It’s a surprise to a lot of folks when I say that I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Burton. I don’t dislike him as a director but I think most of his film jaunts are mostly style over substance. I think Nightmare Before Christmas is fine but as someone who worked in a Hot Topic, I find it intensely overrated. And don’t get me started on his current run with the Alice in Wonderland franchise…but on a whole, I don’t think he’s bad or good. He’s perfectly serviceable and I understand that to the niche he proudly represents: his work is important.
That changed however, when I first saw Sweeney Todd. This movie came out when I was in high school and at peak edgelord. And really, at first the movie was way too violent for me. But in my later years, I’ve come to appreciate the soundtrack, the visuals and more. But this movie does have flaws and not just the lead actor (we’ll get to that…) but despite all of those flaws, here are the reasons I still love Sweeney Todd.
As a musical, Sweeney Todd has a tone problem. The musical centers around the eponymous Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker and known barber) and his return back to vaguely Victorian London. Todd is a barber and was sent away by the evil Judge Turpin so the bad bad judge could seize Mr. Todd’s wife and family. Todd returns to find an odd woman living in his house and occupying his shop that he used to own. Her name is Mrs. Lovett and she’s a strange lady with poor cooking skills who despite those factors, still owns a pie shop. Together they devise a long-con plan to murder Judge Turpin after Mr. Todd discovers in his time away that Turpin had his wife killed and is holding his daughter hostage. Murder adventures ensure and the musical ends in a bloodbath of gore, puns and pie.
Most of the stage productions before the Burton version have a difficult problem of balancing the humor written into the screenplay and the immense gore that comes with a blood-thirsty barber and his pie-making lady friend. And oftentimes the stage show ends up choosing humor over drama and that’s difficult to handle a joke about a woman’s bust comes after an intensely bloody scene.
The movie does a better job of handling that. Burton’s distinct style manages the dark themes of a murder-barber. The movie is dark, brooding, mechanical and maze-like in its depiction of London. The overbearing score feels more at home in the dank, twisted London of a Burton movie.
The casting of the film is full of Burton standbys and they are all perfect in the film. Helena Bonham Carter is compelling, dead-eyed and brilliant. Alan Rickman, the treasure he was, is just fantastic and…well, let’s jump this shark early.
Johnny Depp is a garbage human. He’s a horrible human being and not just for the allegations (which I believe) that have surfaced. He’s a lazy actor now and what I assume is the human embodiment of Hollywood excess. We now have a difficult media environment where the sins of the past affect the things we loved now. We all have tough choices to make regarding the properties we love. And truthfully, I struggle with this as I struggle with many other beloved properties. And I respect anyone who is uncomfortable with me even mentioning Depp as a human person.
That unfortunately does not take away all of the things I loved about his performance in this film. He’s apathetic, listless and dammit almost asexual. Some of my favorite parts are the fact that he seems to be almost entirely disinterested in Carter. Depp plays Todd as a man still wholly devoted to his wife and thus is almost put off by Mrs. Lovett.
In By the Sea, you get to witness a man who is broken but has to admit he somewhat owes the woman he is attached to. You see a mad, obsessive woman in love and a man who realistically would rather be anywhere else but with her.
And he is half of one of my favorite scene studies of all time. Pretty Women is a delicate dance of rising tension, intense chemistry between two actors and in each escalating moment of tension, you feel as though you are in the room with Depp and Rickman.
They both disappear into the role and end up providing form to a song that is sometimes played for laughs. If you ever want to study how to properly film or depict tension: this scene, over and over again.
Speaking of chemistry, Depp’s relationship with Carter in the film is fascinating to me. It’s the most platonic I’ve seen in a depiction of Sweeney Todd. We see a mostly one-sided obsession and a broken man who is willing to appease the woman who is abundantly wanting to give him the time of day. And in the moments where there is more tension are wonderful.
A Little Priest is blocked, framed and shot beautifully and paced wonderfully. And I love that, if there is any relationship between Todd and Lovett, that it’s platonic. They have a respect for each other, even if it’s a twisted one.
