The glow of nostalgia
Viewers are embracing new technology to watch shows that tap into a yearning for a pre-digital age
Edgar Wright’s recent blockbuster Baby Driver saw its twenty-something protagonist armed with a dozen (apparently stolen) iPods, swapping between them to play music specific to his mood or situation. It was a distinct snub to the Spotify generation, who, armed with an iPhone, have the whole of Western contemporary music available at their thumbprint.
Wright seems to have touched a nerve. The film has spurred an outpouring of love for the pre-connectivity, pre-touchscreen iPod. Apple binned the classic model back in 2014, but punters are now starting to realise what they’ve been missing, with working “Classics” selling for thousands of dollars on eBay.
On the face of it, this is very odd. From a technical aspect, there is nothing that these older iPods do better than their successors. If anything, they are less convenient. But this signals to a weird sort of nostalgia – one where we delight in the technology that has rendered physical media obsolete, while increasingly fetishising its victims.
Cinema, television and music are awash with a yearning for the past, expressed not only in the endless recycling of pop culture properties but also in the borrowed aesthetics of a bygone age. This in itself is nothing new. In the 1970s, Grease and Happy Days became global hits by aping the music and screen culture of the 1950s. In 1985’s Back to the Future, Marty McFly made this time-travelling literal when he left a dangerous and dirty 1980s to return to the innocent America of his parents’ youth. But a new frontier in nostalgia is developing, dividing history into the pre- and post-internet age.
We can see this expressed in the current hunger for television drama set in the analogue 1980s. Two recent series stand out, both of them produced – without a whiff of irony – by the streaming service Netflix. Stranger Things and GLOW both trade heavily on an apparent longing for the “real”, for a time when our lives weren’t mediated by screens and shackled by a constant connection to the world around us. Borrowing from JJ Abrams’ similarly fetishistic Super 8, Stranger Things re-creates a world where kids still play outside and can have private adventures without fear of being remotely monitored by their parents, and for whom a day spent playing Dungeons & Dragons (an actual, physical, screen-free game) is the height of entertainment.
Of these two series, Stranger Things is the most idealised. It offers us the 1980s as we want to remember it – or, more pertinently, as it might be experienced through the consumption of pop culture. Its references are those that would make sense to someone who didn’t actually live through that decade but rather grew up watching its TV and films and listening to Gold FM. There is, for example, not one song on the soundtrack that isn’t now considered a bona fide classic. Compare this to the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club, a film released two years after Stranger Things is set, on which you’ll find only one song people might remember. In striving for perfection, the show reveals its artificiality – a pop culture fantasyland that digital natives (and older internet émigrés) might dream of escaping into.
By contrast, GLOW resists the temptation to fetishise. The music choice is unpredictable (only a true child of the ’80s would recognise Stan Bush’s ‘Dare’, borrowed from the soundtrack of Transformers: The Movie) and the fashion choices are dialled down from the usual parody. In short, it’s a 1980s that will feel more familiar to those who were actually there.
Still, the hankering for the physical world dominates here. It’s no coincidence that the show’s focus is wrestling, the most tactile of sports. And yet this sort of wrestling isn’t actually a sport at all, but rather than simulation of one. This pre-digital world is, on one level, no less artificial than the one we currently inhabit. Part of GLOW’s appeal is not re-entering the past world it conjures but gaining fresh perspective on our present.
In telling the story of a group of misfit women recruited to perform in the world’s first all-women-wrestling program, GLOW reveals itself as a very 21st-century production. Its female cast would likely have been kept to the periphery of any drama series made at the time, with the focus kept on the male producer and director. (The casual diversity would have been just as unlikely. To watch the early episodes of the actual program is to be struck by how comparatively white its cast appears.)
There is a power in the gap GLOW reveals between the way women were, how we think of them now, and how we remember them being. Nostalgia often has a reactionary element, a craving for a time when gender norms were more rigidly enforced, but GLOW works to subvert this.
On the face of it, its characters and their project primarily exist to satisfy the male gaze. Much has been made of nude scenes from stars Alison Brie and Kate Nash – particularly from the tabloids who leeringly printed screen grabs (with the nipples blanked out, obviously, because the media fears breasts as fiercely as it desires them).
Despite this, there is an oddly non-sexualised air to these moments compared to the boobs and violence of Game of Thrones. It follows a trend set by the likes of Lena Dunham’s Girls to resist hypersexualised depictions of nudity, where women tend to be shown naked only in a sexual context. In toying with the sleazy aesthetic of early ’80s cinema, where a frat-boy comedy would inevitably deliver boobs and bums (usually through a changing room peep hole), GLOW delivers a refreshingly relaxed, casual and authentic approach.
It could be argued that these women appear somehow freer and more empowered than many of the women we see in contemporary screen texts. Their bodies exist outside the strict parameters of male desire. Through wrestling and the (real, rather than virtual) community the sport provides for them, the women reclaim agency of their bodies – a theme made explicit in the final episode. They may start as objects of lust, but they end as agents of their own destiny, admired more for their physical prowess and theatrical nous than their skimpy outfits.
From where we’re standing in the present, the past can appear restrictive (particularly for anyone who isn’t a white, straight male). But there can be an odd kind of liberation in known limits, if only through the gratification that comes from being able to transcend them. These women are able to establish an identity for themselves as an act of defiance, something that is harder to do in a changing and unstable digital world that claims to make everything available at once.
On a technical level, we might argue that program makers are returning to the past because they are struggling to adapt screen language to truly capture a free-range existence in which characters are conducting several conversations at once, across several different platforms. Drama thrives on the sort of limits that the internet makes its business to erode. Attempts to incorporate our boundless digital lives, such as Sherlock’s pioneering use of on-screen text messages, risk looking trite or rapidly outdated.
When we crave the pre-digital world, perhaps it is lost limits that we are unconsciously craving. It is not just that the physical seems more real, but that we recognise too late that there was a freedom in concrete boundaries.
Here we return to the core irony in binge-fests GLOW and Stranger Things: both idolise the sort of television that services such as Netflix have killed. Television as a discrete, limited media we simultaneously shared with our flesh-and-blood neighbours, rather than a looser virtual collective.
Today, we gorge on things that remind us of when we were happy with less. What is appealing about an iPod Classic, after all, is not the freedom to carry around 6000 songs in our pocket but rather that it frees us from having to choose between every other bloody song.