The Dark Side Of Nostalgia


It sure seems like a whole lot of child­hoods are being “ruined” late­ly. From Anita Sarkesian’s Feminist Frequency chal­leng­ing gen­dered clichés in clas­sic video games to the exis­tence of the LadyGhostbusters to Star Wars: The Force Awakens fea­tur­ing both a female star andblack man in a Stormtrooper’s uni­form, there are hard­ly any beloved 80s fran­chis­es left unscathed, if fans like these are to be believed.

All of this bom­bas­tic rhetoric about nos­tal­gic pop cul­ture prop­er­ties rais­es the ques­tion: what is nos­tal­gia and what exact­ly are these fans feel­ing so nos­tal­gic about?

After all, the Star Trek reboot and the var­i­ous Marvel Universe movies, which have thus far all had straight white men at their cen­ters, have not been threat­ened by boy­cotts, even though they some­times change big plot points from the orig­i­nals (includ­ing replac­ing Kitty Pryde with Wolverine as the lead of X-men: Days of Future Past). Heck, the Star Trek reboot’s time trav­el­ing plot essen­tial­ly erased (or at best, severe­ly com­pli­cat­ed) the con­ti­nu­ity of the pre­vi­ous films and tv shows! And yet, these films aren’t receiv­ing the same level of hatred and aggres­sion from aggriev­ed fans.

Mad Men’s Don Draper pro­vides us with a par­tic­u­lar­ly insight­ful def­i­n­i­tion that will serve us well here:

Nostalgia” lit­er­al­ly means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more pow­er­ful than mem­o­ry alone… It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

I argue that these fans are nos­tal­gic for a par­tic­u­lar kind of nar­ra­tive, one that will sound famil­iar to any­one who grew up geeky in the 1980s. The story goes some­thing like this:

Smart, nerdy white guys who get pushed around by the mus­cu­lar, hand­some jocks use their par­tic­u­lar set of nerd skills to defeat the bul­lies and get the girl. Think: Lewis in Revenge of the Nerds, Gary and Wyatt in Weird Science, and Ted in Sixteen Candles.

Each of these films fea­tures, at its cen­ter, a bat­tle to decide what it means to be a real man. Which model of mas­culin­i­ty is bet­ter? The phys­i­cal­ly strong, pop­u­lar type? Or the put-upon, intel­li­gent, social out­cast who uses his brain to out­wit the com­pe­ti­tion?

It is easy to under­stand the appeal of these wish-fulfillment fan­tasies. But notice that in each story, women are noth­ing but acces­sories: tools to prove one’s man­hood and/or prizes for the win­ner in a glo­ri­fied dick mea­sur­ing con­test. Often, this results in geeky “hero­ic” char­ac­ters ignor­ing their part­ners’ lack of con­sent. For exam­ple, in Revenge of the Nerds, Lewis wears a Darth Vader cos­tume to fool Betty into think­ing he is her boyfriend, Stan, and has sex with her (or, more accu­rate­ly, rapes her) with­out reveal­ing his true iden­ti­ty. In Sixteen Candles, Jake gives his blacked out girl­friend to Ted for him to date rape. And in Weird Science, Gary and Wyatt bypass the tricky ques­tion of con­sent alto­geth­er by cre­at­ing a girl with their com­put­er who lives to serve them. Hell, even the orig­i­nal Ghostbusters has a few rapey jokes around demon pos­ses­sion and an awk­ward blowjob scene.

With this nar­ra­tive in mind, it makes sense that a cer­tain sub­set of fans are react­ing so neg­a­tive­ly to remakes and cri­tiques of their favorite geeky totems. How can they project them­selves onto the plucky young kid des­tined to be a great Jedi or the nerdy sci­en­tist who saves New York from a para­nor­mal threat when he sud­den­ly turns into she? What hap­pens when dif­fer­ent types of peo­ple start demand­ing space in the sto­ries that defined your hopes, your val­ues, even your very iden­ti­ty? These fans don’t real­ly think that their child­hoods are in any dan­ger of being ruined. Rather, they fear what these changes might mean for their future.

Part of this fear is the uni­ver­sal impulse to roman­ti­cize child­hood. We ide­al­ize the enter­tain­ment of our youth as apo­lit­i­cal, care­free fun because, as chil­dren, we our­selves were care­free. We were unaware of the polit­i­cal cur­rents that were always run­ning through our favorite films and tv shows. When we return to these texts, we seek that same inno­cent, cheer­ful mood they used to put us in as kids. We resist being dragged back into the con­cerns that plague our adult world: gen­der, race, sex­u­al­i­ty, class, power, vio­lence, injus­tice. We for­get that they were always there, lurk­ing in the back­ground, inescapable.

We see a sim­i­lar defen­sive impulse at play in the recent crop of ‘80s macho throw­back fran­chis­es like The Expendables as well as videogames like Duke Nukem Forever, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and Broforce (to be fair, this last game did intro­duce their first female playable char­ac­ter in 2014, but she is still referred to as a “bro”). These titles explic­it­ly re-create worlds in which gen­der roles are sim­ple and sep­a­rate (men are hard-asses with no feel­ings and women are either eye-candy, damsels in dis­tress, or duplic­i­tous temp­ta­tions), for­eign­ers are mys­te­ri­ous and evil, black men are amus­ing side­kicks, and black women don’t exist at all. Their defend­ers insist they are imper­vi­ous to social cri­tique despite their over-the-top indul­gence in misog­y­ny and racism because they are “pay­ing homage” to the ‘80s aes­thet­ic and are there­fore sup­posed to be con­sid­ered insin­cere. These movies don’t real­ly advo­cate for the return of sex­ist and racist atti­tudes, we are told. The film­mak­ers just includ­ed that stuff to give the film or game that authen­tic “‘80s fla­vor.” However, it is pos­si­ble to read these works as express­ing a sort of mourn­ing for the fact that overt sex­ist and racist jokes have passed out of favor and an expres­sion of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” in mod­ern main­stream media.

But just because we can under­stand this feel­ing doesn’t mean that we should excuse it. When your fan­tasies of self-fulfillment require either the sub­ju­ga­tion or the exclu­sion of other peo­ple to func­tion, they are not healthy, and it is unsur­pris­ing that the defense of those fan­tasies would become toxic. We can still have sto­ries where the geeks tri­umph, but we need to recon­sid­er sto­ries where white male geeks tri­umph at the expense of every­one else. And we def­i­nite­ly need to recon­sid­er a cul­tur­al nar­ra­tive of what it means to be a geek that includes lash­ing out at any­one who is dif­fer­ent. After all, geek cul­ture is sup­posed to be a place where mis­fits and out­casts final­ly feel like they’ve found a place where they belong. It is iron­ic (and sad) that a cer­tain sub­group of geeks want to slam the doors shut in the faces of oth­ers who are look­ing for such a space.


Megan Condis

About Megan Condis

Megan Condis is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Her book project is titled Playing Politics: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Game of Masculinity in Online Culture. She is also a regular contributor to Unwinnable. You can play her original games, based on her dissertation research, for free on her website at megancondis.wordpress.com or you can follow her on Twitter @MeganCondis.