Traumatic Nostalgia and Nostalgic Trauma: Consuming and Abusing Cultures of Childhood on Screen

By Bethany Rose Lamont

[CONTENT WARNING: discussion of child sexual abuse)

  1. Movie Monsters: Child Abusers and Nostalgic Nerds 

In popular culture, paedophilia is often presented as nerdy, because both the figure of the nerd and the figure of the paedophile are typified by nostalgia.  This is a longing, not just for the state of childhood, but for its implicit location in a set of American values that these deviant figures find themselves adrift from. As both a survivor of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and an obsessive consumer of any, and all, American popular culture, I find myself drawn to the impulse to create a cartography of this intersection of trauma and nostalgia. It is a particular kind of cruelty where the institutions of ableism, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and transmisogyny, simultaneously classes the oppressed as threatening abusers, whilst rendering these individuals at the highest risk of CSA themselves.

By acknowledging the politically charged, ideologically-driven engagements and amplifications of CSA, we can identify how such narratives relate a marginalised individual’s lived experience to something far wider. It is necessary to understand that such representations of CSA so often use traumatic themes, such as violence against children, as a mouthpiece to express wider socio-cultural anxieties. Here a director may summon the ghoulish spectre of CSA to express and exaggerate a non-CSA related fear, utilising the understandably shocking subjects of child rape and molestation to provide weight to their own ideology and shift an uncertain audience in their favour. The damaging and violently homophobic, transphobic and transmisogynistic conflation of LGBTQ+ identity and child molestation is a notable manifestation of this issue, reflecting the troubling idea that any individual who does not match the standards of ‘family values’ and provokes national or cultural fears will be branded an abuser (or pathologised as a victim). It is this model of performative rejection that ignores the issue of incest in favour of the myth of ‘stranger danger’, and refuses to address the intersecting issues of race, gender, class, nation, disability and queer identity that may make a child particularly vulnerable to abuse.

Consider the on-screen tropes of the nerd, its visual language of ableism and fatphobia, and how it so often crosses over with cultural imagery of the child abuser. Clad in a sweater, dwelling in a basement, living with his mother, coded as developmentally and/or physically disabled, conceived as either too thin or too fat, both sexually inexperienced and sexually maladapted, the nerd is both virgin and pervert, and in image representation is often identical to the child abuser and serial killer character. This reflects all three characters’ positions within what Michel Foucault defines as the “dangerous individual” who stands as “a pathology of the monstrous”.[1] Characterised as ‘frozen in time’, both the nerdy fan and the child molester are collectors of the past and hoarders of innocence. Their wardrobe of Jeffrey Dahmer glasses and tan windbreakers, and their unathletic appearance, mark their position as transgressive outsiders to white American masculinity. This solidifies their role under the Foucauldian theory of “perverse implantation”, where these characters may serve as pre-determined transgressors to an established order, with these necessary perverts operating as a continuation rather than interruptions of the ruling psychiatric and legal systems.[2]

2. Trauma and Nostalgia in The Lovely Bones, Mysterious Skin and Desperate Housewives 

This is typified in the nerdy wardrobe of the child rapist and murderer George Harvey in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ (2009). Harvey’s large aviator glasses complement his beige jumper, which in turn reflects his obsessive, childlike occupation as a builder of dollhouses, a meticulous craft that parallels his creation of a warmly-lit underground den filled with children’s comics, board games, “fluffy animals” and ornaments of cartoon angels, a den built to rape and murder fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon. These are characters that occupy a state of failed childhood, for the cultural trope of the nerd, much like the CS abuser, has interests in objects below his age level. The nerd character is defined by his bad childhood, but in a cruel twist must stay in childhood, regardless of his age, trapped forever in the pleasures and pain of boyhood, eternally having his pants pulled to the ground for all to see. These characters’ seemingly non-threatening nature of failed masculinity and boyhood vulnerability, emphasised in their comfortable clothing, childish interests, coded disabilities and uncool eyeglasses, become a site of stunted abjection, developing into an active threat and “moral monster” for the suburban nuclear family.[3] This reflects the nerd’s occupation of both the role of CSA survivor and the CS abuser and the disrupted borders of age that underpin both these positions  of childhood cultural consumption.

