Feeling Like a Child in the World of Pop Culture

May 5, 2015 | Arts and Entertainment, Autobiographical

Published: Good Men Project (May 5, 2015)

It’s impossible to enjoy a movie or television show today quite as much as you did when you were a child. Matthew Rozsa speculates as to why.


Have you ever noticed that no one enjoys a movie quite like a child?

Although I don’t have any kids myself, I’ve spent years chuckling at the great entertainment plight of those relatives and friends of mine who do have children – and, in particular, how their kids force them to watch the same movies and TV shows over and over and over again. In the past few years alone I’ve seen my own niece, friend’s children, and significant other’s children rotate through movies like Frozen and Cars, the tales of Disney princesses and Marvel superheroes, and even some timeless stand-bys like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The TV show titles are a bit harder to remember: If you’ve seen one Nick Jr. cartoon or Disney Channel sitcom, you’ve seen them all.

Naturally even the most patient parents wind up getting at least mildly exasperated with the bombardment. How can my kid enjoy watching the same damn movie on repeat? they inevitably wonder. It seems incomprehensible to us; even when an adult really enjoys a certain movie, the chances are they can only see it two or three times in short succession before growing tired of it.

Yet it wasn’t too long ago that we weren’t very different from the offspring of today. Growing up I knew the words from the Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and Mighty Ducks trilogies by heart, to say nothing of blockbuster hits like Jurassic Park and Independence Day and countless Saturday morning cartoons (especially the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Nicktoons like Doug, Rugrats, and Rocko’s Modern Life). When I watched these stories as a kid, however, I didn’t simply feel “entertained” by them; I was genuinely living the adventures of the dashing archaeologist, time-traveling teenager, ragtag pee-wee hockey team, etc. that I was seeing unfold in front of me. Reading a book could offer me a mental form of escape, but when I was sitting in front of a screen surrounded by light and sound, I felt as if I had physically entered those worlds.

Not surprisingly, whenever I think of movies and TV shows that had a formative impact on my life, I usually come up with the stuff I saw during those tender years. I first began to view American history as a romantic romp, and from there a life’s passion, thanks to the fact that movies like 1776 were a staple of my childhood; two episodes of The Twilight Zone inspired my first short story and first political essay (“The Obsolete Man” and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” respectively); and my ongoing love of horror movies can almost certainly be traced to being scarred by the gory imagery of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 during a sleepover.

When I see young kids today watch movies or television, it’s pretty obvious that my experience was the norm – that although they’ve been shaped by different movies and TV shows, they are being lost in those worlds just as much as I was, and are no doubt going to be profoundly shaped by them as adults as a result. What’s more, I suspect a lot of my fellow adults are having a hard time getting over their own past childhood adventures.

Think about the cultural zeitgeist in early-21st century America. This is the age of geekdom, in which sub-cultures abound based on pop culture properties not only from movies and TV shows but books, comics, music, web series… you name it. And this doesn’t just apply to popular franchises: Even the most obscure material has its share of Internet fanbases and Comic-Con booths. While most of the people who indulge in these fictional universes are mentally stable enough to realize that they don’t literally exist, one can’t shake the sense that they crave the ability to plunge into them – to leave behind the humdrum lives of going to school, eking out a living, and getting ensnared in petty melodramas from their personal lives. When they spend hours picking apart the quality of the latest episodes from their favorite show or the newest blockbuster movie, they’re doing so with a zeal not unlike that displayed by medieval religious clerics who analyzed every letter of their faith’s sacred texts so as to get closer to God.

Perhaps this explains why pop culture has so often become the front for political campaigns. Take the misogyny of Gamergate, wherein video game fans expressed a knee-jerk hatred for feminists whose desire for gender equality in popular media threatens the male-oriented sphere they created for themselves. To be fair, it can also be seen in the innumerable social justice movements that demand racial, gender, and other forms of diversity in popular films and TV shows; even when those campaigns are logically and morally right, they’re still rooted in the assumption that these cultural properties are somehow more than just tall tales, that they have a deeper social importance that must be acknowledged and accommodated. This also explains why images and characters from popular fiction are having real-world political consequences, from the V for Vendetta mask to the make-up and smile of The Joker from The Dark Knight.

Of course, the very act of intellectualizing and even politicizing this material guarantees that the childlike wonder of those seeing them at a very young age will forever elude them. Much of this is no doubt due to neurology; as we learn more about the brain and nervous system (and what we know right now is very slim), we keep developing new appreciation for how infants, children, and teenagers process reality in ways that are drastically different from adults. Beyond the material sciences, simple common sense tells us that we will never feel as thrilled by certain experiences as we did when we first had them. Even as new stories are adapted for the big and small screens, our increased familiarity with the language of filmmaking and the tropes that mark all forms of storytelling ensures that we will never feel quite as awe-struck as we did when even the most rudimentary kinds of fiction were brand-new to us.

This doesn’t mean that that experience can never return. One of my mother’s fondest memories is of seeing her dad smile like a kid the first time he watched Star Wars in theaters, when he must have been in his early sixties. Because he had never seen anything like that before, it truly blew him away… and on those rare occasions when the intersection of art and technology is kind enough to offer us other true masterpieces like Star Wars, adults can indeed be swept up as if they were children again (the only movie in recent memory that I believe has achieved this, by the way, is The Avengers). More often, however, the tethers of the real world prevent us from ever getting thoroughly lost in those other realities like we once did. As a result, many of us find ourselves caught in a perpetual nostalgia fix, publicly griping about how modern fictional properties aren’t as good as the ones we enjoyed when were kids (and secretly lamenting that what we used to love as kids doesn’t entertain us nearly as much today) because our sensoria are failing to achieve the escapism that our spirits still yearn for.

Ironically, I’ve found that there are plenty of movies and shows I can watch repeatedly today without losing any of their enjoyment. Without exception, however, these tend to be existential tales – TV shows like Breaking Bad, dramatic films like The Shawshank Redemption, and comedies like The Big Lebowski, which despite their differences all contain core musings about what it means to be alive, responsible and adult. The main difference between what I enjoy repeatedly now and what did it for me when I was a child is that while my younger self wished to escape into fantastical worlds, my adult counterpart wants stories, characters, and messages that have something to say for my real-world life. Even the fantastical stories that I watch on repeat have an appeal precisely because they seem grounded in the real world and offer thought-provoking commentary about it: see The Dark Knight or (to mention a movie I think is grossly underrated) Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

That’s why, even though I’ll likely never be immersed in fictional worlds as completely as I was years ago, the loss only bothers me a little. I miss that part of my past, but I’m grateful that I have evolved to a different phase of my life that is no less rewarding. At the same time, I can’t say that I don’t envy the children of today and their adult counterparts who, by virtue of producing material that can define their lives, clearly have a little bit of an inner child residing within them.

For most of us, you can never go back.