We’ve watched Ducktales, Batman ‘66, we’ve read Mr. Men and Little Miss books before bed. We own The Great Mouse Detective and Mickey’s Christmas Carol. We laugh to Inspector Gadget. A pair of Ninja Turtle figures showed up at Christmas.
Wait a second. Is this my son’s childhood or my own?
Sometimes I feel guilty that it might be hard to tell, as like many parents, it becomes all-too easy to want to show your kids “the good stuff,” the stuff we grew up with, the stuff we loved, and hope that we can find or create a mutual interest to bond over, while at the same time, feeling the excitement and joy of when we first experienced it as kids. That reliving of our own youth alongside them is essentially nostalgia. Second-hand nostalgia that we pass down to our kids.
I didn’t just make that up. Honest. The concept of second-hand nostalgia is a real thing. Nostalgia scholar and author Dr. Ryan Lizardi writes about it in Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning, noting “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects.”
I’ve talked about it a lot, even if at the time I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing. But I’m guilty of it. Totally.
There’s an emotional connection to our past. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. And for many of us, those emotions, connected to different parts of our lives, are represented by the media we consumed at the time. When I was a teenager, Friends was the new, big thing on television. When I was in my mid-to-late twenties, How I Met Your Mother was just beginning to tell its tale of friends finding their place in the world through the lookback of a nostalgic narrator talking to us from the future. And as a kid? I had a pretty happy and carefree childhood, and so when I look back on the cartoons of the Disney Afternoon, or the sitcoms of TGIF, I look back with a smile, as it brings about the same happy and carefree feelings that went along with the times I was first watching.
Referring to KI Batcho’s 1998 research on Personal Nostalgia, Sergio Davalos, Altaf Merchant, Gregory M. Rose, Brenton Lessley, and Ankur M. Teredesai note upon the emotional connection to our media in their article The Good Old Days’: An examination of nostalgia in Facebook posts, saying “Batcho (1998) posits that nostalgia prone people have a high capacity for emotion, which increases the likelihood of experiencing both ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ emotions. Individuals in the high nostalgia group, moreover, were found to perceive the past as more favorable than those in the low nostalgia group (Batcho 1998).”
But it’s had me thinking a lot about what that means as my kids, or other kids whose parents may be handing-down their own nostalgia, grow up. If my childhood pop culture was dominated by Scrooge McDuck, Batman, Ghostbusters, what will theirs be made up of?
Whereas I look back nostalgically on these things, will they be growing up looking back nostalgically on pop culture that was handed down to them to begin with rather than their own, new experiences and media to attach to?
There is, at least so far, been a cycle to nostalgia, typically 40 years with a 20 year microcycle within it. By that, I mean that the producers of the media we consume are often around that age and the products they make find many of their roots in the time from which they were born or growing up.
In a 2012 The New Yorker article called The Forty-Year Itch, Adam Gopnik notes “Though pop culture is most often performed by the young, the directors and programmers and gatekeepers – the suits who control and create its conditions, who make the calls and choose the players – are, and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born. Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”
Sometimes, we get a 20 year microcycle when those same producers of media are creating products that remind them of their teen years/young adulthood. But it keeps the cycle going. It’s why we saw things like Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, American Graffiti, and so much of the 1950s in the 70s (20 year cycle), The Roaring 20’s and Winchester Cathedral in the 60s (40 year cycle), even nostalgia for the turn of the century in films like The Magnificent Ambersons and Take Me Out to the Ballgame by producers of the 1940s.
So, if we’re to look at the 20th century in terms of decade-chunks, each certainly had its moments of originality. It’s why we think of bell bottom jeans, disco, hippies, grunge when we associate with the 70s, 60s, and 90s respectively. But at the same time, living in that decade and producing within that decade were people nostalgic for something that had come before.
Still in the dawn of the 21st century, though, it almost feels like we’re constantly in a state of looking backward. And with the technology that we have at our fingertips it’s never been easier to constantly be re-living the past for whatever we become nostalgic for at any given time. If I want to watch You Can’t Take it With You or Cary Grant in Holiday, I’ll just pop in a DVD. If I want to try and recapture the feeling of laying on the floor of my childhood home, perhaps I get online and find an episode of Count Duckula or Danger Mouse.
