Popaganda Episode: Nostalgia TV


The '90s are having a moment. In this podcast episode, we talk Sailor Moon, Saved By the Bell, The X-Files, and The Golden Girls, plus muse about the meaning of “girl power” and discuss whether shows like Downton Abbey glamorize colonialism. Tune in! 

This show features the excellent writers s.e. smith, Soleil Ho, Emily Hashimoto, and Elizabeth Yuko








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Want to read or share one of these essays? Here are text version of each piece: 

What I Learned About Gender and Power from Sailor Moon by Soleil Ho 

Rewatching The X-Files, One Thing is Clear: Mulder is a Jerk by Sarah Mirk 

Nostalgia Does Not Make Saved by the Bell Grow Sweeter by Emily Hashimoto 

The Golden Girls Taught Me About Bioethics by Elizabeth Yuko

Transcript of interview with SE Smith: 

The TV collage image featured on this episode was created by Naomi (Creative Commons).

SARAH: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.

[theme music]

In pop culture, nostalgia is having a moment. Actually, more than a moment. Nostalgia is driving a substantial portion of our pop culture—and driving people straight to the box office.

Let’s take a look at the biggest movies of the past year. OK, so out of the 10 highest grossing films of 2015, only two were original stories—the animated film Inside Out and Matt Damon in space movie The Martian. The other top films were all reboots, throwbacks, or in the case of one film, the seventh in a series:

[Clip from Fast and Furious trailer]

That, of course, is the great Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 7. The new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, has been a whopping success precisely it taps into fans’ love for the original three films—instead of taking the story in a whole new course, the film is built around giving the people what they want: some fun new stuff, but mostly more about stories and characters they already know.

[Clip from Star Wars: The Force Awakens] 

The same thing is going on, to a lesser extent, with TV. Online streaming has opened up an endless portal to nostalgia—thanks for the miracle of the internet, you can stream all the shows you grew up on as a kid. Are you vaguely wondering why Buffy the Vampire meant so much to you as a 14-year-old? Here you go, here’s every episode, have fun falling down that rabbit hole for the next month.

In a lot of ways, we are in the renaissance of ‘90s TV. Not only are outlets streaming old shows, but they’re commissioning reboots of TV they know holds a warm and fuzzy place in audiences’ hearts because of the sheer fact that they grew up on them—it’s not about quality here, people. In perhaps the most egregious case of resurrecting a show that should stay dead, Full House will return this year—Netflix commissioned 13 new episodes of the show because, apparently, people can’t get enough of jokes about John Stamos.

Now, nostalgia isn’t inherently good or bad. There are a lot of bad movies and TV shows that are made solely to tap into our nostalgia, but that’s because the feeling itself is so powerful, palpable, and real. It’s undeniable: we crave the familiar.

On today’s show, we’re exploring nostalgia in pop culture through the lens of television. We’re getting deep thoughts on four shows that have seen renewed interest in recent years: Sailor Moon, The X-Files, Golden Girls, and saved by the Bell. Stay tuned.

[old TV theme song]

But first! We’re starting out today with a conversation to frame all our thoughts on nostalgia. Yes, nostalgia is a powerful force, but what does it meaaaan? To answer this question, I called up my favorite TV writer, s.e. smith.

Hi, s.e. Smith.

S.E.: Hello! It's a pleasure talking to you.

SARAH: Did you know that you're my favorite TV writer [laughs]?

S.E.: I did not. Are you just saying that to butter up to me here?

SARAH: No, it's true. It's genuinely true. So s.e., you recently wrote for Bitch about the shows Downton Abbey and Indian Summers. Both shows, which air in the United States on PBS, are period pieces that revolve around British characters at the turn of the century. Are you still watching those shows?

S.E.: I am still watching those along with a host of other period shows and costume dramas because I have a sort of strange obsessions with froofy frocks.

SARAH: [laughs]

S.E.: I can't explain it.

