CULTURE

From Baby Groot to Baby Yoda, Why Infantilized Characters Are Cultural Setbacks

TLDR: Baby Nut is a fascist and a threat to civil liberties.

First, we were bewitched by Marvel's Baby Groot in 2017, then Disney's Baby Yoda became our new god in 2019, and during the 2020 Super Bowl we witnessed the sprouting of an infantile, talking legume: Planters Peanuts' Baby Nut.

But do we want to adopt these infant forms of beloved cultural icons–or become them? Do they satiate our compulsion to parent or be parented, ourselves?

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As a marketing tactic, advertisers have been using mascots as brand ambassadors since the advent of visual media. Decades of research have revealed that mascots boost sales and public image by humanizing a product and banking on the public's emotional investment in the character. Samantha Hess, brand manager for Planters, said that the concept for Baby Nut was bizarrely inspired by Game of Thrones' Jon Snow: "There is this renewed appreciation for these fictional characters after their death, and then they come back with a renewed sense of purpose to what they're doing, which helps to set up something bigger and a little bit different."

But recently we've amped up a worrisome trend that's been tracked by nail-biting social scientists for decades: the infantilization of American consumers.

To start with, look at the last decade of unprecedented success for children's and comic book movies. With every release we've asked, "Who is this for?" but masses have flocked to them, making superhero movies and remakes of Disney children's classics the most profitable releases nearly every year; in 2019 alone, comic book and animated movies accounted for 9 of the 10 highest grossing films (and seven of the top 10 in both 2018 and 2017). For another, frankly more perplexing, example, remember a few years ago when adult women suddenly wanted to be mermaids? "I Am a Mermaid" merchandise was worn as if womanhood was one long, unedited Disney Channel movie. And with a spike in the popularity of tattoo chokers and emo music, the resurgence of '90s pop culture was synced with millennials hitting adulthood hard and, apparently, experiencing crushing nostalgia for childhood.

But the trend goes back further. In his 2014 article "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture," The New York Times' film critic A.O. Scott critiques film and TV of this millennium for demonstrating that "adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable." He asks, "Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?" As a critic of the media landscape, he says he's watched "over the last 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises...that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart."

Is this just art providing escapism, so business as usual? Not quite. Social theorist Jacopo Bernardini argues that one of the four primary reasons why infantilizing cultural artifacts appeal to the masses is because of the "nostalgia effect, trying to find stability in past experiences, because [an] adult already knows how it is to be a kid or a teenager" and, judging by 21th century media, nobody knows what being an "adult" even means anymore.

"I Don't Wanna Grow Up: I'm a Toys R Us Kid"

So, what happened? Cultural rewinds are part of the natural cycle of fashion and style, but they're also birthed from frustration and stagnation, be it economic or social. Bored social scientists have found that we, as a culture, are especially prone to indulge in nostalgia during times of transition, of upset and instability. So how has pop culture's absorption of recent social, political, and economic turmoil resulted in the so-called "death of adulthood?" Or in the killing and rebirthing of classic pop characters?

Bernardini would attribute companies' babifying of their icons to "the role of marketing in the infantilization of the postmodern adult." For one thing, today's media-saturated, Very Online world run by our robot overlords has not only rerouted our brains to work like mini-optimized search engines; it's also encouraged our desires for immediate gratification, shortened attention spans, and emphasized impulsivity over practicality. In other words, we're being socialized to stave off adulthood. In Simon Gottschalk's book The Terminal Self, he argues that "our everyday interactions with these computer technologies have accelerated and normalized our culture's infantile tendencies."

In fact, the American National Academy of Sciences once suggested that modern teenage development doesn't end until age 30, while the USA Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine has suggested that practical adulthood begins around 34 years old. What this translates to, in terms of our consumer habits, is a booming market targeting kidults, a term first used in The New York Times in 1985 to describe a biological adult whose lifestyle affords them the leisure and resources to indulge in the hobbies of childhood and exist in a protracted adolescence, whether that means occupying one's time with cartoons and video games or drowning oneself in glitter and flip sequins. Bernadini describes a kidult as "an archetype of an encouraged regression, to facilitate the promotion of goods which are only apparently addressed to young people and children." To companies, that means "kidults are a perfect target for the seller. They have a large number of desires and the real ability to make purchases," adds social psychologist Maryna Dvorynk.

To put it that way sounds alternatingly condescending and banal, or even a little precious (after all, who doesn't yearn for the innocence of childhood?). But Dvornyk questions the cultural impact of this kind of marketing on our collective psyche: "Media communication, and especially advertising, nowadays seems to promote a kind of collective regression: Needs should be satisfied immediately because it is imperative to take here and now everything that life, or rather the consumer's society, promises to give us." In terms of marketing and the insidious ways brands creep their tentacles into our collective psychology, Dvornyk adds, "Youthfulness–like beauty, success and money–becomes an object that is possible to own. In other words, youth, a biological condition, seems to have become a cultural definition."

