This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2021

The new and not-so-improved Naughty Aughties

Reboots and reunions are re-envisioning early 2000s TV, but the changes they’re making are disappointingly surface-level

Joelle Kidd

Photo by INSTAR Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Every week, when I was a teenager, I used to squirrel my hand-me-down laptop away to my bedroom and scour the internet’s sketchy streaming sites for the latest episode of Gossip Girl. (I couldn’t watch it on the family TV—after all, it was, per its marketing, “every parent’s nightmare.”) From quippy dialogue, to attempts at edgy subject matter, to nonsensical use of cell phones, it was a show that was completely of the 2000s.

The first season aired in 2007, in the back half of the decade known—in the parlance of zippy tabloid journalism—as the Naughty Aughties. It was supposed to be an age of irreverence, the age of snark: it was biting, it was catty, it was mean. From burgeoning blogs to reality TV, so much of that decade’s entertainment was predicated on the appeal of laughing at rather than with.

That world can feel very distant these days. Our current pop culture landscape is for the large part one of feel-good shows, peppy positivity, and political awareness. When a reboot of my favourite teen soap dropped this July on HBO Max (and streamed on Crave in Canada), it looked a little different. This time the clutch of privileged Upper East Side teens are presented as racially diverse and fluid in gender and sexuality. Where the publicity for the original focused on shock, scandal, and designer clothing, this new version, creator Joshua Safran told Variety, was to “tell more queer stories.”

Gossip Girl is not the only ’00s show hitting small screens for the second time. HBO also plans to drop new episodes of their Sex and the City revival, And Just Like That… this fall, minus Samantha, but with the added promise of three new series regulars played by women of colour. Meanwhile, a reality show entirely conceived around gawking at fat people’s bodies, The Biggest Loser, premiered a rebooted version in 2020 that purported to be about a “holistic … look at wellness.”

But have these shows really changed, or are they a product of our neoliberal moment?

Referring to the contemporary renaissance of 19th century liberalism, an ideology that espoused laissez-faire economics and minimal government interference, neoliberalism is underpinned by a belief in the necessity of sustained economic growth. In our late capitalist era, this mindset has also taken on the trappings of socially liberal positions, resulting in hypocrisy—acknowledgement of systemic issues while pushing “solutions” that rest on individual actions. We live in a time where our governments prefer to offer a sugar-coating of palatability to bitter pills like widespread economic inequality. And in an effort to engage more progressive young demographics, so do television networks.

While the new iteration of Gossip Girl aims to be more diverse, there are no fat characters, no characters with disabilities, and as Refinery29’s Kathleen Newman-Breemang points out, the actors of colour cast in the new series are all light skinned. The handful of LGBTQ2S+ characters act out scenarios ranging from the mundane (marital spats) to the downright troubling (student-teacher hook-ups)—not so much the “queer stories” promised as a rehash of established heteronormative tropes from the show’s original run.

Queer Eye, which was rebooted by Netflix in 2018, takes a slightly more holistic approach to revamping its source material. The original run, which aired from 2003 to 2007 and originally went by the title Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, was predicated on the dual stereotype of the straight man as slobbish and emotionally disconnected and the gay man as fashionable, neat, successful, and emotionally intelligent. While the show made strides in representing a certain (very narrow) kind of queer identity in the pop culture mainstream, it typically shied away from political statement, representing any problems plaguing its “straight guys” as mere personal failings—a lack of personal style, an uncultivated sense of taste.

While the rebooted version introduces some racial and cultural diversity, the “Fab Five,” the series’ makeover experts, by no means embody the breadth of LGBTQ2S+ communities that use the queer label. The show has, however, captured our current zeitgeist of self-love, body acceptance, and self-care.

The version of these things that the show peddles are divorced from their radical progressive roots. The show co-opts terms like “self-care”—originally coined by Black feminist poet Audre Lorde. The makeover subjects—the show calls them “heroes”—are suffering, we are told, because they don’t love themselves enough, they don’t take time for themselves, they judge themselves too harshly. Hair products and interior decorating then become supposed radical acts, imbued with the power
to shift one’s entire life.