Aside from Depp, this film does have other issues. It’s way too long for a movie. As a musical, with breaks,the length is perfectly fine. As a movie, it’s a bit of a slog that gets weighed down around the middle. You’ll notice I’ve ignored literally half the cast because Johanna is a wet dishrag. She is most of the versions of the musical but the movie makes it even worse. Her little boyfriend is also a wet dishrag and I can’t stand him. Sasha Baron Cohen irked me in this movie even though he wasn’t in the film for long. He’s fine for the role but I was not at all sad when a horrible death befell him. Additionally, the movie is gory as hell. While stage show versions vary depending on the actor and producer and director, the movie version earns its R-rating. I’ve seen less blood in Gladiator.
And the movie, due to its desire to be more serious, also have a serious framing problem. I’m a cosplayer. I see tons of folks saying that Todd and Lovett are Harley Quinn and Joker-like “relationship goals” and that’s troubling. During the musical, most adaptations play more with humor so their outrageous behavior made it easier to see them as foppish and silly albeit terrifying serial killers. The movie plays their arc as dead serious and important and almost romantic and people flock to that. And that’s scary. There’s a certain easy to relate to nihilism that oozes from A Little Priest and No Place Like London. Many of us have felt like this. Many of us have felt like we are owed something because the world is cruel but that just isn’t the case. But that’s not how reality works and many, (younger me included) romanticize Sweeney Todd as a tragic Jesus-like figure rather than the murderer he is. Yes, tragedy befell him. That does not give him the right to seek vigilante murder-justice out on the streets of London yet along to let his partner-close friend turn folks into pies. Forcing cannibalism on people is not a fair penance for an unfortunate circumstance.
Now, before we get too lost, I don’t want to ignore Burton’s distinct…style, let’s call it. Normally all those things play against him. He’s a surprisingly safe director. Hence why he sticks with the same trio of actors in almost every movie and almost the exact same themes. But here, as mentioned before, it does work. A cast very comfortable with their roles, so comfortable in fact, that many of them have been playing the same role now for years.
Sweeney Todd as a movie ages better for some more than others. For me, the movie aged better as I grew older and could more easily respect the themes. Those themes include ones that I find interesting in other beloved pieces of media. The film also features humans that are flawed but there is occasionally light in a person even after they have dealt with the slings and arrows that are a flawed past. And the most important lesson, horrible people are not to be rewarded. There is no redemption for Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett or Judge Turpin. They all die. They all earn their horrible deaths. There is no romance at the end. And that particular nihilism, vengeance and darkness may just be what makes the film so great.
There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised. It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?
And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.
Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.
And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.
But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”
Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.
Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.
How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.
Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.
Cheris Kramarae, and Paula Treichler
Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Lilith, the list goes on and on. This list is the list of women in history that have been vilified for their use of sexuality and in some cases even demonized. This negative social construct towards women in power and embrace their sexuality has been a trend that has been documented since issues between men and women first began in the history of literature. The poem “Christabel” written by Samuel Coleridge exemplifies this concept with the distinct contrast of the virginal Christabel and the seductress Geraldine. What about power and sexuality portrayed by a woman makes it so inherently evil?
Feminism at its core “advocates equal rights for all women (indeed, all peoples) in all areas of life: socially, politically, professionally, personally, economically, aesthetically, and psychologically.” (Bressler 144). Feminism is also concerned with removing patriarchal or male influence from various works. Since a man can never understand a woman or a woman’s struggle, how can be properly right about women or women’s issues? It is this concern with l’ecriture feminine, or “creation of a female language” (Bressler 160) that states that this is where the negative female archetypes stem from. It is the patriarchy that is responsible for the vilification of females and female sexuality.
“Christabel” is a poem written by Samuel Coleridge about a young girl named Christabel who comes across a woman in the woods and invites the woman in thinking that the woman is merely injured and lost. This woman is Geraldine. Geraldine is at first seen as weak and helpless but proves to be a dynamic force of sexuality and evil. Geraldine is most likely a lamia or succubus. A succubus is a “lascivious she-demon… She copulated with men in their dreams, and sucked out the essence of their souls(semen). Nocturnal emissions were always attributed to the attentions of she-demons who ‘cause men to dream of erotic encounters with women, so the succubae can receive their emissions and make therefrom a new spirit’” (Walters 960 ). While Christabel throughout the poem is called “sweet”, “lovely lady” and even in one line the writer evokes to “shield sweet Christabel!” (Coleridge 88). Geraldine’s intentions are seen quite early on her evil nature is described line after line “And Christabel saw the lady’ eye, and nothing else saw she thereby…” (Coleridge 86) and that when Geraldine’s entered the house, the dog barked, the fence shook and candles went out, all signs of evil entering a home. Evil also must be invited; this rule applies not just to vampires but to lamia and succubae as well.
