The Opaque Lens of Nostalgia

We tend to think fondly of the content we enjoyed as a child. I remember when my dad introduced the movie Cat Ballou to my sister and me. He touted it as the funniest movie ever, falsely predicting that we would laugh and laugh. Instead, in full teen fashion, we rolled our eyes at the corny jokes and struggled to stay awake. Yet a generation later, I’ve had similar experiences with my own kids. Sometimes they like the older films and shows that I’m excited to show them. Back to the Future, Freaky Friday, and Sister Sister were all hits. However, we also have the “groan” moments. Case in point, my children found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boring, thought Karate Kid had too much romance, and snoozed during the dialogue of Sound of Music.

The recent criticism over reducing hurtful messages of older cultural products brings up questions of this nostalgic drape that clouds our perceptions of the things we loved as children. Of course, I am not advocating that we keep playing Dumbo and Song of the South for new generations. Rather, I am wondering if the opposition to changing products of the past stems from an emotional attachment to products that brought us joy in our younger years.

If this is the case, how can we inject a critical lens into the protected space of nostalgia?

Assuming that those attached to these distorted views want to change, how could this be accomplished? First, we need nostalgic people to take a step back, aiming to more objectively looking at the pop culture products that they treasure from their childhood. If they were initially introduced to these products now, what would they think of [insert specific scene, character, song, or storyline]? What could be problematic if that message were repeated and repeated, with few contrasting messages? How would people feel if they were part of that group? If nostalgic person was a part of that group? These kinds of questions help get at the roots of stereotyping and perspective.

Next, we address why we can’t keep introducing these products to new generations. Children have little awareness of a product’s original cultural moment, its contextualization. All they see and experience is the toy/book/show/film as if it were just created for them. As such, these products shape the world views of children, including the reinforcement of stereotypes, conveying broad, skewed negative generalizations. As parents/teachers/adults/consumers/humans, it is our job to present a diverse array of content that encourages unlimited ways of understanding roles, relationships, family dynamics, and intersectionality. Pigeon-holing any group for children narrows perspectives on what they can be and can’t be. Not to mention the most obviously glaring issue: The insensitivity of perpetuating stereotypes of marginalized groups for children, who are either part of those groups or future friends, family members, coworkers, and fellow humans.

Lastly, I’ll state what is already apparent to everyone who openly agrees that Song of the South should be kept in the vault or that no one should rewatch the “Censored 11” racist cartoons, full of black face and anti-Japanese imagery. Toys and media content that is racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic have no place in society. They never have. It’s not “cancel culture” to eliminate toxic cultural products any more than it is to tear down buildings with asbestos. Neither have a place in society and it takes a lot of work to clean up what is left behind. In other words, if you are currently mourning the erasure of Speedy Gonzales, buck up and reevaluate your own attachment. Shift your nostalgic lens to your own personal sentimental objects and be thankful that contemporary audiences won’t have to explain the chromosomes of Mr. Potato Head. (Or just watch Amber Ruffin’s satire on vegetable gender identity, 48 seconds in).

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