The importance of confronting pop culture nostalgia
Recently, a Vulture story listed “the seven most messed-up things about Sex and the City.” There are more than seven, of course, but one of the most egregious is a season three episode in which Samantha dates a music executive named Chivon. Samantha is white, Chivon is black, and his sister, Adeena, doesn’t want him dating Samantha. When Adeena confronts her at a nightclub, a fight ensues. The latter tells the former to “get your big black ass out of my face,” adding that the okra she serves at her restaurant—where “Martha Stewart meets Puff Daddy, on a plate,” in the words of Carrie’s voice-over—“wasn’t all that.”
I always took Sex and the City with a grain of salt, but I would be lying if I said I haven’t, oh, watched every single episode at least three times each. And while I never totally identified with the show’s value system, it didn’t seemed as malignant then, for many reasons, as it does in hindsight. The year 2000 doesn’t feel that long ago—clothing styles, at least, haven’t changed much since then (or rather, the limits of what is stylish have stretched enough to accommodate even Carrie’s most inexplicable outfits). But when re-examining the culture I came of age with—music, movies, and television from the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s—it’s easier to see the pitfalls.
It’s obvious now that some of the most beloved bits of the ’90s are totally, totally not okay—so obviously not-okay that they sometimes go overlooked, at least by those they don’t target. Consider Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the manager of Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart, or Seinfeld’s Babu Bhatt, a Pakistani immigrant whose mannerisms were played up for comic effect (Seinfeld featured at least a handful of gags in which the show’s protagonists try not to seem racist). The ’90s were, in many ways, a progressive time for women—Elaine was a smart, sexually active professional, and Buffy the VampireSlayer, Clueless, and The Craft offered worlds in which girls were the protagonists, and female friendship were often key. Still, these worlds were sometimes marred by terrible sexual politics.
“It’s alright for guys like you and Court to fuck everyone, but when I do it, I get dumped,” says Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character, Kathryn Merteuil, in 1999’s Cruel Intentions, before hitting the nail on the head: “God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex.” But Merteuil is the film’s heartless villain, and by the end she is publicly humiliated for her misdeeds. In Can’t Hardly Wait, released a year earlier, justice is served to the malevolent jock when he’s called a “faggot” in front of his classmates. Nerds try to exact revenge on him by knocking him out with chloroform and posing him in photographs that suggest he’s gay.
It’s obvious that cultural products carry germs from the culture they come from, and equally obvious that our culture is, in many ways, afflicted. And yet, it’s easy to ignore the fact that so much of our deepest nostalgia is tainted by the worst of its time. We can acknowledge that the past had its problems without acknowledging that the past was our past. Nostalgia, so blissful in memory, is supposed to be an escape from the wormy world of now, but to rewatch, say, “Homer and Apu,” from the fifth season of The Simpsons, is to remember the times you laughed while a white guy impersonated a South Asian accent.
It goes without saying that it’s important to confront the ugly parts of pop culture, and also to acknowledge the ways we affirmed them—it’s dangerous to not be critical of who we’ve been, or to take stock of where we’ve ended up. Watching Sixteen Candles for the first time, I was horrified by the character of Long Duk Dong—it seemed shocking to me that such an obviously racist caricature could make it into a mainstream flick released just two years before I was born (it seems a lot less shocking to me now). It took me a while longer to realize that Sixteen Candles ends, happily, with a rape.
Of course, just because something—a word, a practice, a joke—is unacceptable in television doesn’t mean it’s not still a social problem. Standards of public decency are just the tip of the iceberg, which is why nostalgia can be constructive: a way to sift out problems that badly need addressing, problems we ignored the first time around. It won’t be long before the shows we watch today will elicit the same reactions in hindsight.