This week’s question comes from a conversation our staff had in the office:
What pop culture do you wish you had when you were a kid?
Gravity Falls was the first animated series that made me seriously question whether or not I even grew up with good cartoons. (I did, ultimately. I can’t blatantly disrespect Recess, Pepper Ann, and The Weekenders like that.) It was so strange and devastatingly witty, and featured a loving sibling duo where the sister wasn’t a wet blanket, but a worthy accomplice (with a refined taste for fashionable sweaters). The episode that still makes me guffaw is “Sock Opera,” where Mabel Pines (Kristen Schaal) decides to impress a total snot of a puppet-loving hipster named Gabe with a sock-puppet opera. Mabel went after everything with such a go-getter attitude, and that included friendships (whether they were deserving of such kindness or not). I appreciate that she was never shamed for having crushes (even if some of them were dubious). Plus, it was a show that contained actual mysteries, right down to the coded closing credits. If Gravity Falls had been around when I was younger, maybe I’d be way better at developing fan theories than I am now. (Seriously, I’m so bad.)
If I could go back in time, the biggest change I would make wouldn’t be adding something to my formative pop-cultural years, but taking something away. The slow decline in popularity of the terms “girl band,” “women in rock,” and all variations thereof has been one of the most welcome developments I’ve seen over my lifetime as a music fan, normalizing the sight of a non-cis-male person holding a guitar and de-segregating the music that they make with it. I understand that the term was useful for a while, when rock ’n’ roll was so male-dominated that everyone who wasn’t a man needed to stick together and lift each other up, much like what’s happening in the film industry today. But musicians, then and now, tended to hate being lumped in with other groups who might sound completely different from them simply based on their gender, and so while I appreciated the likes of Chicago’s now-defunct Venus Zine while they lasted, I wish I could go back in time, peer over the magazine at my teenage self, and tell her, “One day, we won’t need these labels anymore. Also, no one will read magazines.”
When the She-Ra reboot first aired on Netflix, I was, despite all previous exposure to nerd culture, surprised by some of the negative reaction. People were waxing nostalgic about the original and how the new show could never come close to it. This astonished me because the original She-Ra, along with He-Man, Transformers, and all the animated staples of my youth were pretty much garbage: cynical and lazily-produced toy commercials presented under the thinnest veneer of entertainment. Even worse, for all of the wacky concepts and gonzo characters, they were repetitive and bland. Adventure Time took the unfulfilled promise and potential of those shows and finally delivered on them. Jake The Dog and Finn The human are always down for, well, adventure! They explore dungeons full of esoteric traps and strange treasures, confront all manner of inter-dimensional wizards, and travel to a seemingly endless series of inventive cities and locations. Adventure Time also builds up on the emotional intelligence of those ’80s cartoons with a cast of rich and multifaceted characters. The only thing better than extracting an enchanted blade from the body of an undead wizard is doing it with someone you care about.
This wouldn’t have changed my life, but there’s something I wish I could’ve had that just wasn’t technologically possible when I was a kid: Lego Dimensions. Hitting pretty late in the “toys to life” trend, in which things could be unlocked in a video game by scanning in physical toys, Dimensions was a game where you built a Lego thing in real life, put it on a special pedestal, and then used that Lego thing in the game. You had to follow instructions to build specific objects (it wasn’t really magic), but it was still amazing to build a little Batmobile and then transport it into the game so a Lego figure of Homer Simpson could drive it around. Unfortunately, the actual game of Lego Dimensions was pretty boring, so the thrill of building an item out of Lego bricks before I could use it in the game was lost on grown-up me. If I were a less discriminating kid without better games to play, though, it would’ve absolutely blown my mind.
As a kid, I read A Wrinkle In Time until I knew it by heart, and tried to dive into the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, but my middle-grade reading was primarily grounded in reality by way of Harriet The Spy and Judy Blume. I was an adult by the time Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone came out, and as I tore into the Harry Potter series I loved it immediately. I also could not help feeling pangs of envy toward the kids who got to grow up in a world where Hogwarts existed. The series combined so many of my favorite things—the U.K., fantasy, trains, and a boarding-school setting, which always fascinated me—that I immediately became immersed. I used to take a day off work when a new HP volume came out just to try to read as much of it as I could at once, as a grown-ass adult. My first date with my husband was to see the movie of that first Harry Potter book in 2001, and just the fact that he was also a big HP fan convinced me he was a keeper. When our kids were just about old enough, I started reading Harry Potter to them at bedtime, and I was soon informed that my English accent was, in a word, “awful.” Fortunately, by then they could read the volumes all on their own, as I still have them all in hardcover. Lucky kids.
There’s been a bit of a role reversal in my relationship with my dad: I’m now the one who introduces him to pop culture, whether it’s One Day At A Time or new music from Rosalía. He continues to delight and surprise me with his insights; his big takeaway from The Witch was that life can be hard for teenage girls, especially ones with limited resources. We don’t see eye to eye on everything—he hasn’t been able to get into BoJack Horseman or Barry (although he still digs The Fonz). This isn’t to say that he hasn’t shaped my interests, because I still love boleros and films from Mexico’s Golden Age like nothing else, which is why I would have loved to have seen Coco with him when we were both younger. I can just imagine the conversation that would have been prompted by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich’s gorgeously rendered story about legacies, liminal states, and Mexican culture. It was no secret that my dad idolized Pedro Infante, the Mexican movie star who partially inspired the character of Ernesto de la Cruz, when he was a child. He even tried to make a guitar so he could learn to play like Infante, who was classically trained in multiple instruments. We had a wonderful time when we did see Coco in 2017, but I can’t help but think that such a movie would have opened up the kind of talks we have now about the role of pop culture in shaping our identities much sooner.
It’s actually probably for the best that escape rooms weren’t around when I was a kid, because I can only imagine how badly I would have annoyed the shit out of my mom by asking to be driven out to Indianapolis every weekend to do one. As a kid with a healthy (?) tendency toward magical thinking, I was always drawn to spaces where the normal rules of reality were suspended—laser-tag arenas, theme parks, and, of course, the vast and diverse world of video games. Escape rooms combine the allure of that kind of semi-magical space with the sorts of abstract logic puzzles my brain has always thrived on—to say nothing of my only-slightly-tamped-down-by-adulthood need to show off how “intelligent” I am, for a value of intelligence that’s more fixated on decoding obscure information in a disused strip-mall office space rather than, say, paying my taxes. In other words, I would have been completely insufferable with regular access to them as a kid. But since I was already pretty insufferable anyway, I’m going to say the joys of getting to play in them once a year on my birthday or whatever would have been well worth the risks. (My mom might disagree.)