How the Kidult Became the Standard of the 21st Century

So, are we manipulated into buying goods and services that remind us of being a child in order to find reprieve from adult existential crises? Of course–look at how many crises today's adults are facing and, consequently, how difficult the transition from childhood to adulthood has become these days. Current young adult Americans came of age during two recessions and a shrinking middle class, a "forever war" in the Middle East, climate change crisis, and the starkest political polarity since the Civil War. But without haranguing about sacrificial economics and the ravages of industrial society at the cost of individual identity (okay, a little bit of haranguing), it's a mundane truth that scarcity is the god of invention. With millennials earning an average of 20% less than baby boomers (despite meeting expectations to earn a college degree and taking on their share of the nation's $1.5 trillion student loan debt crisis), labor opportunities are becoming both harder to find and less concrete. We can work online from home but often with the trappings of the gig economy, so millennials have gained a reputation for job-hopping, with three times the number of millennials switching jobs each year than non-millennials. Of course, that's largely due to today's job market, which is uniquely unstable compared to when prior generations transitioned into adulthood. And that's not to mention the entire work ethos of industrialized western society, which is dehumanizingly simple: You are what you do (for your paycheck).

Furthermore, it can seem like today's youth live in abundance, with techy shortcuts to solve every problem and more options than they know what to do with. But that's part of the problem; as Dvornyk notes, "Adulthood is being dangerously delayed by a generation who are overstimulated by a media-saturated society and overwhelmed by choice, which makes them unable to settle down, capable only of temporary alignments before they grasp onto the next bright opportunity." In a culture obsessed with constant self-optimization and upgrades (down to the way millennials were parented to prioritize "optimizing" themselves, according to the critic Malcom Harris), society's expectation to "correctly" enter adulthood is to streamline one's education into a career–to do everything, achieve in all areas, and have it all. In reality, financial analysts note that "millennials have taken longer to launch their careers than previous generations, and some have failed to launch their careers altogether, while progress toward equity in education and the labor market has stalled." So maybe millennials really are the worst for having invented Instagram and fostering in an age of selfies, FOMO, and "social media sites...shaped by infantile aesthetics and affects"—as some cultural analysts say—but it's because we inherited an unstable social reality where "stable identities have become unmoored by free markets" (and also, admittedly, Instagram really did f*ck up everyone's mental health).

So we turn to pop culture to ground ourselves, our shaky sense of selfhood and misfitted place in the world–or so say more bored social scientists who study our consumer habits in hopes to finally understand why we keep watching DCEU movies despite knowing they will always be terrible. Dvornyk critiques, "In our information-cluttered world media becomes the lifesaver and means to propagate values, trends and principles that comprise the symbolic universe of ethical choice." She adds, "Such communications legitimize immaturity or childish behavior and promote youth lifestyle." In pop culture, youth isn't just a commodity; it's a coveted identity.

Baby mascots

Enter baby mascots. As Dvornyk goes on to say, "The postmodern adult...chases the aesthetics and lifestyles of young people, lives in a state of continuous present, postpones or eludes those stages that used to mark the social recognition of maturity as well as the responsibilities and the preclusions involved." Traditional models of social maturation mark parenthood as the final transition into adulthood. But as U.S. birth rates decline due to millennials opting not to have children, not being able to afford to have children, or waiting until later in life than prior generations, today's culture suspends adulthood in a chrysalis stuck between carefree childhood and the responsibilities of child-rearing. The result is a generation of reluctant kidults who in many ways feel pressures of adulthood at younger ages while paradoxically being socialized by corporations and media to hide from adulthood behind performative youth: a cycle of palliative consumerism and nostalgia used to escape time. Putting Baby Nut aside, we love baby mascots who are designed without agency to speak for themselves (Baby Groot and Baby Yoda) and who fit into larger, cultural narratives (the superheroes or anti-hero on a quest to defend innocents). The ideal baby mascot is basically an avatar of our twin desires to nurture as well as be nurtured: We are all Baby Yoda; Baby Yoda is us. Or, as The Washington Post put it, "Baby Yoda is blank. And that means Baby Yoda, in a sense, is ours."

"Synth Culture": Is Baby Nut Fascist?

Unfortunately, the collective belief that "we are what we consume" is a lie, as most of "popular culture" is manufactured by a few corporations whose sole aim is to sell products. As psychologist Jim Taylor writes, "A more accurate phrase [than pop culture] is 'synth culture' because it is a synthetic product created by corporate conglomerates rather than being an expression of the shared experiences of real people."

