Well Said: Nostalgia and TV’s Nubile Teen Trope

The “Comforts of Nostalgia” by A.O. Scott (New York Times)

The Comforts of Nostalgia” is more about the danger of nostalgia – of getting so lost in memories, and the stuff that prompts them, that you cease living in the present, refusing to accept the reality that time moves forward and you will die one day. I think we all know someone like this. For me, it’s my elderly grandma, who straight up refuses to leave the home she raised her ten kids in. She wants to live “surrounded by her memories.”

The pretty wild thing about this essay is that it’s accompanied by photos of collections of various NYT staff, and it’s pretty astounding to see the hundreds of records, books, VHS tapes and figurines in people’s houses. I like stuff as much as anyone else in a capitalist society, but I tend to toss it because I simply run out of space; when your dwellings are still rentals, storage is scarce and you know all too well the soul-sucking process of moving all your crap from one small place to another. 

I really loved this essay, and I tend to enjoy this author in general, partly because he avoids a holier-than-thou tone or any finger-wagging. He admits to being a collector himself, and a new movie he was reviewing prompted some serious introspection about his nostalgia habit.

The comments on this essay are worth reading, too. So many of them are about people’s own precious collections, collections that only a few other commenters point out are largely unappreciated by the ones left to clean it up when you’re gone. Many point out the generational divide: boomers and Gen-Xers tend to appreciate shopping in stores and still owning physical things, whereas millennials and Gen Z tend to concern themselves more with experiences. As an elder millennial myself, I do understand the charm of a small business’s store that seems like it was made just for me, but I also really like that my music collection is purely digital now – and I also have to admit I’d be pretty devastated if Spotify suddenly ceased to exist, making all my carefully curated playlists disappear. Another millennial reality: we don’t have nearly as much financial freedom as our Gen-X and Boomer elders did at our age, so the ability to amass this much stuff and have a place to put it is uh, out of reach for a lot of us.

Overall, this piece and its hundreds of comments ask the big questions of if we need to define ourselves with things, if we can cherish our memories and still cherish the present, and how each generation grapples with the harsh reality that each of us will cease to exist one day.

The ‘Euphoria’ Problem by Jessica Valenti

I haven’t seen the TV show Euphoria, but Jessica Valenti points out something that has made me uncomfortable for a while now but I haven’t been able to put a finger on. When we watch dramas about teens, they almost never feature actual teenage actors, but instead twentysomethings (or even thirtysomethings). That itself is fine, but the heavy sexualization or outright objectification of these actors when they’re playing teenagers, well that’s what makes me feel icky.

Because even though yes, teens do have sex, they don’t have nearly as much sex as TV shows makes it seem. And furthermore, teens very much do not look like hot young adults. Instead, they’re awkward, gangly, pimply. So the soft-porn scenes Valenti describes in Euphoria, like a character’s dream about a 17-year-old character naked on a bearskin rug with her nipples being licked, well that would make me uncomfortable too. “After all,” Valenti asks, “how different is a show featuring a close up of a 24-year-old’s nipple – a nipple we’re meant to believe belongs to a 17-year-old – [from] a ‘barely legal’ porn video that throws a 20-something in pigtails? And how can we claim to be a society that believes adults shouldn’t be attracted to teenagers while we consistently pump out entertainment for adults that sexualizes minors?

The Sex Ed series on Netflix is quite different in its portrayal of teenage and adult sexuality – it highlights all the awkward, vulnerable, triumphant glory – and while I really enjoy this series, I admit some of its intimate scenes have made me squirmy too. Many of the actors do look more like actual teens, which is to say I’m fully aware the characters portrayed are still quite childhood-adjacent. At least Sex Ed doesn’t explicitly showcase body parts the way Euphoria does – Valenti made it seem like Euphoria shows lots of lingering closeups of sexy “teen” bodies, and even the female stars themselves are starting to speak out about that as well. Sex Ed will briefly show actors in their underwear, and most intimate scenes are more alluded to or set up than they are portrayed in detail. 

Valenti explains that there’s a fine line between an “edgy” and more “real” portrayal of teens and outright sexual objectification, and well, with TV’s love of teen drama, that’s still a tricky line to draw.

“There’s also no perfect solution;” Valenti writes, “censorship isn’t useful, and ending objectification can’t happen overnight. But there is one thing we can do to start us in the right direction: Stop having adults play teenagers.”