There’s nothing that 80’s/90’s kids love more than talking about how unequivocally great the 80’s/90’s were. I wholeheartedly include myself in this sentiment.
It doesn’t take much to spark the toasty flame of sweet, sweet nostalgia – an old TLC track, a picture of that hideous Dream Phone, the far away crinkling of a geo-patterned windbreaker – and before you know it, you’re listing every cartoon that ever grazed your television as a child, whether you genuinely enjoyed it at the time or not. The subject often shifts fluidly from cartoons to films and sitcoms, which were always my personal favorite talking points. I still beam like an idiot when I think of Boy Meets World and the phrase “I dropped a SCREW in the TUNA!” makes me guffaw today in a way that no damn-near-30-year-old should. Nostalgia is magical! I’ve seen sworn enemies come together over their love of Joey Lawrence circa 1993 (which I understand in a way that’s only fractionally embarrassing. Also, his debut album is not on iTunes, in case you were wondering and didn’t want to learn the hard way like I just did).
So how does one ride the high that comes with remembering the glory days? If you’re like me, you pray that Netflix, Hulu, or On Demand will come through with something that’ll allow you to travel briefly back in time and just bask for a weekend or two. Sometimes it’s just as phenomenal of an escape as it was before.
Other times, it’s a goddamn landmine.
I’m going to strictly speak from my experience here, which is in no way universal but certainly shared by a few of my good friends: once you start experiencing anything through a lens – whether it’s one of feminism, social justice, politics, spirituality, sexuality, parenthood, whatever – it’s pretty difficult to enjoy it the same way again. It’s not necessarily a matter of something not aging well. It’s about watching something with a new (to you) wealth of knowledge. A recent experience I had with this included a viewing of Dave Chappelle’s HBO stand-up special, Killin’ Them Softly. It’s always been a favorite of mine and I’m able to recite most of it by heart, which I’m sure is the case for most comedy enthusiasts. It’s a bonafide classic! “Gun store, gun store, liquor store, gun store…” I don’t know many that couldn’t finish that joke. As soon as I remembered that I had an HBO Go subscription I immediately dove in with the anticipation of renewed joy and for a while I had it.
Then we arrived to the bit about the dying traditions of chivalry and courtship: “Yeah, chivalry is dead…and women killed it.” He then went on to explain how the sweeping lack of disrespect was directly caused by the feminist movement, our sexual agency, and how we dress and act in public. Upon this, I immediately react.
“Wait, WHAT?! THAT’S BULLSHIT! I’M UPSET! WERE PEOPLE UPSET BACK THEN? I’M UPSET!”
Don’t get me wrong, the hour-long special was full of sexist generalizations and socially-adopted misogyny, but that instance garnered the most outrage. Then I began to second guess myself. Was any of this ever actually funny, or am I blinded by nostalgia? Does this mean that all of my favorite entertainers are actually horrible people? Am I overreacting? Wait, is the very act of me questioning my reaction right now just institutionalize misogyny at work? Dozens of questions later I found myself retroactively angry at a program from fifteen years ago.
And it won’t be the last time. Beauty and the Beast, Saved by the Bell, Grease, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…it’ll be hard press for me to find an old favorite that isn’t somewhat tainted by sexism, classism, prejudice, or some brand of intolerance. Can we write this stuff off as products of a less progressive time? Possibly, but how can we continue to enjoy classic entertainment that the world is convinced is timeless, even when we know that most of it is so horrendously dated?
For me it was simple: understand that problematic content and valuable content are not always mutually exclusive.
Like Chappelle, for instance. His stance on the behavior of women back then (which could have totally changed since 2000. I honestly don’t know) is just something I’m never going to find amusing or relatable. That, however, doesn’t entirely detract from his ability to bring humor to hot topics that most are afraid to touch – institutionalized racism, class division, hypocrisy within our government, etc. These are the things that are going to continue to draw me to his comedy, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. The sexism in Grease and the entitlement and classism in Ferris Bueller make me grimace, but are heavily outweighed by my childhood memories of watching alongside my mom and my little brother (and the dancing…oh, the dancing). One of my treasured daughter/father dates was a trip to the movies to see Beauty and the Beast and I’m so grateful that I walked away with a starry-eye appreciation for books and pretty gowns instead of an incredibly flawed understanding of Stockholm Syndrome.
Looking back doesn’t always have to be a disappointment, either. I’m thankful that my new lens has led to a deeper appreciation of Whitley Gilbert’s growth as a socially conscious feminist in A Different World, or Daria’s unapologetic take on the working mother with Helen Morgendorffer.
On occasion I might revisit something that I loved a decade ago and conclude, “Wow, this is utter trash.” That’s cool, too. Context shapes experiences. That’s not new or revelatory, but it’s something that we have to remind ourselves every once in a while.
So, fellow 90’s kids and TV enthusiasts, look back every now and again. Fire up Netflix and appreciate the memories. On the occasions when you run into a moment that gets your blood boiling, treat it like an old picture featuring your less-than-stellar haircut and chunky earrings: through your cringing and “What was I thinking,” be entirely proud of how far you’ve come.