Are our beloved characters just cash cows and damningly cute idols of escapism and consumption? Actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Star Trek Beyond) attributes this double appeal to the nefarious nature of capitalism, even citing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to say: "Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in: inequality, corruption, economic injustice, etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth?"

For proof, one need only to return to the creation of Baby Nut. Mike Pierantozzi, an ad executive at Planters' agency VaynerMedia, shared that the idea for Mr. Peanut's death was inspired by the virtual bloodbath at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. Pierantozzi told CNBC, "When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It's such a strange phenomenon." He added, "We did the unthinkable: We created [...] an idea where Mr. Peanut dies and dies specifically sacrificing himself for his friends, which has always been a tenet of who he is and what he does — he always puts others first." Despite being met by the Twitterverse's collective "wtf that is a fascist legume," Planters wasn't playing around when they employed such blatant pathos to gain attention; Baby Nut merch was available just hours after its "birth" in the company's Super Bowl commercial.

Did it work? Sort of. We certainly love to hate Baby Nut (for many right reasons, spanning from the transparency of such a manipulative cash grab at Baby Yoda's popularity to the fact that "it's all so dumb" and "shamelessly shilling Baby Nut merch"). But the marketing strategy Planters based its "hair-brained" scheme on is demonstratively effective, considering the astronomical demand for Baby Yoda merchandise, Baby Groot's sizable role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's success, and Baby Nut inspiring disturbing fan art and at least one manifesto to murder all brand mascots.

If our collective maturity as a culture—and, possibly, our civil liberties—are at stake, then what can we do? While some may be able to resist the pull of Baby Yoda's large black eyes or Baby Groot's happy little smile, the rest of us seem doomed until we either have children of our own or topple capitalism's stronghold on American media. The least we can do is withhold our consumer power and abstain from buying a company's babified products or streaming their babified content on their streaming apps (but do we have the willpower when Baby Groot dances? Oh, how he dances).

Corporate brands cultivating soulless personalities on Twitter is bad enough. Brands creating intricate backstories to superimpose narrative arcs onto their mascots is even worse (you know Mr. Clean was adopted and that he's gay, right?). But because Grimes and Elon Musk are having a baby, because we can attend concerts of our favorite dead idols' holograms, because future pop stars will be nothing but computer algorithms, and because our society's cultural tastes are careening towards post-humanism—maybe the truth is that we just want to escape time and slip into the glossy alternate reality of ad space, where Gushers candy turns children's heads into fruits and Lisa Frank's technicolor tigers run free. Yes, Mr. Peanut–the 104-year-old gay cannibal and Planters mascot–has died and been reborn: We're now living in a world with Baby Nut, Baby Groot, Baby Yoda, and soon, even Baby Sonic.



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CULTURE

Jenna Jameson Just Accused a Buzzfeed Reporter of Being a Pedophile

She has left the earth behind to become a full-blown right-wing conspiracy nut.

On Saturday night Jenna Jameson tweeted screenshots of a tweet and a blog post from Ryan Broderick, a senior reporter at Buzzfeed News, with the text "You monsters can't hide, we see you."

The tweet was part of a series on the topic of elite pedophilia that Jameson sent out Saturday evening, including a link to a video attacking Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon for "Daryl," an offensive sketch he made in 2009. According to the video that Jameson shared, a comedic performer using a doll to simulate sexual crimes (in undeniably poor taste) is evidence that he actually endorses those crimes, and according to Jameson's tweet, screenshots of jokes Broderick made eight years ago indicate a "persistent sexual attraction to children."

Jenna Jameson is possibly the most famous adult film star of all time, and she used that career to launch a massively successful website and a best-selling autobiography. But you wouldn't know that from scrolling through a Twitter timeline dominated by tweets praising Donald Trump, attacking Planned Parenthood, and criticizing vaccination laws. It's not how she earned her fame, but to more than 720,000 twitter followers, Jameson has become little more than an unhinged conservative commentator.

When Jameson left the adult film industry in 2008, she did so with a dramatic proclamation that she would "never, ever, ever spread my legs again in this industry. Ever." Since that time she has gone through a number of transformations, including becoming a mother to three kids, converting to Orthodox Judaism, going sober, and achieving some dramatic weight loss. But none of her transformations can compare to her political realignment.

Jenna Jameson Weight Loss Instagram

During the 2008 Democratic primaries she was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and resented the fact that Republican administrations often targeted the adult film industry "to make a point," but by 2012 she had shifted to supporting Mitt Romney, citing economic motives—"When you're rich, you want a Republican in office." A few years later, seemingly motivated by a growing antipathy for Islam and a suspicion of Syrian refugees, Jameson announced her support of Donald Trump in November of 2015. And in various tweets since then she has attacked LGBTQ acceptance, endorsed T.I.'s concern for his daughter's hymen, and promoted military action against Iran. So far so awful, but there's nothing that unusual about the politics of patriarchy and hatred in America. Things only become really weird when hateful people attempt to take the moral high ground from the rest of us.

