Two shows on Netflix represent peak 1990s nostalgia for the last decade of hope.
It really looked like the 1980s were back in full force over the past few years. The music, the fashion and style, even the language, all signaled their homage to the decade of Reaganism, Thatcherism, unbridled consumerism, and capitalist opportunism. The long dead Soviet Union was given a second life in the guise of Sovietwave synth music, while the Russian Doomer guy and Doomer girl played with 1980s nostalgia in an endless progression of emotional pop and post-punk songs, played primarily in minor keys, while they smoked a stale cartoon cigarette, a symbol of late 1980s Eastern European resignation in the face of a broken, collapsing, yet somehow still existing socialism. By the time Stranger Things began streaming on Netflix in 2017, the desire for 1980s nostalgia was completely fulfilled, and interest in consumer products celebrating the decade had long since evaporated. Stranger Things, like the Soviet system, had nowhere for the energy to flow, and, like the 1980s, the show suffocated on its own success. By the second season, it was apparent that Stranger Things was running on vapor in a largely empty gas tank.
But all good things must come to an end. As the 1980s ground to a halt in the revolutionary streets of Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Eastern European satellites of the Soviet Union, the 1990s opened up what appeared as the possibility of change and of hope, if only to a system that was only a tiny bit less cold and calculating, less brutal and impersonal—what mattered was that it had a caring face, like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Lech Walesa in Poland, and Bill Clinton in the United States. It didn’t really matter that Havel was a weak president in service to his opportunist Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, that Walesa was ousted soon upon assuming power, and that Bill Clinton commenced the indoctrination of the greatest upward redistribution of wealth and the dismantling of the working and middle classes through corporate deregulation. The optimism of the 1990s had a flattening effect on its historical interpretation, and waves of criticism of unbridled consumer culture were systematically pushed aside for a cleaner, simpler version of Francis Fukuyama’s version of the End of History with its technocratic supplement, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Enter grunge, house music, baggy clothing, Ace of Base, and Backstreet Boys, along with an odd mix of counter-culture nostalgia, resistance consumerism, designer drugs, raving, and block party exuberance. Within this soup of cassette mix tapes and laser discs, Derry Girls replaces Stranger Things on the pedestal of streaming ‘it’ shows.
Nostalgic in Tradcath Land
Derry Girls is a good show—a really good show, actually. The show became an heir to Absolutely Fabulous, an iconic British 90s sitcom about two aging fashionistas whose nostalgia for the 1960s is less than nostalgic, thanks to excellent writing, casting, and actor performances. Derry Girls epitomizes the current zeitgeist's restorative nostalgia for the 1990s, a post-historical yearning for a different, better future, and a vision of a sanitized past.
At the core of restorative nostalgia, a concept developed by Svetlana Boym in her book The Future of Nostalgia, is a return to a simpler, better past, sterilized of all the disruptive forces and complexities of daily life. Politics are one-sided, historical events flow neatly in a linear format, far more importance, focus, and attention are given to ‘winners" than ‘losers," and what prevails is an over-identification with style. What is being ‘restored’ is a sense of a lost home, which is lost within the gaps of historical time. Restorative nostalgia attempts to fill these gaps in order to ‘recreate the home’ with an eye toward the past and toward reliving its special moments and events.
Set in the early to mid-1990s, The Derry Girls follows five high school-age friends as they navigate the trials of daily life in Derry, Northern Ireland—life at home, school, and the lives of their parents—at the tail end of The Troubles, a three-decade-long armed conflict between Irish Republicans and Loyalists over national sovereignty and identity. The show is very funny and highly watchable. Rather skillfully, the nostalgia of Derry Girls is hidden away in its post-modern pastiche. The show recreates real historical events (a visit by newly elected president Bill Clinton, The Good Friday Agreement), period music and art (Take That, techno house music), and atmosphere (analog television, period clothes, etc.) as a vehicle for the restoration of place and time, creating specific appeal for those of the millennial generation who have grown up amongst the paraphernalia of that time.
The success of the show is due in part to its ability to reconstitute a perfectly articulated moral universe. The Derry Girls, at their core, are the ideal neoliberal subject, haunted by a petite-bourgeois existentialism, occupying a vague moral universe similar to ours, its ontological coordinates centered around Descartes' cogito, the I-which-thinks, which separated and perverted into the I-which-is, the subject without substance.In modern parlance, "it is what it is."
The vagueness of this moral universe is mirrored in the historical record of the show’s restorative nostalgia, as it tends to substitute social consensus for truth. It is filled with anecdotes that fit themselves around ideologies that seek to deliver a specific point of view, often from highly contentious historical perspectives. This is not surprising, because nowhere is restorative nostalgia more evident than in the fields of media and politics. The two often go hand-in-hand, and imagining one without the other is nearly impossible for the contemporary media consumer. Boym had considered restorative nostalgia as a supplement, if not an outright substitute, to political ideology.
Behind all ideology is a strong urge, an almost Nietzschean will, to ‘educate’ the ignorant and disenchant the ‘uneducated.’ The postmodern neoliberal condition is inexorably tied to education as the raison d'être of the hierarchy of meritocracy, a kind of social Darwinism based on personal achievement, poignantly developed in Thomas Frank’s book Listen! Liberal and Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders.
