Nickelodeon, Netflix, and Joe Murray create a reboot featuring LGBTQ+ identity, technology, and identity crisis to show your inner child that '90s cartoons are the answer to all your problems.
Obviously, '90s cartoons were insane.
From the mind-boggling anatomy of CatDog and a conspicuous number of red demon-like characters to someone being allowed to title a children's show "The Angry Beavers," it's no wonder that being a millennial these days is practically a pathologized disorder. With the highest rates of mental disorders, '90s kids have also been dubbed "the brokest generation," and, worst of all, they have far less sex than prior generations. So, to sate our constant nostalgia for simpler times (before we realized the planet was doomed by 2050), Nickelodeon, Netflix, and Rocko's Modern Life creator Joe Murray made a 45-minute special with all the chaotic energy of the original series but applied to modern day crises.
"The 21st century is a very dangerous century." Rocko, the neurotic wallaby who taught '90s kids what a terrible Australian accent sounds like, breaks the fourth wall only once in Netflix's reboot, Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling. Rocko's lament comes after he and his best friends, Heffer and Filburt, have just returned to O-Town after spending 20 years suspended in space. When they return home, they're assailed by smartphone technology, social media craze, cancel culture, and the corporatization of everything they love. But the only change Rocko can't accept is that his favorite show, The Fatheads, has gone off the air (he's spent 20 years obsessively watching the VHS, after all). So Netflix's rebooted special of a '90s cartoon centers around Rocko's quest to create a rebooted special of a '90s cartoons. Why? As the O-Town news reports, this "90s cartoon solves problem$."
Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling Trailer | Netflix youtu.be
As heavy-handed and clumsy as the meta-commentary often is, the series' original creator, Joe Murray, chose to stream the Nickelodeon cartoon in order to maintain more creative freedom. "I wanted it to be as strong as the show and as much satire and as much social commentary as we could do in the times that we live in now," he told CBR. Indeed, Rocko returns to a world "where coffee shops are on every corner, food trucks offer multi-layered tacos, touch-screen O-Phones are being upgraded on a near-constant basis, an instant-print kiosk has replaced Rocko's old job at Kind-of-a-Lot-O-Comics, and radioactive energy drinks turn their consumers into mutants," as per Netflix's description.
Aside from pointed jokes about how the business behind computer animation is as soulless and robotic as its sub-par creations, the special's most overt social commentary is on its first trans character. "I wanted the story to be about change, how we deal with it and how it affects us," said Murray, who voiced the Bigheads' daughter Rachel (Ralph in the original series). Murray added, "I couldn't think of a more positive change in one's life than to make the decision to transition and embrace who you really are."
Rachel's character is easily the special's best achievement, with her storyline delivered simply and to-the-point, without fanfare that usually problematizes trans identity more than normalizes it. In fact, Nickelodeon developed the character by consulting with GLAAD. Nick Adams, GLAAD's director of transgender representation, praised the creative team. "When I read the story outline, I was happy to see that Rachel's gender was treated as a non-issue by Rocko and his friends, and that Rachel's father finally realized that he loves and supports his daughter," Adams wrote. "I worked with the show's creators to ensure that Rachel was drawn in a respectful way, so that her femininity wasn't a joke. We also talked about how to portray the moment Rachel reveals her transition to the boys so that it wasn't sensationalistic."
Static Cling adds much-needed LGBTQ+ representation to the G-rated sphere of entertainment. Murray seamlessly embeds Rachel's storyline into a larger narrative about how we cope with both the perks and the ravages of the 21st century, which touts the fastest rate of technological and societal change since the Industrial Revolution—or maybe ever. "It felt natural," Murray said, "because it was not only about change, about somebody finding who they are and making that courageous choice to go through that change."
The special also features returning cast members Carlos Alazraqui as Rocko, Tom Kenny as Heffer, Mr. Lawrence as Filburt, and Charlie Adler as Mr. Bighead. As Nick Adams wrote, "Rocko's Modern Life: Static Cling tells a beautiful—and hilarious—story about accepting change. The younger characters accept Rachel immediately; recognizing she's still their friend. And while Rachel's father is slow to accept change within his own family, even he realizes that loving your child should be unconditional. This story of inclusion and acceptance is so needed in our current climate."
Ultimately, it's Static Cling's distinct '90's style of after-school-specials and fable-like morals that make its over-arching message palatable rather than self-righteous. Even if the world turns sideways and you're left feeling alienated from "too much change!" as Rocko screams at the bustling town that's left him behind, "We can't live in the past," as Mr. Bighead says. "We can be grateful for it, but life isn't permanent, and if we don't embrace what's now, we miss out on a lot of the important stuff."
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Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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