But, many times in the series, it quickly becomes clear how hollow these concepts are. Episodes where the Fab Five help out a young climate change activist or a previously unhoused community worker quickly beg the question, how does any of this address systemic problems?

In July 2021, Netflix released a one-off episode of the show on YouTube, accessible to anyone with or without a Netflix subscription. The episode, sponsored by Delta Air Lines, featured a 26-year-old Delta employee living a spartan lifestyle as he struggled to pay off his student loans. The makeover subject, William Holmes, says in the episode that he is burdened by student debt like “most millennials,” and that it is “really slowing our generation down” in life.

For millennials who have been repeatedly told that financial security would be within our grasp if we gave up luxuries like avocado toast, the show’s advice is downright infuriating. The Fab Five decide Holmes’s main problem is that he’s not “being in the present and having fun,” as the show’s culture expert Karamo Brown puts it. In the end, Holmes gets a new wardrobe and new decor for the bedroom in the house he shares with several roommates, as well as a smattering of advice to “be more confident” and “[go] out and see the city, because life is good.” There is no offer to pay off his debt, let alone a message about the broken systems that created the student debt crisis that Holmes is a part of. Unable to grapple with the reality that lifestyle cannot save a life, the show unearths problems and makes vague offers to solve them with a Band-Aid solution.

Some recent reboots attempt to capitalize on the politics of the current moment without addressing their past misdeeds. Friends, the juggernaut sitcom that ran 10 seasons, ending in 2004, depicted an almost entirely white New York City, and faced questions and criticisms around its lack of diversity during its original run. One of the show’s few Black employees, writers’ assistant Amaani Lyle, filed a lawsuit alleging a culture of racism and sexism behind the scenes at the show. Rewatching it on streaming services 20 years later, many younger viewers have bristled not only at the lack of diversity, but at its incessant homophobic jokes and homophobic and transphobic plotlines.

The 2021 Friends reunion did not address these issues, instead recruiting an assortment of celebrities, political figures, and fans to talk about why Friends had been so special. A collection of people including Malala Yousafzai, the women’s education activist and youngest-ever Nobel laureate, talked about how the show had brought them through lonely, difficult times in their lives. It’s not just a show, they suggest—it has more power than that.

Yet, the show’s importance seemingly does not cut both ways—for many people who, for years, brought up their problems with the show’s content, the implication was that the show couldn’t possibly have power, that it was just a sitcom.

A similar case is Project Runway, the fashion design reality show that first aired in 2004. At the time, the direction of the show was heavily shaped by producer Harvey Weinstein, who saw it, according to a 2017 LA Times report, not only as a vehicle to put a bunch of models on TV, but to meet them himself. Along with shots of young models in their underwear, the show often featured contestants insulting plus-size models, and even using a transphobic slur as a catchphrase.

After Weinstein was brought down by a wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations in 2017, the show was retooled and relaunched with a new host, model Karlie Kloss, and new judges. This new version attempted to incorporate modern criticisms of the fashion industry by using a range of model sizes and setting challenges based on sustainable design. But, again, behind the surface-level changes, the show makes no attempt to dismantle the industry that supports it. In one 2020 episode, a contestant made a quip about Kloss’s connection to Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner (Kloss is married to Kushner’s brother) and was promptly sent home.

The catty shows of the 2000s have been declawed, but what we are delivered so often is neoliberal rhetoric without any progressive substance. So much of TV today has the gleam of corporate art—cold, frictionless, inoffensive, but insubstantial.

Nostalgia is often cited as the cause for our cultural obsession with reboots and sequels, but perhaps there is another drive, not to revisit the gleeful meanness of the 2000s but to surgically remove the painful elements of a property of which we remain fond. Perhaps some reboots come from an attempt to turn painful artifacts into empowering ones, not entirely disingenuously. But the problem is a constant idealizing: if not of the past, through the lens of nostalgia, then of the present, serving up a race-blind, post-feminist, progressive world, where all that needs to change is your skincare routine.

Neoliberalism is, in a way, the ultimate reboot. Reboots are safe. They’re comforting in their familiarity, and they offer the illusion of change without the hard work of making that change. Like signage for condo developments promising community growth while gentrifying a neighbourhood, or bank-sponsored floats in Pride parades: a progressive veneer hiding something more sinister.

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