Old But Not Gold: How Nostalgia Distorts Our Judgement of Entertainment products

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

As an upcoming 21-year-old Gen-Zer, I have become more and more like a boomer. Whether it’s film or music, I naturally gravitate towards the classics and reminisce about the golden days of my childhood while being unimpressed with the newer releases that fail to leave a mark. As the saying goes, “old is gold,” the new just cannot seem to measure up. Yet, as I tried to decipher the unaddressed disappointment towards contemporary entertainment, a question emerged: is my perception a reliable and accurate reflection of these entertainment products’ quality? Or am I being misled by the rose-tinted glasses and turning a blind eye to how subpar or problematic they might have been?

The Good Ol’ Days

Ever since I deleted social media apps, I have rekindled my passion for film and rediscovered many old gems. From the crime comedy Ocean’s trilogy, the iconic sci-fi The Matrix (please excuse the sequels), to the verbosely comical Shrek series, and the raunchy 40-year-old Virgin. Then, suddenly, I had an epiphany: I have not felt such catharsis and enjoyment in such a long time. What kind of fairy dust have these classics sprinkled that make me fall in love with them time after time? How can they put me in such an enchanted state while so few recent releases barely elicit any emotion from me? 

The answer was crystal clear: Old entertainment products are just more articulate, intricate, genuine, and thought-provoking, while the recent productions simply lack that “wow” factor. I remembered myself marveling at the early stages of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (pun intended), and being entranced by the original Avengers. The character development and chemistry between the actors were off the roof, something that has been lost in Infinity War and Endgame, where a gazillion superheroes are cramped together. Or take animated films – I loved watching the old Pixar films like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and Wall-E and bawled my eyes out at the final scenes of Monsters Inc. and Toy Story 3 (if you know, you know). Now, animated films feel flat and bland and I can no longer experience that same excitement and heartwarming feeling. Even critically acclaimed films like Soul and Coco could not leave that much of a long-lasting impression on me. So, I thought to myself: maybe things were indeed better back in the day

A Flawed Memory

However, I soon realized that this presumption was simply false as I, like others, have fallen victim to nostalgia, or more specifically, rosy retrospection, where things in the past are perceived as infinitely and definitively better than the present when in reality, that might not be the case. As we glorify our past through rose-tinted glasses, our reconstruction of memory and distant realities is prone to errors of distortion. In other words, something is only as real as we recall it to be, and the objective truth might be far from our endearing memories due to their subjective, biased, and unreliable nature. Therefore, rosy retrospection makes us constantly compare our exaggerated positive past events and our overtly disengaged present, eventually leading us to believe the past is spotless and much more desirable and disregard the not-so-great things that went over our heads.

the fact that these entertainment products might not be as great as we remember can be a hard pill to swallow

For films and music that were an integral part of our childhood, identity, and pop culture, the fact that these entertainment products might not be as great as we remember can be a hard pill to swallow. After all, nostalgia can be awfully misleading. During my Netflix adventure, I stumbled upon the late 90s and early 2000s blockbusters Charlie’s Angels and Rush Hour. I remember vividly how much Charlie’s Angels inspired me – they were a group of gorgeous young women who were not afraid to kick ass. It felt like female empowerment at the age of 12 – until my recent rewatch at 20. The films’ female tropes and stereotypes, such as using sex appeal to deceive men or succumbing to a mysterious millionaire, were so problematic that they made it unbearable to finish the films. Similarly, the Asian representation in the action-comedy trilogy Rush Hour, starring the legendary Jackie Chan, was so inappropriate and disturbing that I could not continue watching. Despite already throwing my 21st-century political correctness out the window, I could not help but cringe at their tasteless racist jokes. 

Times have changed, and so have we: As we age, some figments of our childhood have not aged well with our progressive society. Thus, comparisons between old and new might not be fair because this bias has been deeply built and twisted the nature of reality.

Milking Our Nostalgia for Profit

It seems like our misguided vulnerability to nostalgia comes in handy for entertainment companies who have exploited our nostalgic inclinations, squeezing these iconic films and characters dry. In the past five years, every studio has tried to get its hands on classic movies and series, be it a sequel, prequel, remake, or live-action, from Star Wars, The Matrix, to the entire MCU. And as a film lover, this ongoing trend has become increasingly alarming. 

Be honest with me, did any of us genuinely enjoy Cars 2, Monsters University, and Finding Dory after experiencing the majesty of their prequels?

First, it is creative laziness and stagnancy at its worst because storytellers are recycling material with minimal effort without furthering the narrative and character development. Ask yourself this: Do we need another Despicable Me or Hotel Transylvania, or did the world become a better place after the live-action Lion King or Mulan films were released?

Second, some stories ended the way they should and should be kept that way. Be honest with me, did any of us genuinely enjoy Cars 2, Monsters University, and Finding Dory after experiencing the majesty of their prequels? At least for me, this was a hard “No.” These extensions can sometimes feel like mindless cash-cows without real intent and meaning and ruin the beautiful storylines the filmmakers have so arduously crafted as well as our childhood experiences with these franchises. Nine times out of ten, my anticipation is almost exclusively met with confusion.

While many see these productions as paying homage to their childhood memories or bringing back a part of them that was once lost, my connection to their predecessors and sense of nostalgia is too powerful to the point that anything that follows pales in comparison, regardless of their objective quality. 

Closing a Chapter

As much as we cherish our valuable memories for their impact on our lives, we also need to confront them for what they inherently are and recognize their imperfections. For entertainment products that have not seasoned well, we can leave them in our past and move forward with a fresh mindset: new is not always lackluster, and old is not always flawless. As contemporary audiences, we need to become more receptive to changes and not hastily cast our judgment based on flawed and unfair comparisons. Nonetheless, filmmakers and studios also need to stop this perpetuating and manipulative cycle of repackaging old stories that target nostalgic sentiments and instead, focus on coming up with original screenplays that might one day become a person’s treasured memory.

 

Cover photo:  Olena Sergienko 

Editor: Rita Alves

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