According to the worldview of people like Jenna Jameson, anyone who thinks abortion rights should be protected hates babies, and anyone who thinks children should be taught not to feel shame about sex and sexuality has some nefarious motive. According to them, any sense that we are trying to build a more humane world can only be a front to cover up some evil plot. Enter Comet Ping Pong and the Pizzagate conspiracy.

Pizzagate

Hollywood, Democratic politicians, and the liberal media elite are all, apparently, entangled in an elaborate satanic child sex trafficking operation that involves coded social media posts and a basement in Washington D.C. that doesn't exist. The fact that a social media account for a pizzeria with ping pong tables makes frequent references to cheese pizza and features images of children playing ping pong is a deeply suspicious puzzle, the name Alefantis is an alias based on the French "les enfants," and a gay man can not care about children without being a pedophile. And central to the whole scheme is the woman Jameson once hoped would be president: Hillary Clinton.

These are the absurd overreaches that separate the Pizzagate conspiracy from the sickening reality that the Jeffrey Epstein case began to lay bare. It has become an undeniable fact that there are networks of wealthy pedophiles who use their power to protect themselves and each other from exposure and prosecution. In many ways this revelation has come as part of a general change in the conversation around sex abuse.

People like Dan Harmon and Ryan Broderick probably don't need to push the envelope with jokes about horrifying sexual crimes when there are prominent figures getting away with those crimes on a regular basis—and with the assistance of law enforcement and powerful members of the media. But the idea of looking back at old jokes from 2009 or 2012 and seeing them as evidence of participation in those crimes is absurd. It implies that literally everyone in the media is involved and has known about these crimes all along. It implies that Tom Hanks is a monster. And that kind of implication is the foundation of Mike Cernovich's "journalism"—of which Jenna Jameson is apparently a big fan.

Since inspiring a man to take an assault rifle into Comet Ping Pong in late 2016, alt-right star Mike Cernovich has focused on cataloguing jokes about child molestation as evidence of actual perversion and involvement in the vast child abuse conspiracy. Ryan Broderick became his latest target in a recent post to his personal website shortly after Broderick published a story that led to the deplatforming of a pro-Trump group that was pushing a conspiracy theory about the Coronavirus. According to the conspiracy theory—which Jameson herself helped spread—a Chinese scientist, who was identified for the purposes of doxing, had created the Coronavirus as a bioweapon for the purposes of sterilization and population control.

Cernovich has been helping to spread misinformation on the topic, and it's hard not to see it as retaliation when he sifts through thousands of tweets to find a joke—since deleted—mocking men who identify themselves as hebephilic to avoid the label of pedophile. Ryan Broderick's 2012 tweet pleading for Barack Obama to legally differentiate "between us good-natured hebephiles and amoral pedophiles" could hardly be more obviously intended as a joke, but that is not a legitimate defense in Cernovich's worldview.

He has previously used similar tactics to get director James Gunn fired from the Guardians of the Galaxy series—a position to which he has since been reinstated. It's kind of his whole deal. What's strange is to see Jenna Jameson falling for this, and being sucked so thoroughly into this kind of conspiratorial thinking that she ends up sharing homophobic propaganda from decades past. Five years ago, Jameson was tweeting support for gay marriage in the United States. Over the weekend she shared a link to a piece of protest writing that has been misconstrued and held up as proof of a pedophilic "gay agenda" since the 90s, in efforts to suppress gay rights.

Where did this come from? There is generally an expectation that someone with a background in sex work will have fairly open and accepting views when it comes to the politics of sex and sexuality, but in all her social media profiles Jameson ignores her past and chooses to label herself as a mom above all else. The natural fears that come with raising children seem to have combined with shame about her past, a convert's religious zeal, and a ton of right-wing propaganda to send her racing away from openness and acceptance. She has converted to a faith that tells her that so much of what she did with her life was wrong—that even her tattoos are wrong.

She wants to protect her children from the kind of mistakes she made and from so many of the scary things in the world. Terrorist attacks, school shootings, sexual predators, bullies. It's understandable that the world could start to seem like it's aligned against her—like there are powerful forces trying to corrupt and harm her children. And even efforts to help children, if they don't match her own plans, start to look like insidious plots. Vaccines will give your children autism. The coronavirus will sterilize them. And sex ed will send them down a sad, dark path that their mother knows too well.

With all the real-world problems that she wants to protect her children from, Jameson has allowed right-wing paranoia to infect her worldview. Religion, nationalism, and the politics of sexual repression provide a sense of shelter… but they also lead her to accuse a random Buzzfeed writer of being a pedophile. She has fallen fully down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole.