Reality Bites

For three days each June, New York’s cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center becomes ground zero for an annual confab known as the Licensing Show, in which several hundred food, film, and toy companies convene in an orgy of T-shirts, dolls, trinkets, and practically anything else that can be licensed, franchised, marketed, or sold. Between the crowds and the costumed characters (Big Bird, Mickey and Minnie) prowling the aisles, the show is like Disney World for marketers and retailers. It also has more than a touch of Tomorrowland: It’s the place to go for a preview of pop culture.

Yet there was something oddly familiar about this year’s offerings: Hasbro trotted out a Godzilla-sized Tonka Truck; Mattel reintroduced Hot Wheels cars; and the Cartoon Network touted its $20-million resurrection of the ’80s cartoon smash “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” along with 25 new He-Man toys aimed to coincide with the cartoon’s comeback. Fox Broadcasting plugged upcoming revitalizations of such dubious 1980s fare as the Cabbage Patch Kids and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while Yogi Bear, the Jetsons, Strawberry Shortcake, and the treacly Care Bears were ubiquitous on T-shirts.

Elsewhere, the story is similar. In August, People magazine paid homage to ’80s country-club chic, showing photos of Matthew Broderick and Natalie Portman in Lacoste shirts. People’s sibling In Style breathlessly reported that Kate Hudson was snapping up ’80s inspired guitar pick earrings, which feature song titles such as “Lucky Star” and “Call Me” imprinted on hideously mismatching bright pink and orange picks. Television airwaves are also returning to the ’80s: NBC’s “The ’80s Show” vies with Nick at Nite’s “Three’s Company,” and “Facts of Life” (and coming soon, “Family Ties” and “Cheers”). Movies in the works for 2003 and beyond include Ang Lee’s remake of “The Incredible Hulk,” plus big-screen versions of “Starsky and Hutch,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and even that ’80s stalwart, “Miami Vice.” A poster on display at the Javits Center that displayed the hirsute former sitcom star A.L.F. (currently enjoying an unlikely comeback alongside fellow ’80s relic Mr. T in television ads for 1-800-Collect) neatly captured the prevailing ethos: “Retro is in. Just stick with me, boys–this Spider-Man thing is just a phase.” Indeed, retro–Generation X retro, specifically–is back. For what was most notable about this year’s glimpse of the future is how much it looked like the past.

Chances are if you’re already intimately familiar with these figures–if your Christmas list once included Cabbage Patch Kids, if you idled away your pre-adolescent afternoons watching “He-Man” and “Starsky and Hutch” reruns, if there was ever a time in which you unselfconsciously wore Izod shirts– you came of age in the 1980s. And chances are if any of the above elicited pangs of nostalgia, you, like me, are a member of Generation X–one of the 46 million Americans born between 1965 and 1978. (Or, if you prefer, anyone too young to remember the Kennedy assassination and too old to have had a cell phone in college.) For a few brief years, before the dot-com boom eclipsed them, Gen Xers were a staple of nationwide media coverage, known chiefly for their irony, ennui, and general self-loathing. That and their visceral hatred for the self-absorbed, self-important Baby Boom generation that preceded them.

So it’s more than a little, er, ironic that a generation unified by its disgust with the Baby Boomers’ nauseating glorification of its youth culture should now be wallowing in its own. But after scanning the Licensing Show lineup of what will soon constitute pop culture’s next big things, one can’t help but notice a curious difference: Unlike earlier strains of generational nostalgia, Generation X chooses to celebrate not the best of its youth, but the worst.

Why the sudden revival of the sort of schlocky ’80s culture best left in the attic–or the dumpster? Like many trends, this one is driven in part by Hollywood’s marketing groupthink. If Charlie’s Angels hit it big at the box office two years ago, it must follow that America is starving for big-screen versions of “Scooby Doo” and “Starsky and Hutch.” And now that Xers are hitting the age when they’re able to call the shots at movie and television studios, they want to mark their own territory–and it doesn’t hurt to do it in ways that stick it to their elders. On Nick at Nite, the all-reruns-all-the-time cable channel launched 15 years ago as a way to milk Boomer nostalgia, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Mary Tyler Moore” have been shunted to TV’s equivalent of a nursing home: the TV Land channel. After all, Nick at Nite had to make room for ’80s vintage cornball shows like “Three’s Company” and “The Facts of Life.”

Xers are also having kids, and movies like the new Scooby Doo are calculated to appeal to the whole family: Xer parents can reminisce about the many episodes in which some haggard old villain nabbed by the gang grumbled about “you meddling kids,” while their kids are kept happy with that age-old preteen pleaser: flatulence jokes. The same fun-for-the-whole-family ploy is at work in Old Navy’s fall ad campaign. A takeoff on the “Brady Bunch,” complete with theme song, the ads lure media-savvy Gen X moms and dads into the stores–“It’s a Sunshine Day” playing in an endless loop–to buy Old Navy rugby shirts for their kids. (It doesn’t hurt that Xers are also the ones who can spot ’80s icon Morgan Fairchild as Mrs. Brady in the commercial, which makes us feel in on the joke.)

Another explanation for the explosion of Gen X touchstones, The New York Times recently noted, is that Hollywood these days is longer on inventory than creativity. It’s cheaper and easier for studios to reissue or repackage brands they already own the rights to, such as “Transformers” and “The Partridge Family,” than to risk trying something new. Finally, there’s the axiom of modern life that everyone reaches an age at which they feel the need to revisit the culture of their youth. Believe it or not, the oldest Xers are already pushing 40.

What is completely different about Generation X nostalgia, though, is that it’s the first without pretense that what it’s fetishizing was really all that great to begin with. Consider its predecessors. “Greatest Generation” nostalgia is all about celebrating real achievement (fighting World War II) and timeless music (swing). Those who came of age in the 1950s are honestly wistful for the innocent pleasures of Perry Como, Chubby Checker, and sock hops. And, of course, Baby Boomers take inordinate pride in the acid-laced youth culture they experienced (the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix) and social movements they took part in (civil rights, anti-war, feminism).

The ’80s generation, by contrast, seems to pride itself on wallowing in the worst that decade has to offer. NBC recently debuted “The Rerun Show,” in which an eight-member troupe reenacts episodes of campy old sitcoms in a way that’s part love-in, part lampoon, turning familiar characters into punch lines. In a “The Facts of Life” skit, the overweight Natalie eats to the point of breaking furniture, while the nauseatingly bubbly Tootie now bounces like a bobble-head doll. A “Diff’rent Strokes” sendup paints beneficent millionaire Mr. Drummond as a pedophile. Over at VH1, pioneer of the hour-long documentary about rock stars’ hackneyed descents into drugs and alcohol, the chase for the Gen X audience is on. A new show called “Ultimate Albums” chronicles the “creativity and clashes, hassles and headaches” of such dubious ’80s classics as Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. Even current bands can get in on the ’80s racket: Alien Ant Farm made its reputation (and a platinum record) largely on the strength of remaking the 1988 Michael Jackson hit “Smooth Criminal,” their video for which gleefully parodies every moon-walking, crotch-grabbing, embarrassing ’80s excess.

This tendency to focus on the worst culture of our youth is well in keeping with the characteristics that defined Generation X in the first place. Most who grew up during the ’80s remember life during that decade as unremittingly awful, and not without considerable justification. Ronald Reagan was president. Good jobs were scarce. Crime, AIDS, and homelessness all were on the rise. The specter of Day After-style nuclear annihilation was drummed into students’ heads. And much of pop culture was indeed really, truly awful. Perhaps worst of all, we were forever cursed to follow in the wake of the most obnoxious, self-congratulatory generation in generations. As a character in author and Gen X-patron saint Douglas Coupland’s 1989 novel Generation X put it to his Boomer boss, “Do you really think we enjoy hearing about your brand-new million-dollar home when we can barely afford to eat Kraft Dinner sandwiches in our own grimy little shoe boxes and we’re pushing 30? A home you won in a genetic lottery, I might add, sheerly by dint of your having been born in the right time in history. And I have to endure pinheads like you rusting above me for the rest of my life, always grabbing the best piece of cake first and then putting a barbed-wire fence around the rest. You really make me sick.”

In the face of “Boomer envy” and the numerous other indignities we suffered, the coping mechanism most of us adopted (and which Coupland so brilliantly chronicled) was keeping an ironic distance and never appearing to take anything very seriously–after all, when pop culture stipulated legwarmers, hairspray, and Wham!, it was the only viable way to maintain our dignity. Today’s Generation X nostalgia approaches the past in much the same way: as one big, silly, insider joke.

The current ’80s crop of cartoon favorites, sitcom has-beens, embarrassing pop relics, and fashion offenses takes what was essentially kitsch to begin with and parodies it. Instead of straightforward reruns and revivals, our nostalgia is, at root, ironic.

By the second day of the Licensing Show, in response to the poster of A.L.F. needling Spider-Man, Marvel Comics (which, of course, had a booth) came up with a pitch-perfect rejoinder, hoisting its own poster of the Incredible Hulk choking the furry alien and shouting, “A.L.F. makes me angry!”

At its best, Gen X nostalgia can produce pop culture that’s actually pretty enjoyable. The Cartoon Network has scored a hit with its new late-night show geared toward adults, “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law,” which takes an obscure Hanna-Barbera superhero and cleverly recasts him as a lawyer fighting for the rights of animated characters. His clients include Shaggy and Scooby Doo, Fred Flintstone, and Yogi Bear and Boo Boo; and plotlines address such timeless Gen X debates as whether or not Scooby and Shaggy were constantly stoned.

But more often, a campy celebration of schlock is just plain camp–or worse, just plain terrible. Last March, VH1 debuted the game show “Never Mind the Buzzcocks,” which featured musical parlor games that included a sorry segment in which Reagan-era has-beens like Tiffany and Joey McIntyre picked out equally pathetic fellow has-beens (Mike Reno from Loverboy) from a lineup of impersonators. Mercifully, the show was cancelled after a month.

The most irritating trait of generational nostalgia is its selectivity, its remembrance of only that which fits a generation’s self-image. Those who pine for the simplicity of “Happy Days” and their ’50s adolescence don’t like to be reminded of McCarthyism or segregation. Privileged Boomers prefer not to dwell on the fact that they spent their parents’ money to trash their parents’ values. Gen X nostalgia is also selective, but in just the opposite way: We don’t cherish the best, but the worst, employing the same arm’s-length irony that saw us through the Reagan years, recessions, and the coke-snorting, yuppified, Bonfire of the Vanities excesses that never seemed to trickle down to us. So instead, we do now as we did then, hewing to what is comfortable. But doing so requires that we ignore what actually merits remembering about the culture of our youth, limited though it may be: the good music (The Replacements, R.E.M., and a less self-aware U2), the worth-another-viewing movies and television (Platoon, “Moonlighting”), and the transformative events we witnessed (the fall of the Berlin Wall). Let’s skip the 101-ism (Coupland’s neologism for self-analysis based on half-understood undergraduate psychology). The joke may be on us. But true to form, at least we’re in on it.