Nostalgia is generally understood to work in cycles: loops of 20, 30, sometimes 40 years, in which cultural artifacts and ideas undergo a process of antiquation and reclamation roughly in line with the tastes of the people who grew up with them (or occasionally as a kind of ironic appropriation on the part of people who grew up after them). This is a phenomenon born from a symbiotic relationship between artists and audiences, bolstered by a keen corporate eye on what is in and what has been out just long enough for people to miss it. It can be observed in music, fashion, and culture in general. Often, it is most visibly present on the screen, as a direct consequence of a generation reaching adulthood and claiming control of the mechanisms of media production. The stories that they loved as children return when they start calling the shots: think Back to the Future’s romantic reconstruction of the ‘50s in 1985, or the revival of ‘80s properties like Ghostbusters and Robocop in the 2010s.
It might be reasonable to assume that, by the time 2042 rolls around, we would be similarly nostalgic for the 2010s — that is, if the mechanisms of culture hadn’t been politely sledgehammered by the digital age. The cadence of the nostalgia cycle has been reduced from a few decades to maybe five minutes, at best. From Percy Jackson fans demanding that an actor in his 30s play a 12-year-old character because he had previously, to countless TikToks romanticizing the “Wandavision era” of the pandemic, the way that people talk about the recent cultural past has shifted significantly. Every week, a new reboot or spinoff of something that feels like it has barely gone anywhere is announced. For the most part, these projects are greeted with open arms by audiences reinscribing meaning to that which they had happily forgotten and are now dusting off again, as if the process of remembering creates value in and of itself. Through nostalgia-tinted lenses, conventional retreads of film and TV are offered as works of significant cultural artistic merit at the expense of new stories, the endless relitigation of the past dwarfing curiosity about the mediums’ possible futures.
Nostalgia has been supercharged by social media, which has fundamentally rewritten the frameworks through which culture is controlled, produced, and experienced. Tastemakers are no longer limited to celebrities, critics, or Hollywood executives; they’re anyone (and, increasingly, the teens and 20-something-year-olds populating platforms like TikTok). The people deciding what is worth being nostalgic about are no longer 30 years removed from the media they loved in their youth; they’re still young and — apart from a brief period of adolescent rebellion, during which it’s natural to reflexively reject that which was recently adored — are still wrestling with the call of their childhood fascinations only recently left behind.
Nostalgia is dictated not by decades of reflection, but by passing remembrances amplified at random through the fickle spontaneity of social media
This very natural human tendency gets turned into fodder for clout and engagement. Looking for likes and shares, people online seek to reclaim things from the past as random or trivial as the 2005 superhero film Fantastic Four, or the song Rude by the Canadian one-hit wonder Magic!, or the even terrible for the mid-aughts animated children’s show Johnny Test (which, just so happens to have rebooted by Netflix last year). Often these opinions are held sincerely, but that is rarely the point — in fact, the point is not any intrinsic value of the thing itself, but the moment it stands to represent, whether that is watching cartoons after school, hearing the soundtrack of a mall in 2014, or being six years old. Pieces of media become nostalgica fodder before they’ve even really gone anywhere because nostalgia is dictated not by decades of reflection, but by passing remembrances amplified at random through the fickle spontaneity of social media. Those minor recollections become trends and, eventually, culture itself.
Anyone who has used social media can tell you that things never stay so casual for long; once a pathway to influence is identified it will be reproduced and exploited ad infinitum. In that pattern, an entire cottage industry has emerged from the promise of resurfacing, over and over again, what people liked in and around the early 2010s. Media outlets release retrospective articles and critical reassessments of works that are barely 15 years old. Cast members of newly beloved series relish the opportunity to cash in on nostalgia through Cameo, in reunions, and on podcasts geared toward fans who relive the show through “no context” screenshots, GIFs, and clips that will circulate in perpetuity. Film and TV revivals are being produced with significantly less time having passed; the much-hyped iCarly reboot was announced only eight years after the original show went off the air, something that likely wouldn’t have happened if the show hadn’t remained such a constant presence online in memes and references. Streaming platform Paramount+ is developing a slate of similarly nostalgia-based reimaginings based on kid-centric properties including The Fairly Oddparents and Blue’s Clues. The cumulative effect is a sense that anything and everything can live a second (or third, or fourth) life — first online, and subsequently in the cultural products born from those recycled remembrances.
The opportunity for unfairly maligned works to get a second chance at recognition or acclaim is exciting, but the reality is that that enthusiasm is rarely channeled anywhere except towards more of the most comfortable fluff: the stuff that is half-remembered as a good time but not revisited since for a reason. As the nostalgia cycle continues to accelerate, you have to wonder what exactly is being pushed aside in favor of childhood comfort. Rather than explore lesser-known creative works, people who are tired of the current state of film and TV would prefer to plumb the depths of things with which they are already familiar. There is a constant, somewhat insecure insistence that all these works hold some previously unseen value: that every forgotten fantasy flop is an arthouse masterpiece, and every DreamWorks movie with a joke about consumerism is a Marxist epic. I like the Shrek movies just fine, but I’ve heard more than enough about how they’re actually superb feats of cinema.
The insistence that real value exists only in retrospect is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Accelerating the cycles through which properties become eligible for reboot treatment only further encourages pillaging the familiar in favor of doing anything new. Pixar’s Lightyear, a dramatic reimagining of the Buzz Lightyear story, is set to release barely three years after the final entry in the Toy Story franchise proper. The film is poised to be a hit in a way that original science fiction projects, even conceptually similar ones like 2019’s Ad Astra, generally cannot hope of achieving. Audiences are being served a steady diet of the same characters and stories from adolescence to adulthood by studios with a vested interest in provoking the emotional response of nostalgia as a shorthand for value. Prioritizing familiarity similarly discourages exploration of less mainstream older works, leaving behind things that didn’t get a big marketing push a decade ago in favor of padding the canon with more middling blockbusters or teen movies from 2009.
Reflecting on the things we have loved in the past can be constructive to understanding who we are today. But placing philosophical importance on how things have been is an incredible — and virtuous — advertisement for endlessly living in the past. The insistence that real value exists only in retrospect is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We miss places we’ve lived and people we’ve loved because they leave an empty space. Reminiscing about that which might otherwise be relegated to the forgotten pile can offer some brief novelty, but in most cases, it’s better to leave nostalgia as just an ache — not a scab to constantly pick at, inflicting the same wound unto ourselves, over and over again.
Guy Dolbey is a writer with a background in film and a passion for talking too much.