Not that remakes are anything new. Heck, The Awful Truth, a 1937 film starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn was a remake of a 1922 silent film of the same name that was in itself a remake of a theatrical production. But there’s no doubt that we’re living in an era that’s often stuck on the past.
So if many of us (including the producers of media remakes and reboots) are so often looking backward, where does that leave the future? I have to wonder if it’s inevitable that we’re going to hit a point where the decades we look back on were a regurgitation of lookbacks/nostalgia for decades prior to that, versus being their own particular thing.
More importantly, technology has taken away (or at least made it start to fade) the cultural nostalgia we’ve had for the most part up to this point. It’s rare and will get rarer, I think, to have the moments of people clamoring around the series finale of M*A*S*H or spending all summer talking about Who Shot J.R Ewing.
Because when these cultural events happened, choices were much more limited. You went to the movies to see a film. You watched what was on the small number of channels on television. There was no home video market. That didn’t come along until the 1980s (I remember what a thrill it was when my parents, for a birthday party, rented a VCR and Mary Poppins for all us kids in attendance to watch). So many more people shared those media moments together, as a culture.
Today, though, we can hop on Amazon and order a DVD to be here in a matter of days. We can click on Netflix or Hulu, or Amazon Video and with a subscription watch films or TV shows from a back catalog that spans generations. Still not finding your cup of tea? Hop over to YouTube and check out a web series like the new ThirtyNothing and find a new personal favorite.
Our options are almost limitless. We’re no longer bound by just what the major media companies produce as in the past. So what we will become nostalgic for will vary so greatly from the larger, en masse nostalgia of yesteryear.
“Nostalgia used to depend on the denial of access to the subject, on its unreachable presence. Now there is an effective formula to encourage nostalgia,” writes Gil Bartholeyns in The Instant Past: Nostalgia and Digital Retro Photography.
I can’t help but think that technology has made the experiences so individualized now that nostalgia is going to start becoming increasingly less cultural and more individual going forward.
Brian Raferty asked a similar question recently in Wired talking about ‘00s Nostalgia Wave – It Might Be the last Revival, saying “Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in the same direction?…My guess is that future waves of nostalgia will focus less on specific pop-cultural explosions and more on the technologies that allowed them to spread. That’s partly because it’s never been easier to tune out the mass culture, making shared moments all the more rare.”
So where does that leave our kids and their childhood of second-generation nostalgia? I don’t know. Even if I were to curb their exposure through my own preferred cartoons, toys, etc, it’s still out there – in remade or rebooted, or sometimes just plain rerun form. What will they look back on when they wax nostalgic about the cartoons and films of their day?
It might be about the technology they watched it on, like how I remember the VHS/Mary Poppins rental above. They could be looking back at what might be considered quaint technology of streaming services where we watched Disney movies from before I was even born.
Or perhaps, for them, they’ll look back on the items they were fond of or associate with their childhood and not care where or when they came from, simply that they existed, and were there for them to enjoy.
I can pontificate forever. But I think, truly, only time will tell.
If you know me, or heck, if you’ve read past entries on this blog, you know how nostalgic I can get – longing for previous times, or pieces of culture from various parts of my life, or even before my time. I admittedly get that way about a lot of things – cartoons, films, video games, comic books, and TV shows.
One of the TV shows that has constantly beckoned with a nostalgic siren’s call to me has been the misadventures of an immigrant and his tightly-wound distant relative trying to integrate into each other’s lives in 1980s Chicago.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar, Perfect Strangers was an ABC sitcom that ran from 1986-1983 and was about a kind, wide-eyed man from a tiny Mediterranean island (the fictional Mypos) named Balki Bartokomous who came to America with his childlike innocence and wonder and found a far-distant cousin in Chicago – the uptight, jaded Larry Appleton. The Odd Couple-esque set up allowed for many comedic, fish out of water situations as Balki tries to acclimate to America (while embracing its culture to the hilt), while helping his Cousin Larry make it through life without his many neuroses doing him in.
