Social media and news feeds in the wake of the pandemic have been full of enthusiastic headlines that suggest “Ten New Hobbies” to pick up, :The Award-winning Movies of 2019 You Missed” to watch, “Fifteen Trail-Blazing New Books” that you forgot to read in the early months of 2020. Just because we are vegetating physically within our homes, goes the feeling, does not mean we will also culturally stagnate. There is a consequent sense, worldwide, that this extended period of hiatus has allowed us to play catch up with pop culture and its artefacts— film, television, books and even activities— that have been constantly changing and updating while we were apparently stuck in our respective rat-races in the outside world. Yet what of those who will find this the perfect time to indulge in a kind of nostalgia, a revisit of the long summers and Christmas vacs of childhood and young adulthood that weren’t marked by deadlines or whirlwind trips abroad? They will rediscover the cheesy animation, the boarding-school adventures, and questionable outfits of a bygone era. Are we less culturally involved or intellectually stimulated than those with last year’s Pulitzer winner on their to-read list?
My friends and I have been using the wonderful Netflix Party extension to check off movies from a BuzzFeed list entitled ‘How Many Of These 50 Iconic Rom-Coms Have You Seen?’: using social distancing to immerse ourselves in the romantic clichés of the 1990s and early 2000s that we watched at high-school sleepovers. As the credits began to roll on maybe the fifth such film, my friend asked the question on all of our minds— why do we suddenly hate the protagonist of every rom-com? Scrolling through the texts we sent during the movie, I realised we had indeed been spending our time commenting on how much these characters’ actions, attitudes and dialogues were bothering us.
According to one Guardian writer, “re-reading is a crime”. It seems one must broaden their horizons rather than re-reading a novel, because the only real reason for a re-read, and this extends to a re-watch, is that we didn’t understand the thing in the first place. But in context of our rom-com binge, putting aside the obvious condescension of watching in a different era where we literally do understand more — think of the collective cringe at yellow-face Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or the questionable content of Grease lyrics — there was something deeper, a specific revulsion from these characters and their actions that was caused by more than just our political correctness. These characters had always been this way: we as viewers were the ones who had probably been less aware, less cognisant of how Mia’s behaviour in the Princess Diaries was not awkward so much as plain rude, less understanding of how Mean Girls’ Cady Heron is herself a terrible friend. Rather than considering how and why the movie wanted us to respond a certain way, we once gave into the construction of “villain” and “heroine” that necessitated justifying all the protagonist’s terrible actions, whilst vilifying the justified actions of the antagonist. The countless articles and YouTube analysis videos that re-watch and comment upon the flaws and issues of films and TV shows considered cultural classics are testament to how much we want to make up for our earlier acceptance by retrospective re-evaluation of the very works we loved.
Maybe, then, the surprisingly strong annoyance one feels toward these characters upon re-watching is not just an expression of how problematic you now find them, but further enhanced by a desire to separate yourself— pointedly and uncompromisingly— from the past version of you that did root unquestioningly for a cringe-worthy rom-com heroine. Re-watching allows us to change and to recognise that growth within ourselves; not only have we actually evolved as people, but we learn to see ourselves as those more evolved people, more socially conscious, more in-the-know than ever before.
Yet there is little reason that our beloved films and books have to be outgrown and left behind to focus on more contemporary cultural content, and the fact that we understand them differently now does not invalidate how we loved them before. With literature, the “cultural continuity” of books has often been used as a yardstick for whether they can be considered classics or not. Recall the high-school English teachers harping on about the continued relevance of Shakespeare because everyone can at some point in their lives relate to the existentialism of Hamlet, or how the Great Gatsby was re-read to sympathise with Daisy in the late-20th century ages of feminist protest. Why is there an insistence that other cultural works cannot undergo a similar evolution, if at an individual level, under a shorter timeframe? Letting go of an old understanding is not the same as letting go of a cultural production altogether: take the Twitter and Instagram threads defending Sharpay Evans from High School Musical as opposed to protagonist Gabriella Montez, none of which denigrate the High School Musical series itself. Rather, those who grew up alongside the series have realised Sharpay’s character arc— a girl who is trying to win the heart of a boy she likes as well as excel in her field, using whatever means necessary — is more relatable than that of the perfect, self-sacrificing Gabriella.
Finding new characters to relate to and new aspects of these films to love mean we retain the significance of their role as sources of comfort, while still engaging in stimulating exercises of analysis and understanding like we would with newer works. There is no harm in reframing these current feelings of isolation and entrapment as a nostalgic summer of endless promise by pressing play on Clueless for the fourth time, because we will inevitably stop to consider whether we, too, could pull off wearing yellow plaid to work.