The show illustrates young people's complicated relationship with the past
Is it really true that millennials refuse to grow up? McDonald’s has brought out an ‘adult Happy Meal’ triggering a slew of millennial TikTok videos about buying a fast-food meal with surprise toy to heal your inner child.
Meanwhile, if adulthood is reaching nostalgically back into the realm of childhood toys, we’re seeing a corresponding incursion of adult values into childhood cartoons. This isn’t a new trend, but adult-oriented cartoons are now big business — to say nothing of the $22bn anime industry.
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The most recent addition to this genre, though, reaches as overtly into millennial childhood as ‘adult Happy Meals’. Velma, a new adult-oriented reboot of the Scooby-Doo franchise, cites Rick and Morty as an inspiration, is written as an ‘origin story’ for Velma Dinkley, and will be full of sex and violence, while leaving out Scooby-Doo. And, following a now well-worn strategy for ‘updating’ classic characters, it’s (predictably) kicked off a flurry of culture-war comment about ways the new show will modify the title character’s race and sexual orientation.
It would be easy just to sneer at these as yet more instances of millennial self-infantilisation: the cultural cognate of the apparent millennial preference for a lifestyle without financial or family commitments, which is read by some as an aversion to growing up. Indeed there appears to be some millennials who struggle to grasp that they aren’t the kids any more: recently Femi Oluwole, one-time Remain campaign youth activist, declared that “When my generation takes over this country we will not be swearing an oath to the king”.
He seemed oblivious to the fact that his generation already is in power: around 130 of the 2019 Parliamentary intake are millennials, and 20 or so are Femi’s age or younger. And this points to the fact that in economic and political terms, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that millennials are stratifying sharply: home ownership is ever more miserably out of reach, for example, to those without access to the Bank of Mum and Dad. Even so, this hasn’t stopped some commentators blaming the apparent aversion to ‘adulting’ — that is, anything that resembles the behaviour of an adult — on selfishness or narcissism.
But wherever you stand on the economics and culture of a generation whose older members are now pushing 40, it’s evident that millennials’ relationship to childhood is both ambivalent and heavily laden with nostalgia. Perhaps we should see this less in terms of general cultural decline or some special moral deficiency of millennials, as simply in terms of the vast historical shift that cut this particular generation’s youth in two.
If, as Femi was, you were born around 1990, the end of childhood coincided with the ignominious death of the Before Times, between 9/11 and the Great Crash. You reached adolescence as the platform internet arrived. And just as political discourse started to lose its marbles, and ‘IRL’ began to disappear into online discourse, the “End of History” era in politics collapsed into the fog of terrorism, war, economic crisis and climate change we all now inhabit.
Some people might insist that the world today is a more interesting place for it. But it’s a considerably less peaceful, prosperous and self-confident one too. Under those circumstances, perhaps even those millennials who happily embrace adult responsibilities and political agency, could hardly be blamed for reminiscing about a time that felt more innocent not just for children, but for the whole Western world.