This was the first clue to most readers of the work that Geraldine was not who she seemed. And whilst in the midst her of pure seduction and subsequent destruction over the house Geraldine even finds time to seduce Christabel “’In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell, which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel! Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow, this mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow…” (Coleridge 89). The other key clue was when the bard told the king of his dream involving the serpent and the dove, two classic symbols of the dichotomy between good and evil “’And in my dream methought I went to search out what might there be found; and what the sweet bird’s trouble meant…when lo! I saw a bright green snake coiled around its wings and neck. Green as herbs on which it crouched…” (Coleridge 96). Green is a colour naturally used to depict vile and wicked things. Witches often have green skin, green snakes are often thought to be the most poisonous. While doves, pure and white are seen as innocent and peaceful. Contrastingly doves are seen as naïve and snakes as knowledgeable in forbidden ways. Similarly snakes are associated with male sexual energy and male sexuality. Often times females in a position of power are depicted as very masculine or having masculine traits. Doves are seen as mostly innocent no sexual connotation to them. That is another trait of woman is that innocent that is meant to remain intact for the rest of their lives.
Now, why does Geraldine, a strong and powerful force on her own need to be evil? Why does her use of sexuality to gain power seen as so negative? The negative female archetypes have existed since writing began: the femme fatale, the seductress, the witch, the cause of man’s downfall. But it was not always this way. In Ancient Roman and Greek mythology, priestesses are seen as strong and independent forces, goddesses are often just as strong or even in some cases stronger than their male counterparts. This strong feminine character is embraced and even worshiped in some cults and cultures. So this is not an entirely Western concept, it would appear to be more of a social construct. Certain groups and societies demonize female power and sexuality.
Geraldine’s evil nature cannot simply be a plot device; it cannot simply be that she was meant to foil the virginal Christabel. It is then possible that her evil was driven as a product of male writers who don’t know anything more than just that pluralistic view of the female. Society has shown us that apparently the only sides to women are the pure-hearted virgin or the crazed evil sex fiend. History has given us examples of both, the pure women that are strong and able to stand on their own like Eleanor Roosevelt or Queen Victoria. There are others that embraced their sexuality and used it to full advantage and are often demonized for it, such as Lilith and Agrippina. This is why it is possible that the polarization of the feminine is there. History has given us examples on to what can be seen as either extreme.
This story reminded me in more way than one the story of Adam’s first wife Lilith. The Kabala teaches of a first wife of Adam and her legend seems to shed light to the root of the demonization of female power and sexuality Adam’s first wife was a relic of an early rabbinical attempt to assimilate the Sumero-Babylonian Goddes Belil-ili, or Belili, to Jewish mythology. To the Canaanites, Lilith was Baalat, the ‘Divine Lady.’ Hebraic tradition said Adam married Lilith because he grew tired of coupling with beasts, a common custom of Middle-Eastern herdsmen…Adam tried to force Lilith to lie beneath him in the ‘missionary position’ favored by male-dominant societies…Lilith sneered at Adam’s sexual crudity, cursed him, and flew away to make her home by the Red Sea” (Walters 541-2 ) Even in different cultures Lilith is not seen as a negative force but a woman who simple was strong and worthy of worship.
It was not until the writers of the Bible came about that the story was turned into one of degradation and disobedience. She simply wanted to be sexually equal to her husband and then was banished for demanding equality. She then found equality in the one place a woman could and that was at the time in the occult. Lilith found power with demons and went on to spread her legacy elsewhere.
Now the modern woman does not have to be concerned with having to sell her soul to demons because her mate wants to be on top but the idea hasn’t faded from modern vernacular. Women who are strong are vilified; they are put down and degraded. They are more likely to remain single or retreat to the comfort of other women in relationships to seek equality and understanding in a society that preaches equality but shudders away at a display of strength.
