Our Cultural Obsession With Nostalgia Is Stunting Our Growth
How excited you are about the new Star Wars flick is directly related to how young you were when you were first introduced to Star Wars. I was a part of the generation that got the new trilogy when they were still relatively little kids, so even though the prequels ended up being abominations unto the Cinematic Lords, that still gave our parents (or, in my case, one particularly enthusiastic grandfather) an excuse to introduce us to the movies that sparked the cultural obsession in the first place. Star Wars doesn’t belong to us today, it belongs to the children we once were, to our innocence, to a part of us that we pray still exists somewhere inside of the cynical person we grew into.
People who never watched Star Wars as a kid (and yes, they do exist. I’ve met them. All two of them) probably don’t give a shit about the upcoming entry in the franchise. I mean, they see you, but they don’t feel you. It wasn’t a part of the fabric of their childhood, so they just don’t hold the same attachment to it. They can’t watch the new trailer with the same sense of wonder as those who can remember the first time they played with the lightsaber Aunt Carol bought them for Christmas or watched Harrison Ford kick the Millennium Falcon into light speed. For them, though, that sense of wonder probably comes from something else. Maybe it’s super heroes. Maybe it’s cowboys. Maybe it’s sports or music or books or any of the myriads of obsessions children are wont to have.
It’s all nostalgia, though. Or rather, if nostalgia is, as Mad Men once put it, the “pain from an old wound,” it’s the balm for that wound. As long as we can return to those stories that brought us joy as children or those stories can return to us, then a small part of us can still be children. And that’s what everybody wants, right? To be a child again. Or at least, to be able to feel like a child again. That means a lot of things (like not having to pay for groceries. God, remember that? That was bitchin’), but in this case, feeling like a child again as we watch this trailer means to be able to love something without a dose of snark, smarm, or self-awareness. Nostalgia simply feels nice.
But nostalgia doesn’t add anything. No progress is made if you’re just perpetually rehashing a thing that already happened. It’s like hanging out with an old friend and doing nothing but sitting around talking about all of the fun that you used to have, or being told a story as a child but instead of passing it on to the next generation, only telling it to yourself over and over again before you go to bed each night. There’s just nothing new there.
That’s not how the world is, nor is that how we want it to be. We want to be constantly adapting as a society, improving, moving forward, however you want to phrase it, and we should require that from our culture as well. We should demand new. Not “another.”
An existentially critical cultural conversation of our time is one of diversity and inclusivity, of expanding the tent to include those who society has previously marginalized and listening to new voices in our public discourse. I would argue that there is no other issue that even comes close in terms of societal significance to that one. Constantly returning to old franchises fails that conversation on a fundamental level. Those who say, “There’s no reason why Superman can’t be black” are not wrong, but there’s also no reason why we can’t create new characters that represent the changing face of America. That feels more progressive to me than throwing a token minority into a framework that has already existed for decades. We need new stories to address this landscape.
That isn’t the only new conversation we’re having. You could spend an entire afternoon with a bunch of 18-34 year olds in a room and asking them about the issues we face today that our parents could not have even dreamed of when they were our age. Issues of technology and privacy in the Internet age, issues of war and how we wage it, issues of our political discourse and how it fails us in an age where every person is entitled to their own facts, the list could go on and on and on and on and on and on. I want to face this brave new world with a new cultural touchstone, one that I can call my own.
The next logical question is does this even matter? Does it matter that in a time when television is constantly reinventing itself and finding new and creative ways to tell deep, compelling mature stories, movies are seemingly shifting away from that. Why not let people go to the movies to feel comfortable?
That depends on your point of view. If you’re bored of the franchises but don’t want to make the type of commitment that a TV show requires then, yeah, you probably wouldn’t mind an original thought or two. But my fear is we’re sacrificing ingenuity and creativity for the relative safety of the familiar, that rather than facing a chaotic and uncertain future, we’re dwelling in an ever-stagnant past. That type of cultural environment is unhealthy for a society that requires progress to survive.
There is room for both. This isn’t a binary. We can have Avengers 12: Age of Snagglepuss as well as whatever mega-hit the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg can dream up. But right now, new voices are being pushed out by those who insist on sticking with what we already know, and we’re not letting ourselves move on and let go.
For whatever it’s worth, I am skeptical that we need a new Star Wars movie. We definitely want it, as evidenced by the rabid response to the new trailer. I don’t even doubt that it’s going to be good, or at the very least reasonably entertaining (which there’s nothing wrong with by the way). I just don’t know what purpose it’ll serve beyond that, and I’m of the mind that if you’re only purpose is to entertain, why not try to find a new way to do it. At this point, for me to get truly excited for whatever is about to go down, I need a compelling reason for this to be happening beyond, “Isn’t it cool that this is happening?”
I (cynical, snarky, jaded) am hoping to be surprised.