I never thought I would be questioning the impermanence of my youth over spring break, but it happened. It happened while I watched My Mad Fat Diary, a six-episode long show produced by the British television channel E4.
My Mad Fat Diary is about a teenage girl, Rachel Earl, who leaves a psychiatric hospital and readjusts to her life at home. We follow her through all of the trials and tribulations she faces as she makes friends, deals with her family and struggles with her body image. It’s a relatable story, and the teen angst in it is hilarious and tragic all at the same time. But there’s still something that’s off, and it has nothing to do with the quality of My Mad Fat Diary. See, there’s something different about Rachel and all of her friends that, at first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, it hit me: They don’t use cellphones.
And it’s not because they can’t afford them. It’s not because they don’t like to stay in touch. It’s because—well, it’s set in the '90s. Yes, the '90s. The '90s, that magical place where people made mixtapes on cassettes and Heath Ledger’s career was just getting started. In fact, much of Rachel’s character is based around the fact that she listens to great music from that decade. It’s not just her—the characters in this show use payphones. They earnestly wear overalls and frequently don grungy band shirts that they probably didn’t buy at Urban Outfitters.
Is this the start of '90s nostalgia so strong that it manifests itself into television shows and movies? Probably. It’s been going on for a little while with movies like Coach Carter and Freedom Writers. However, these stories take on specific events in history and they don’t center on a teenage protagonist, they don’t cultivate the nostalgia that is specific to that decade. Those movies also don’t really focus on the pop culture and trends of the '90s, at least not as much as a movie about a teenager usually does.
For college students—for people right on the cusp of tumbling straight into adulthood—this shift can be a way to remember childhood. Weinberg freshman Valeria Rosero looks back on the '90s fondly when she sees it depicted in the media.
“I miss the '90s in a way that everything seemed simpler," she said. "People used to… go outside and play, and there was no internet. It was different.”
My Mad Fat Diary is based on an autobiographical book, but that book is set in the '80s. Someone consciously decided to push the setting forward in time. Similarly, The Perks of Being a Wallflower was just adapted from a book written and set in the '90s. And this setting is also reflected in the everyday choices of the characters.
There are a few clear reasons for why this is happening. People who grew up in the '90s are adults now, and they’re beginning to call the shots. Also, where else would BuzzFeed get what feels like most of its content, if not from the '90s?
This shift in setting isn’t unique to our time. It happens every few years. But it’s a good way to start thinking about how the recent years, as well as our present, will eventually be depicted. Even the mere fact that technology shifted so much in the new millennium has had an impact on the stories we see. Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, How I Met Your Mother and even Kim Possible prominently use cellphones to move the plot forward.
It hasn’t started for us yet, but we recently got a sneak peek of what it will look like when our generation starts telling stories. It’s a slightly satirical one, but the opening of 21 Jump Street where Jonah Hill’s hair emulates Eminem’s iconic platinum ‘do, circa 2005, is a weird kind of two-way mirror. On one hand, there’s the depiction of recent times in that scene. In the other, we can see the future of exactly how we’re starting to look back on the past.
Still, when content is created about things that are long gone, those depictions may not always be accurate. This is true even if that content serves as a tool to look back on the past in a way that’s external to your own experiences. Medill freshman Alex Solivais thinks that at the very least, it’s a new feeling.
“It’s sort of interesting to see something that you’ve lived through depicted, and how Hollywood creates it in the public memory," he said. "This is going to be peoples’ impression of the '90s now.”
It’s also a realization. When you start making the decision to change things based on what the past was like, even if it’s only from a few years ago, there’s been a shift. The nostalgia sinks in for the first time and you can’t fight it off.