It also had one of the most uplifting, 80s-esque theme songs of all time, which also in 90 seconds set up the show’s premise before an episode would even begin.
I hadn’t seen the show since it was originally on the air but in the past year or so began watching again thanks to the interwebs and the myriad of resources to find just about anything we remember from our past. I can’t even recall what brought me to rediscover it. Likely, it was a passing reference on social media that made me suddenly start remembering catching the show as part of the ABC TGIF lineup of family-friendly sitcoms “back in the day.” Upon some re-viewing, I still enjoy it.
For a show that itself is often remembered as a piece of pop culture, it had many references to already-existing pop culture at the time, through Balki’s overjoyed discoveries of Western pop culture. Balki was often singing songs from the radio’s top 40 of the day, or relishing in something as simple as cartoon character merchandising.
The show is filled with pop culture references of the day, the situations are often based in many of the classic comedic tropes throughout sitcom history or even as far back as vaudeville routines, but there is something about the madcap hijinks or the charming camaraderie of these two oddball characters and the performers bringing them to life.
Beyond that, though, I feel there’s a bit more to my nostalgic attachment on a more subconscious level.
For me, it’s somewhat of a touchstone/an association with the decade that I grew up in – the 1980s. Now hang with me as I’m going to get a little autoethnographic on you. What’s ethnographic? Good question. I only recently learned myself, but according to Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “when researchers do autoethnography, they retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”
I’m speaking as part of that culture, as someone who was born in 1980 and whose most influential and cherished years are from that decade and the 90s.
The 1980s. Pre-internet. Cassette tapes. No cell phones, no constant connections. From where I stand now with the day-to-day stress of having to constantly be available, rapidly respond, always connected to something, it all can seem pretty quieter. A nicer time, perhaps greater or simpler, even when awash in the neon glow of yuppies and mass-consumerism and excess that is often associated with the decade today.
But it wasn’t simpler. Or nicer. Or greater. At least not in a larger view with a wider perspective.
We were still in the midst of The Cold War. When I was in first and second grade at Seymour School, I remember us still undergoing the drills you see made fun of these days – crouching under a desk or going to the fallout shelter in the school’s basement in preparation for a catastrophic event.
A conversation with my mom about that time has led to remarks about the state of the economy, the cost of milk, and other anxieties that as a young parent were not as enjoyable as the carefree time that I so often subconsciously associated with the 1980s, and thus the media I consumed in that time, like Perfect Strangers.
Why is that?
Much of it comes because my recollections are shaded in rose-colored glasses because I was a child then. No need to go to work every day. No need to pay bills, to be responsible for others. My biggest responsibilities were to get up and go to school every morning, do my homework, and clean up after myself. Aside from that, what did I have to worry about, really? If i was going to play with Ninja Turtles, Legos, or super hero figures? If I’d catch Batman with Adam West and Burt Ward on WPIX or play a while longer and just watch Ducktales on Fox?
My point is that we are so prone to looking back at things and associating them with “the good times,” that our minds become clouded to the circumstances that made us think that way in the first place. Thus, the things we consumed or remember from those times become associated in our minds with the corresponding times we were exposed to them.
But those good times – they’re always going to look good when we take out the context of life in those moments. It’s why so many people look back on the 1950s as the perfect time, not because of the fear of atomic obliteration that came following Hiroshima. Not because of the domestic violence that bubbled quietly underneath the surface of smiling, surface-level-perfect families, or the loneliness and isolation that haunted those groups who didn’t work out of the house because of cultural norms. No, they were good times to those who were children at the time, living life with a more innocent view of the world around them, sans responsibility that would come later in life.
Perfect Strangers, through no action of its own, does just that. It opens a door inside my mind and memories to a period of life that seemed much more innocent, because at the time I first enjoyed it, I was.
