Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
News came out last week that Emma Watson will take on the role of Belle in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. The information flows on the publicity current of Disney’s upcoming adaptation of Cinderella—a live-action version due out next month and banking on that iconic blue dress. Following the release of Watson’s role, David Sims of The Atlantic wrote “Why Is Disney Trying So Hard to Dilute Its Brand?” Sims asserts “But Disney’s live-action approach is more than easy money—it’s a way to expand demographics without having to worry too much about quality.” No doubt Sims is right, that these classic films with contemporary stars will draw multi-generational audiences who love the tales, in part, because of their familiarity.
The nostalgia factor of the films (and the casting choices, particularly Watson), reminds me of the recent Honda ads featuring “vintage toys” like Jem, GI Joe, Skeletor, and Strawberry Shortcake. Ah how I fondly remember those childhood days of watching He-Man and She-Ra: A Christmas Special with my older brother. But the thing is, many of these supposedly vintage toys aren’t vintage anymore. My children play with updated versions of My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake, and I’ve noticed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles making a comeback as well. Some of the updates include more attitude and modernized appearances, but the key to marketing many of these toys is the parents—and their nostalgia.
Frederic Jameson, in Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, sees nostalgia as part of the postmodern condition, the destabilizing of all grand narratives. Says Jameson, “this nostalgic and regressive perspective—that of the older modern and its temporalities—what is mourned is the memory of deep memory; what is enacted is a nostalgia for nostalgia, for the grand older extinct questions of origin and telos, of deep time.” When history, itself a grand narrative, becomes destabilized, there is a continual cycling of new intentionally referencing old, where making really becomes remaking. Jameson would likely call this intertextuality, where audiences aware of the older version share expectations and affection for a slightly different, newer version. The original is lost, like Jameson’s “extinct questions of origin,” and replaced by a comfortable recycling of the familiar.
Disney has always been the master of the remake, choosing fairytales that are themselves remakes of oral tales whose origins are often lost or unknown. Perhaps that explains, in part, Disney’s power. In the absence of grand narratives to make sense of our world, Disney provides compelling stories even as “The Happiest Place on Earth” seems to exist outside of real time and space. Jean Baudrillard (another postmodern thinker) explained Disneyland as an example of “hyperreality,” where the real and the fictional become so blurred as to present a new concept; in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard suggests the “hyperreal,” in which a simulation of reality (like a theme park) seems more real than reality (like the surrounding area of Los Angeles). We remake the real, or we remake the remake, so that we can inhabit a fairy-tale world that is “hyperreal,” existing in its own space and time and our infinite appetite for nostalgia.
There is, however, a spiritual alternative to nostalgia and the fragmentation of metanarratives within postmodernism. There is a story outside of all stories, grand and recycled alike. It is not a “hyperreality” that can be simulated on screen but a truth embedded within our spirits. I find myself drawn to these remakes (though not as much the car commercials, which seem to offer nothing new for a new generation) precisely because of nostalgia. They connect my children’s childhood with my own, and whether times were simpler then or my memory constructs them as such, nostalgia feels comfortable. And parenting can be an uncomfortable state.
Yet C.S. Lewis reminds me that “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Marketing nostalgia is, no doubt, effective. And I will almost certainly be part of the audience for these Disney remakes, with my offspring in tow. I expect to see Emma Watson donning that golden ball gown and my daughters and I will delight in seeing some of our favorite fairy tales given new life. I will know, also, that nostalgia feeds on itself, perpetuating the longing for a story that can never fully satisfy. If remake after remake prompts us to ask “is this all?” then perhaps we can point to the grand narrative of all grand narratives. Our craving for nostalgia can remind us of our one true home and our only real purpose; God’s story is not a remake, but it too exists outside of time, outside of space, and stretches into eternity.