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 and a black 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.