And while it hasn’t yet found itself amid the string of rebooted/continuing sitcoms in the age of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video like shows such as Full House/Fuller House has, the entire concept does make me think forward to what shows/media my own kids will look back on wistfully decades from now when they reflect upon “the simpler times.” Will it be new shows originating during their childhood like Odd Squad, Wild Kratts or Ready, Jet Go? Or will it be shows that pre-dated their existence that were introduced to them from my generation and handed down (whether in original form or rebooted) in their childhood – like Inspector Gadget or DuckTales?
As Dr. Ryan Lizardi, author of Nostalgic Generations and Media: Perception of Time and Available Meaning puts it, “As older generations of people are encouraged to revisit media and products they loved as children by hyper-nostalgic media companies, through remakes, reimaginings, and re-releases, it leads to a reduction in available meanings for current and subsequent generations who are then all encouraged to attach to the same nostalgia-soaked objects…the cultural rise in nostalgic media has the dual generational impact of making the subjective experience of time speed up for those who are nostalgic, as well as create a surrogate nostalgic identity for younger generations by continually feeding them the content of their elders.”
Perhaps only time (and they, and the media culture existing as they grow) will tell.
Little by little over the past few months, we’ve been clearing out much of our home office, converting it into a hybrid office/nursery with the arrival of our newest addition. Packing books up, taking down wall art not quite suitable for a newborn, and taking the numerous boxes filled with comic books and packing them away in our basement.
Part of that process includes protecting them from the elements and time, so each comic is placed in a protective plastic with a flap taped on the back to keep moisture, dust and other undesirables out.
Here and there during a nap time, I’ll take a few minutes and go down to the basement and work a little more on bagging up the books and filing them away in a box, on a shelf, for posterity and safe keeping.
During a recent session of ‘archiving,’ though, I found myself swept away by the various memories associated with these books, accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and yet, carrying with them numerous lives, numerous versions of me, long gone.
With every piece of tape snapped, every comic bagged, boarded and slid away into a box, I realized so with it was a small piece of me. By that I mean it was like flipping through the pages of a yearbook unearthed after years in a box. Many of these books I hadn’t seen in decades. Music playing from Pandora as I worked (some Steve Winwood, some Asia, Phil Collins, all music I used to hear growing up in the 80s, often while I sat reading this comics originally), I was transported to the various parts of my life that coincided with each of these books.
Each one a representation in some weird way of who I was at any given time. Of what I was going through, feeling, of who I was, be it the kid sitting under his bedroom window at 13, wondering if the girls playing down the street were going to come knocking at the window; the 20 year old who, after several years away from them, started picking up comics again while away at college, finding comfort while away from home in things that re-connected me to my childhood, yet opened my eyes to storytelling, characters, and perspectives I had never quite known of (thank you, indie comics); the 24 year old, out of college, trying to find his place in the world, thriving on creating art in the form of low budget filmmaking, yet finding inspiration and solace in the full-color panels of the comic pages; or the 27 year old single journalist, coming home exhausted, wanting nothing more than to crash on the couch, casually grabbing a floppy comic book from the ever-growing reading pile on the end table as time started becoming more of a commodity.
Or today. Though the books are incredibly fewer than ever before, the reading piles still add up with the day-to-day responsibilities of a worker, a husband, a father, a homeowner. They’re still there, though. Connecting the me of today with all the mes of the past.
I have been so many different people in my lifetime already. A son. A brother. A friend. A student. A newspaper delivery boy. A restaurant host. An actor. A library aide. A coffee barista. A film projectionist. An indie filmmaker. A newspaper reporter. A comic book writer. A news anchor. And a father.
Sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile all of those identities into one being today, the same yet different in so many ways.
This is not necessarily a negative thing. What it is, I think, is a reminder.
We grow, we change, we learn from our experiences and transform into a new being made up of and shaped by the lessons, mistakes, and thoughts of our past. We shake away the being we are unhappy with, even in the smallest of increments, on a never-ending journey to transform, to become better. In effect, the old us dies and is reborn as something new, molded by our experiences.
We all have our own “comics,” our own items carried with us throughout our lives that carry with them the remnants of our own past. And when we occasionally uncover them, it’s like an archaeological dig to rediscover when we were, where we were, who we were, and most importantly, who we’ve become.