake (the one with supermodel Jafar), premiered its live-action (fact-checker: “Those aren’t real lions”) remake of The Lion King to raves over its visual majesty, and just released a trailer of its live-action remake of Mulan. There are over a dozen more where those came from, including The Little Mermaid, which prompted a minor furor when it was announced that Disney had cast black singer Halle Bailey (of Chloe x Halle) as Ariel — the company responded after the bot-fueled hashtag #notmyariel started trending — although that seemed to be less the point than why The Little Mermaid was being remade at all. Hiring Bailey for the lead is certainly a win for representation on screen, but it still fits neatly into a larger white legacy framework that remains in place. Its merger with 21st Century Fox complete, Disney now owns 35 percent of the domestic movie market, and its reliance on cannibalizing its own vaults perpetuates the overrepresentation of white culture (regardless of how much Disney corrects these stories’ historical blind spots). In Indiewire, Tambay Obenson argued that colorblind casting has the effect of, “sidelining and even erasing black history and culture, specifically black folklore and fairy tales,” and offered up a number of alternatives, including African legends, characters, authors.
But black folktales are not established IP (although Black Panther certainly was, which is no doubt a big part of why Disney supported it). Lady and the Tramp, even Mulan, even Pocahontas, no matter how problematic, resonated strongly with a particular contingent of my generation. And, as Drew Taylor noted two years ago in a Vulture piece on Disney’s live-action remake boom, adults like me, who as kids had an attachment to films like The Little Mermaid, are having our nostalgia centers directly targeted. “One pretty esteemed filmmaker we work with said using IP is a better art of war,” Disney’s President of Production Sean Bailey told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “You take the high ground, rather than fight up the hill.”
Since when are we using military metaphors to refer to entertainment? Not only is it incredibly icky to have your childhood memories ransacked and resold back to you as spoils of war by a huge company for profits, it is incredibly unimaginative, not to mention myopic. These are my memories, sure, but not necessarily everyone’s. As Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.”
That’s how they get you, by making it personal. This is the commodification of nostalgia, of universalizing and monetizing something that should be individual, a piece of each of us that should not be sold at all, let alone sold back to us. Which is not to say that art can’t be nostalgic. GLOW, the fictional Netflix series based on a real women’s wrestling league from the ’80s, uses the past as a backdrop, but goes deeper to explore identity. Even Into the Spiderverse, yet another superhero movie, rattles those shackles so hard with animation so revolutionary and a story so fresh that they almost break. As opposed to Yesterday, a wafer-thin excuse for boomers to come together for a ticket to ride (sorry, but it is that cheesy). Or any number of recent musicals — Waitress, Flashdance, Jagged Little Pill — lifted from previous successes in a bid to bleed those successes a little drier.
Part of this all-encompassing déjà vu is the hegemony of mass media entertainment companies, which because of their very size can force audiences into a collective profitable nostalgia. Part of it is the press, which is so financially precarious it ends up at the behest of these hegemonies, recirculating their wares in the form of countless anniversary pieces. Part of it is the pull of nostalgia,which in these end days is so welcome we don’t care if we’re being sold out as long as our longing for the innocence of youth is appeased (this impulse is so powerful it can get a studio to change the look of Sonic the Hedgehog, instead of dumping it entirely). Everyone kind of knows that this blinder nostalgia is a distraction, but it staves off loneliness and anxiety and what’s wrong with using it to form a comforting sense of community even if it’s only digital? “The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse,” wrote Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang in The New York Times last week. What’s wrong is you can’t see what’s actually around you if you are always looking back.
“I felt purged and holy and ready for a new life,” says The Bell Jar’s heroine, who just puked her guts out. Sylvia Plath knew that vomiting felt good, but she also knew that something had to come afterwards. Something new. All of the reappraisal mentioned above supplants new appraisals. Continual recollection is a sort of contraction into ourselves. As we rifle through our own pasts indefinitely, the present continues to unfurl without us. And as attractive as that sounds at this particular juncture in history, it is not so useful for improving the future. All of those superheroes we love would be the first to tell us that to save the world we have to face it first. Not just politicians, all of us — artists and audiences alike. “At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages — well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box,” wrote Berry and Yang. “The spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated.”
There has been a little progress. Director Theodore Witcher, who made 1997’s Love Jones (“the holy grail” of black romcoms), recently told the Times that his career stalled after that, “because instead of retrenching and trying to do something similar, I tried to push further.” In 2019, however, Dope director Rick Famuyiwa gets to produce an original live-action Disney (I know) fairy tale about an African princess named Sadé. In a fairy tale world, we wouldn’t have to keep making fairy tales because Disney wouldn’t be allowed to dominate almost half the movie market, but at least this isn’t a live-action color-blind Snow White. At least this memory will be new. The trick is not to get lost in this one.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.