This dichotomy hasn’t vanished, and the worst part is that it may never vanish. We are not entirely sure why is happens. Why some cultures praise women and others stand to keep them down. We are not sure why some feminine traits are glorified and others feared. The cult of the sacred feminine isn’t dead, it has merely been repressed. Feminism’s main goal is to achieve equality for women in all respects and regards and the concern for the modern feminist is to now work at re-achieving that sexual liberation and equality we were able to gain in the 1960s.
It would be letting male writers get off to easily to simply chalk this all up to social construct. Perhaps it comes down to men’s own inability to understand the complexities of the feminine thus promoting the concept of the women’s writing. Perhaps only a woman can write about women’s issues and about women in general. Men cannot possible understand how we so delicately on the razor’s edge the average woman can balance sensuality, power and intelligence. What it comes down to is that no one can fully understand a woman’s whiles and it isn’t our place to assume that such delicate balancing acts are meant to be delegated to the realm of evil. Nor does that mean women are supposed to be innocent little virginal beings that feel nothing stronger than immense joy and utter despondency due to the absence of a male partner or male figure. When we find the answer it well may change how writers address women in works or just well leave writing about women to women authors. The key is that the lesson we learn from the dichotomy of the ‘wicked’ Geraldine and the innocent Christabel in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” shows that male writers throughout history have had difficulty playing the fine line between strong women and evil succubus-like individuals. This balance can only be achieved through time and knowledge on both sides, men learning that feminine charm doesn’t have to be evil and women learning that men’s ignorance towards understanding our complex nature is not as easy to explain as we think.
Appelbaum, Stanley. English Romantic Poetry: an Anthology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996. Print.
Bressler, Charles E. . Literary Criticism. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.
Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco, 1986. Print.
In 2013, I posted a blog post. I had redone an old WordPress blog that I had started with a friend and took it over as just my own. After that I just sort of ran with it. Those early blog posts were hot garbage and well, to be honest, I wish I could go back and redo them.
In 2014, my life radically changed and my humble little blog followed me through the changes in my life.
2015 was a rollercoaster.
2016 I hit my stride and went on another rollercoaster ride.
2017 was a hell of a dumpster fire.
And now, we are here. 2018. We’re still here. I’m still here. We are still here together.
Thank you all for being here. Thank you for helping me find my voice. Thank you for giving me a platform to share my thoughts, opinions and more. Thank you for challenging me and making me rethink old views.
I’ll continue to post more things that start more conversations. I’ll keep on writing.
I have the benefit of following several artists on Tumblr and Twitter and while social media is an excellent way for artists and creators to connect with their audiences: is the direct contact really helpful for all of us?
I’ve touched on this topic before but it hasn’t left my mind. Because of the illusions of closeness that social media can provide, many creators that I support and follow tend to be very candid on their social feeds. Many have expressed suicidal ideation, hateful messages, unfiltered rants and have flat out attacked their readers.
Let’s take a step back.
This is by no means something that just afflicts webcomic creators: I’ll take umbrage with an author whose work I love but who I can no longer stand: Jo Rowling. I love Harry Potter but Rowling’s overinvolvement with the fan community utterly exhausts me. While she could be spending her time recasting Johnny Depp or writing the damn Marauders movie I’ve been asking for. But she’s much more content to comment on fan theories, correct pronunciations on spells and micromanage what fans have been doing with her work for the last decade. Not to say she’s done a lot of good. She’s very supportive of cosplayers of color and queer fans but her input is not needed in the Wizarding World until she pens another great novel.
Here where I will pause for those in the back hooting about author’s intent.
Let’s pick up there. I’m in the camp that would rather separate the author from the work. While it is nice to get trivia and information from a still-living author, often times it ruins interpretations individuals make. Rowling doubling down on Harry and Ginny while also reminding us how miserable the Weasley marriage is doesn’t do anything for the fans who have been saying that Harry ended up with the wrong girl. Think of the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion who will swear up and down that he designed all of the things that make his series great because they simply “looked cool”. I’d love to know how he thinks because I rarely think of the Kabbalah or the different types of angels when working on a hip, fun fighting robots show.