The show reifies the Derry Girls as the symbolic moral center, the Freudian superego, through the goggles of restorative nostalgia. They occupy a highly subjective moral environment, caught between regional conflict, national identity, and a quickly expanding global capital where education is flattened because all other public projects that had universalist ideals at their core, such as public education, healthcare, housing, and so on, have been systematically dismantled and replaced by a neoliberal aspirational culture where private education has been turned into the last universal category. There is no issue or problem that neoliberal subjects believe cannot be fixed by education. Poverty may be fixed by financial education, drug abuse may be prevented by programs like D.A.R.E., and ethnic conflict may be ameliorated by Esalen-style encounter groups. In other words, education offers the possibility of total freedom from all forms of oppression.
What is crucial is that Derry Girls does not offer any clues about personal freedom in a highly regulated environment, symbolized by the constant presence of military checkpoints. What Derry Girls offers instead are ways to misbehave ‘properly’ and one might be compelled to argue, ethically, to the satisfaction of the particularity of the ego. According to Slavoj Zizek, it is the ego that "considers social realities and norms, etiquette, and rules in deciding how to behave." The subjectively (a)moral environment of the 1990s thus presented transgression as one of the highest ethical stances toward the established order.
Catherine Liu argues that transgression has become the domain of the PMC (shorthand for ‘professional managerial class"), who use it to regulate the behavior of others. They abide by unspoken rules and a perceived higher authority tied to individual identities, but most importantly, they monitor and punish incorrect behavior they see in the ‘other.’
The Derry Girls are, in essence, proto-PMC, and the show uses them to demonstrate what the PMC desire and fear.
Sister Michael and the Catholic Church are portrayed as symbols of oppression, relics of a degraded, dusty past, and, most importantly, an ancient communitarian morality that is diametrically opposed to the 1990s' rising individualism. Yet in a purely modern reified manner with the rising fashion of the ‘tradcath,’ the Catholic Church is presented as the epitome of cool, symbolized by Father Peter, a young priest and object of desire for some of the Derry Girls, and to a degree by Sister Michael, the snarky judo-practicing nun.
In true post-modern fashion, what matters in the show is the not-so-subtle relationship each character has to appearances. It is clear that Sister Michael follows, but does not truly believe, the Catholic Church’s life code or its teachings. It isn’t even clear that she believes in God. She is at the Catholic School, in her words, for the ‘free accommodation.’
One of the most powerful taboos for the neoliberal subject is breaking the appearance of appearance and revealing what is truly behind the façade. This is why the character of Jenny is portrayed as loathsome and worthy of contempt. Jenny flaunts her wealth and upper-middle-class existence and the privileges that they bring. She lives in a perverse ‘truth’ world where wealth acts as a shield for her incompetence. Jenny is the opposite of Ms. De Brune, the inspiring young English teacher who sweeps her students and the Derry Girls off their feet with her Dead Poets Society approach to teaching, only to reveal that her persona is a façade and that the interest in her students was entirely feigned. And it is the appearance of doing good, rather than actually doing good, that is the driving force of the neoliberal subject. This is why Bill and Chelsea Clinton appear unironically in the show as the arbiters of what Catherine Liu described as ‘virtue hoarding,’ the weaponization of identity, and the unabashed transformation of personal values, morals, and ethics into PR.
The show closes on two separate occasions: first at the arrival of none other than Bill Clinton, the symbolic father and arbiter of neoliberalism, at the end of season two, and second at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, an event that ended the Irish conflict and put an end to the violence of The Troubles. It is the Good Friday Agreement that marked the Derry Girls’ passage into adulthood, from the symbolic universe into reality. It is at this moment that all hope for a better future is finally lost, at the same moment when the atmosphere of hope was at an all-time high.
The Purveyors of Grim Fash
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Derry Girls lies Dahmer, a once-top-ten Netflix show about the 1990s' most notorious serial killer and cannibal. Where Derry Girls is popular nostalgia for the most hopeful decade, Dahmer revels in a rather perverse nostalgia for its obverse, the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s, haunted by the rise of postmodern noir culture, grunge and extreme metal music, goth fashion, and independent film.
The coordinates for the show’s popularity are roughly set around public sentiment toward the settling of scores, the misplaced morality of vengeance, morbid fascination with death, and the primitive accumulation of capital articulated through the ‘death drive.' I don't just mean money when I say capital; I mean experience, subjectivity, love, and so on, which Dahmer sublimated as the psychotic accumulation of bodies—for personal enjoyment, as objects of misplaced love—and cast him in the role of the absolute marker by which the hopeful decade became foreclosed from the start.
The furor over Dahmer’s portrayal as not just a victim but as a figure to be perversely valorized and commemorated is understandable. The popularity of the show, however, goes beyond simple morality plays or the public's fascination with Dahmer’s sickness and depravity. In both cases, Dahmer and Derry Girls are ideological mirrors of contemporary neoliberal values. They are countervailing forces acting upon one another: matter and anti-matter. Whereas Derry Girls is a deft enactment of restorative nostalgia for the post-1989 unipolar world, Dahmer peels back the veil, revealing the brutal reality when these values and moral codes are applied in the real world; in other words, Dahmer takes the neoliberal/neoconservative individualist ethos to its absolute and perverse conclusion.