SARAH: Well, you're definitely not alone. So a lot of people are familiar with Downton Abbey, which is about the lives, and intricate social hierarchies, and personal drama of aristocrats and servants in Edwardian England. But Indian Summers is newer. As Downtown Abbey wraps up its final season this year, PBS, I think, is hoping that Indian Summers can take on some of its popularity. Do you think that's right?

S.E.: Definitely. And they're also running a show that's gonna be starting a little later this month called Mercy Street, which is about the American Civil War, which is very clearly also trying to capitalize on the popularity of costume and period dramas.

SARAH: Huh. Interesting. Yeah, so if you're not familiar with it, Indian Summers is set in India. It's under the rule of the British Raj, and a group of white British people decamp to a mountain town of Simla to beat out the suffocating heat and loosen their collars for a bit. So s.e., I guess my question for you is why do audiences love period pieces like this so much?

S.E.: I think that's a question with a really complicated answer. One thing, obviously, is our mutual affection for delicious, frothy frocks. Also, there's a sense that we can engage with social issues, both past and present, and it feels more comfortable when we can distance ourselves. So a great example is Indian Summers kind of digs in, at times, on racism, and particularly looking at religious divides as well. And people are very scared of looking at that in a modern context because that kind of cuts too close to home. And there also seems to be a bit of nostalgia for days gone past with an almost deliberately-cultivated ignorance of the dark sides of that. I mean, with Downton Abbey, you had, especially in earlier seasons, women didn't even have the right to vote. You have issues like entailment that barred Lady Mary from inheriting her own family estate. So you have kind of all of these social issues that get shoved under the carpet because what you're seeing is the glitz and glamour.

SARAH: Well yeah, I think it's a really important point that in a lot of ways, these shows can comment on social issues that we're still dealing with today and that have resonated through our history. But otherwise, because they're set in the past, it feels safer to watch them somehow. Or what today would feel very political and maybe invasive or heated, instead feels exciting or like ooh, look at this other world in the past.

S.E.: Definitely. And I think you can really see that with early seasons of Downton Abbey, which I was super excited about because the show seemed to be taking a very class-war bent by looking at both the upstairs and the downstairs. Which is kind of, I don't know if you watched Julian Fellowes' film “Gosford Park” drew upon a lot of the things that we see in Downton Abbey. That's clearly when he started doing the research that you really see meticulously replicated on PBS for your viewing pleasure. And originally, you saw a lot more of the class tensions with servants wanting to get out of service, for example, which was a very alien concept at the turn of the 20th century. There was kind of an idea that you would inter-generationally work as ladies' maids and servants and butlers. And the idea that you might strike out on your own and start working for yourself was really terrifying to a lot of people. And you see the class boundaries breaking down, of course, with the infamous affair with the chauffeur and sort of an examination of issues that we're facing right now as well. But people are more reluctant to engage with contemporary class issues even with things like the fight for minimum wage and Bernie Sanders exploding in the polls.

SARAH: And so but in some ways you're saying that these issues around–In some way you're saying that these important political issues and social issues, that is something that these shows do explore. But it can get kind of downplayed or overshadowed by all the focus on the glamour of the period and the glamour of the costumes and the hair and all that. Is that what you're saying?

S.E.: It definitely can. To bag on Downton Abbey again for a minute, when you look at, for example, the paper doll sets, you're not seeing Daisy and Mrs. Patmore. You're seeing Lady Edith and Lady Mary, right? People dress up for Downton Abbey parties as the people upstairs, not the people downstairs. And you don't see things that would've been common at the time. There wouldn't have been electricity in the servants' quarters, servants were probably using outhouses rather than indoor plumbing, servants were eating the worst cuts of meat and the leftovers. So you're not seeing the really ugly parts of the servants' life. All you really see is the kitchen, which is this kind of bright, idealized version of the comfortable English farm kitchen. And then you see the servants' hall where they kind of dine and have meetings. And then you see the room where they polish the shoes, and that's about it. So you don't get a sense of what their lives were really like except through the lens of the upper class people that they work for. And that's really not an accurate picture of what life was like as a servant at the time.