The Death of the Author is not a new phenomena and is a helpful way to study the work and think of some of the influences but allows greater freedom to discuss any body of work. This is helpful from Kubrick films (considering that he was a bit of a monster) to fantasy novels. Now, there are times where you cannot separate the artist from the art. It is nearly impossible to remove Orson Scott Card from Ender’s Game and that did affect their box office numbers when the beloved movie became a feature length film. It’s almost impossible to remove Tolkien from Lord of the Rings for better or worse. It is almost impossible to remove Johnny Depp from his current controversy.
And sometimes keeping the corpus and the creator together is okay. It’s nice to hear Stephen King rant about how much he hates The Shining and how many times he and Kubrick argued over the film.
Let’s get back to the crux of my concerns: webcomic artists specifically have really taken off in this new era of social media and self-publishing. Most of the time, this is great. I love being able to connect and share my enthusiasm for something that I love with the person who made it. Some of my best convention memories have come from meeting comic artists that I love. I love having my ships confirmed, my theories heard and even being acknowledged for literally wanting to cosplay most of the comics that I read. (Saint for Rent and Devil’s Candy are high on that list, all else will have to wait.)
And others have taken their platforms to correct simple errors in gendering characters or assuming where pairings go. Not to say that fans are innocent in this. Some are downright rude, nasty and condescending. The artist always knows best and challenging a creator is almost never the way to go. But that doesn’t mean that well-intending folks are to be barked now. Well-intending is a subjective term and it is up to each individual, it isn’t always the best PR move to fuss at people. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’m so selective with where I post and where I am active. I can be defensive just like the best of us so I’m careful with where I post and where I am opinionated. You’ve heard me mention before my issues with Sister Claire and how they’ve been handling criticism since the plot has seemed to fly away with all of my hopes and dreams.
How much an artist owes their audience is perpetually up to the person. Some have patrons whose word is law. Others value input from all and even more see art as a purely selfish endeavor and post and do as they wish. I’m in favor of the middle path, as always, patrons and those who pay are important but one need never forget the countless folks who support them silently just through being there.
This extends to when artists have…let’s be kind and call them ‘meltdowns’ online. Many have expressed thoughts of self-harm, candid conversations about addiction and personal confessions about mental illness. And while I appreciate the frank nature of such discussions, it’s almost frustrating and almost always heartbreaking to watch. I like I’m sure so many readers do, feel connected to these creators. As I hope you, dear reader, are connected to me in some way. It leads to questions about what readers owe creators and what responsibility audiences have to performers. Should I encourage an artist when they say they feel worthless? Do I correct someone else in the comments when they misgender a character? Do I defend a troublesome old tweet? What does an fan owe a creator? And does a creator owe their fans anything?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions: let’s bring this conversation down into the comments.
I started a RedBubble store!
Check it out for designs, stickers, t-shirts and more: including a special Juneteenth design!
I was born in the glorious 90s. And because of that, I am nostalgic for the late 90s and the early to mid 2000s. And while I’ve talked before about how important being a 90s kid is to me, I wanted to talk about the generational divide and why it’s strange being stuck in a nostalgia-loop.
From television, to movies to music: it seems like we’ve been stuck in a perpetual loop that glorifies the 1980s and 1990s. And that makes sense: many of the media creatives that are major producers now were born in the 1980s: it would make sense for them to want to look back to a simpler time that meant a lot to them.
There’s this thing called a nostalgia cycle: it’s a funny sort of thing. It essentially states that the media that is popular reflects an era that’s either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from the current year. Think of the 1990s being nostalgic for the 50s and 60s. And I’m far from the first essayist to comment on this nostalgia cycle but it’s worth mentioning because it does seem to be never-ending. But there’s one aspect of it that I think we’re missing when we talk about weaponized nostalgia: it’s been surprisingly forgetful of the past while claiming to be doing something new.
I’m writing this right before Black Panther hits theaters here in the U.S. and for many this is the first black-led superhero movie. [update: I did see Black Panther and the movie is out and successful!] To which, many and all comic book fans roll their eyes. Blade is hilariously underrated and fantastic and was a black-led superhero movie in the 1990s. Not to say that I am not excited about Black Panther nor do I hope to quell any of the hype any folks may have for this film: it is a big deal but it isn’t the first anything right now.
Similarly, almost all the music that is popular nowadays seems to sound just like music did when I was growing up. Lots of house beats, tons of 80s synth influence and way too many songs that never end and just repeat lyrics. Not to mention that fact that we have yet to seem to get rid of the girl/boy band.
I think I’m most struck by this because I have a younger cousin who stands in as the avatar straw-man of all the reasons 90s kids are at odds with Gen Z and why Baby Boomers must hate us damn millennials. When I was home for Christmas, I got to sit and watch the yearly ritual of him receiving hundreds of dollars in gifts because he is an only child like I am and thus is spoiled rotten as I was. This year, he received an outfit that I’m almost certain my elementary school classmates wore from the sunglasses to the dark khaki joggers and a very retro looking smartwatch: hell, I think it still had a calculator on it. And in a brief moment of time that was only the two of us: I could hear him reciting the lyrics to Good Morning, a song from Kanye West that I love and is now nearly 10 years old. Everything from the yuppie fashion to the questionable music choice made me think of myself when I was his age now almost 15 years ago.
I’m also very torn by how sanitized the narratives are for this new wave of nostalgia. Sure, the 90s and the 2000s were great but they weren’t perfect. We had racism, school shootings, terrorism, inequality and all the things we still have just with more Spice Girls and legitimate battles over which boy band was better. But if you look at Stranger Things, a love letter to the 1980s, you’d think the 80s was a magical time where nothing bad happened and racism wasn’t a thing and political correctness existed. But we’ve been bad about that for some time. I’m reminded of the Johnny Rocket’s franchise, which begs you to think of the 1950s as a time for sock hops and milkshakes and not Civil Rights battles and police brutality.
It’s especially troubling considering that we’ve taken nostalgia to it’s only logical place which is to make huge profits off it. F.Y.E. just had a huge promotion selling Reptar Bars, a part of my childhood from Rugrats that I always wanted to eat but never could: they also briefly sold Reptar Cereal and while the sale went over great: it did seem out of place. I hadn’t given thought to Rugrats as a show for years: I’m pushing 30 and that was T.V. show I watched as literal child. There seems to be no end to the things that want to push anniversaries and the nearly endless stream of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and more that make it seem like all the things I knew as a child never really left.
If you asked me at 16 if I’d still be playing Pokemon, Street Fighter and still listening to Kanye West and The Killers while there would still be Star Wars movies: I would have first had a lot of questions about how time travel works and then probably say that such a thing wouldn’t make sense. One would assume that media would move on, one would assume that as technology progressed: we’d make progress and not just nicer versions of old things we loved. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was lovely getting a stylish Castlevania anime but I’d also love that energy placed into something new and original.
I’ve talked about nostalgia before when it comes to Pokemon: Sun/Moon and Pokemon: Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon and how its marketing and gameplay centered around the nostalgia of late 20-somethings like me who had been playing the games for all these years and understood and respected such callbacks. But is the game so enjoyable if you don’t know these references: my little cousin likely get through the game but he wouldn’t have the gut punch I did seeing Red and Gary show up like traveling boyfriends asking about this new Hawaii-like region. So why put them in there? If the average actual player of a Pokemon game isn’t likely to get that reference: why put it there? And that’s the issue with our current weaponized nostalgia. It isn’t done to teach, improve or just enjoy: it’s there because it’s there.
And the sad thing is: we keep buying into it. I’m not sure if you are aware but at least here in parts of the great old United States, things are a hot hot mess: we’re using media to escape our current realities more and more as we refuse to face the current situation of an orange-tinted warmonger in office and issues like racism, homophobia, violence and the threat of terrorism, war and natural disasters. And this isn’t new: we’ve been escaping reality for as long as we could through story, substance and more but at least when I was younger: all of this was new. When I was 12 and saw InuYasha for the first time, it was radically new and different. When I was 10 and arguing with friends over which Boy Band was the best: it was because music like that hadn’t been explored in such a way. When I was 9 playing Pokemon, no game like that had been crafted and distributed for American children. And that’s what this nostalgia cycle is leaving behind: sure, the 1990s were cool and the 2000s were the best: but what made them great was innovation: we didn’t stay stuck thinking of how cool the 1950s were. We did meditate on those things briefly while still continuing to move forward.