It is the strange familiarity with the figure of Dahmer that is so unnerving. He haunts the media sphere in a way that the charismatic serial killer, whether real like Ted Bundy or fictional like Dexter, does not. Even among the most infamous of serial killers, the persona of Jeffrey Dahmer remains enigmatic because his motivations appear absolutely incomprehensible, as if he were acting out of a destructive inner drive that is alien even to himself. In many ways, Dahmer operates on the same moral plane as the modern hedge fund manager or the sociopathic grifter and shares certain instinctive qualities with the likes of Jordan Belfort (the reformed Wolf of Wall Street), Do Kwon, or Sam Bankman-Fried, whose own incomprehensible lust for money and power drove them to scam and swindle billions of dollars from unsuspecting victims. In 2022, these types of people have become eerily familiar.
Dahmer exists on the cusp of ‘the end of history,’ a point in time when individual self-determination and free-market capitalism became fully inscribed into the logic of the rising unipolar new world order. It was the sheer scale and bizarre nature of his crimes, among other shocking events of that era, that disturbed the fragile psycho-social fabric and intruded into this idealized image of the western world, fed by decades of ideological opposition to Eastern ‘Sovietization.’ The images that streamed out of the east were anything but ideal.
The 1990s began ignobly with a brutal Balkan war, fought primarily by roving bands of paramilitary units with unclear alliances and agendas whose primary targets for terror were ordinary citizens, seniors, women, and children. The atrocities committed by far-right paramilitaries with names like White Eagles and Arkan’s Tigers and ties to figures like Radovan Karadzic and Vojislav Seselj must be understood as outbursts of the real into the fantasy space of a collapsing national identity at the edge of the flattening force of global capital. At the same time, a prescribed Chicago School economic shock therapy for the Eastern European states was being implemented by democratically elected politicians while cases of hyperinflation and economic collapse began in earnest in Russia, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.
The 1995 film Citizen X attempted to dramatize the atmosphere of the late 1980s and early 1990s Soviet Union, this time using the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo as a foil to illustrate the chaos of the communist system and the incompetence of Soviet-style bureaucracy, whose apparatchiks were tasked with hunting down the killer.
The United States fared better, though its particular anxiety was inexorably tied to highly mediated events like the LA riots sparked by the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, the OJ Simpson trial, and the railroading of three innocent teenagers in the West Memphis Three murder trials, which themselves ran on the fumes left over from the 1980s tabloid ‘sensation’ of the Satanic Panic. 1990s America was home to 'troubled teens’ and the rising boot camp and ‘scared straight’ industries, helped along by daytime television personalities like Ricky Lake and Maury Povich, opportunistically preying on the anxieties of millions of parents.
Dahmer’s symbolization of the ideological chaos of the 1990s is underscored by the killer’s portrayal in relativist terms, not just as a brutal murderer, but also as a victim - to his urges, to his abusive and absent parents, a victim of circumstance and environment, and finally a victim of prison murder. What made Dahmer such a salient subject was that the severity of his crimes surpassed almost anything that came before, but also because of his strange (in)humanity—he killed, and sometimes ate, his victims. He did not dispose of bodies; he collected them, slept with them, and showered with them. To do the killing, he had to blunt his senses with alcohol so as to be nearly unconscious, offering a view of Dahmer not as a simple monster but as what Nietzsche once described as "human, all too human."
The chaos of this kind of subjectivity is easy to see in the complexity of the Yugoslav War. The parallax view of that war made it easy for perpetrators to appear as victims and victims as perpetrators, a parallel to the ongoing intelligence and propaganda war over Ukraine. In this nationalist stew of soft morality with hard principles, almost anybody could appear as the ‘good guy’ and anyone else as the ‘bad guy.’ The master lesson of the 1990s was that ‘real’ wars are always fought behind the scenes, through media channels and television screens. It was the lesson learned by CNN, a channel that built its 24-hour news cycle around this ethos.
The death of Jeffrey Dahmer, the last serial killer, at the hands of another prisoner articulated the shift in media attention during the 1990s. The trajectory was a clear move away from serial killers, and there is an argument to be made that spree shooters replaced serial killers on the pedestal of the public’s unconscious desire for transgression and fascination with death. This 'vibe shift' of the 1990s was bookended by the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer and the Columbine High School shooting.
It is difficult not to see Dahmer as a visual aestheticization or fetishization of moral depravity. The show went to great lengths to recreate the real Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, and the awkward and bizarre nature of the serial killer is captured and most definitely exacerbated by Evan Peters. In most cases, the atmosphere is hyperreal, and it can be difficult to distinguish reality from a romantic retelling of restorative nostalgia for a time before the vibe shift. But is it enjoyable? Sure. After all, it is entertainment. To many, Dahmer may be enjoyable the way that Kubrick or Tarkovsky films are enjoyable, but for repeat watching and a dive into 1990s nostalgia, Derry Girls is the better bet.