SARAH: I think nostalgia plays into the costumes and the hair of these shows in a really interesting way, and one is that I feel like when people watch these shows, one thing that we love is how nicely everybody is dressed [laughs]. And something I hear over and over and that I think myself is wow, look at how all men wore hats in those days and how the women were dressed to the nines, wearing what we would think now of as very fancy handmade dresses to do the simplest things. And I'm curious on your thoughts about the nostalgia for a time when clothing was more gendered and fancier. Do you think that plays into our love of these shows?

S.E.: Oh, totally! And there's very much this nostalgia for wasn't it nice when everybody dressed up, that I also see, for example, with dressing up for airplanes. This used to be a big thing, right? Everyone would wear their fanciest clothes because this is a big adventure. And so we see people talking about wasn't it nice when people dressed up for planes instead of wearing sweat pants and slippers? But what people don't talk about is the sexual harassment that stewardesses experienced, that flight crews were usually all female in the cabin and all male in the cockpit, that women had these ridiculous appearance standards. And so that's really erased in favor of look at the pretty people wearing the pretty things. You don't see the ugly cost there.

SARAH: That ties into how these super gendered and specific ways of dressing that now we look back and say, “Oh man, that looks so glamorous” in a lot of ways are super confining and what people were rebelling against in future generations our right to wear sweat pants if we want to [laughs]. You know? And so I think nowadays we can kind of have a rosy view of the past, in part because of these shows, and say, “Oh, wouldn't it be nice if all women dressed up and wore fancy skirts and men wore hats whenever they went outside?” But on the other hand, that's not a world that I want to live in.

S.E.: Definitely not. There are a lot of highly performative gender norms that go on there that weren't just about clothing, but the clothing kind of reinforced bigger social issues. The most recent airing of Downton Abbey, we have Lady Mary trying to assert herself as the manager of the estate, and we have a farmer saying that he doesn't want to deal with her because, as a woman, she couldn't possibly be the one in charge. As though she's somehow hiding the male manager somewhere behind her, perhaps under the piano or something. And that really ties in to she's a woman, she has to wear these constricting clothes, women behave like this, they do that. And Mary is a very interesting character because she's so rebellious. So even as she's wearing the right clothing and the jewelry and having her hair done just so, she's out having affairs and taking the estate in hand and really trying to assert herself. And she gets a lot of pushback on that.

SARAH: And I think that ties in to the last thing I really want to talk about, which is that obviously, this wasn't a good time to be alive if you're a woman or a person of color or you're poor or you have a disability. Your life would be much more confined than it is today. So how does that tie in to our desire to still see these stories set in this time, a nostalgia for a period on which, honestly, life was pretty bad for people who weren't white rich guys?

S.E.: Well, it's kind of an ugly thing to say, but it really ties in with a nostalgia for an era in which systems of oppression and dominance were much simpler. And obviously, white viewers get a lot out of this because you don't really have to engage directly with race. And wasn't it nice when white people could just be in charge? And non-disabled people don't have to deal with the discomfort of seeing disabled bodies on the screen. And cis people don't have to see transgender people or to have their notions of gender challenged. And middle and upper class viewers don't really have to deal with poverty. They can push it off into the corner. So you see over and over again rhetoric about well, things used to be simpler in those days. And what people usually mean by that is that in those days, people who looked like them and enjoyed their social status got to be in charge. And dealing with this kind of internalized oppression is a big problem on both sides because of course, a lot of people from more marginalized social groups look at these shows and the huge nostalgia factor and kind of roll their eyes. After I wrote the feature on Indian Summers, I actually got a lovely email from someone who said, “You know, I'm a Hindu woman, and I've been watching everyone go gonzo for this show. And I was waiting for one person, just one person, who is not Hindu and who is white to write a piece that is critical of what this show is really saying about this time.” And it was a really stark reminder that it's kind of easy for all of us to slip into this notion that we really are better than the people that we've been oppressing for centuries.


That was writer s.e. smith. Follow s.e. on twitter @realSEsmith for more thoughts on lots of television.

Cheryl Green of Storyminders transcribed this episode. We're proud to make Popaganda accessible to people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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