Stills from ‘The Lovely Bones’ (dir. Peter Jackson: Paramount Pictures: 2009)
Stills from ‘Mysterious Skin’ (dir. Gregg Araki: Tartan Films: 2004
Stills from ‘Desperate Housewives’, season three, episode eight (dir. Wendey Stanzler: ABC: 2006).

This crossover between cultural consumption and CSA is evidenced in the on-screen trope of the nostalgic collection as a predatory trap to lure a potential CSA victim. In ‘Mysterious Skin’ (2004), which is set in 1981, the eight-year-old Neil’s invitation into his Little League coach’s living room, which is filled with video games and junk food, is positioned as the beginning of his sexual abuse. As the adult Neil explains in the film’s narrative voice-over, “Coach’s house was awesome. He had a giant TV, an Atari with Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Frogger. All my favourite games.” Coach’s collection of childhood media is twinned to his collection and creation of child abuse images, which themselves are created via the now nostalgic technology of the Polaroid camera. This serves as an easily accessible representation of both his ‘interest’ in children and his wish for children to have an ‘interest’ in him. 

Another example can be found in the American drama ‘Desperate Housewives’ (2004-2012), where we watch in horror as a young boy follows a model train from the ground floor of a suburban neighbour’s home into a basement, filled with vintage toys and games, which eventually leads to a wall of Polaroid pictures of young boys in swimsuits, serving as the visual revelation of his CS abuser status. These collections become an instantly identifiable symbol of horror for the unrepresentable subject of CSA, providing a twist to the existing cinematic imagery of the creepy basement and underground torture chamber, with plastic toys and vintage video games serving as a substitute for actual images of CSA, or the shackles and sharp objects of the traditional torture chamber.

The position of fan and collector is typified not just as a sign of the pathology of paedophilia, but as a disease in and of itself. This is the deranged, disabled and degraded character of the male nerd who, like the CS abuser, represents both a disruption and exaggeration of the traditional order of age, health, masculinity and American values. This stereotype is summarised by a 1986 ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch on Star Trek fandom, where Star Trek actor William Shatner unleashes a furious tirade against a Star Trek fan convention. Visibly disgusted by their obsessive image and information collecting, he tells the audience:

“Having received all your letters over the years, and I’ve spoken to many of you, and some of you have travelled… y’know… hundreds of miles to be here, I’d just like to say… GET A LIFE, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show! I mean, look at you, look at the way you’re dressed! You’ve turned an enjoyable little job, that I did as a lark for a few years, into a COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME! I mean, how old are you people? What have you done with yourselves? [to one fan] You, you must be almost 30… have you ever kissed a girl? I didn’t think so! There’s a whole world out there! When I was your age, I didn’t watch television! I LIVED! So… move out of your parents’ basements! And get your own apartments and GROW THE HELL UP! I mean, it’s just a TV show dammit, IT’S JUST A TV SHOW!”[4]

Literal recreations of CSA in popular culture are substituted with images of childhood or childish collections, which intertwine with the provocative character of the nerd who needs to “grow the hell up”, and the ableist, anti-autistic, fatphobic sentiments that informs this character’s creation and derision.

In such substitutions, the subject of CSA on screen cultivates a faux-analogue model of abuse aesthetics, casting a warm yellow filter over the subject of child molestation. This is evidenced in the vintage visions of CSA found in ‘The Lovely Bones’ (2009) and ‘Mysterious Skin’ (2006). There is pleasure in poking at the fearful familiarities of the past, the terrible remakes of beloved children’s films, the performative outrage over the national treasure turned child molester. Nostalgia and trauma entangle in their fantasy of time travel, offering the ability to opt in and out of fixed points in time, emphasised in the use of period settings (1970s and 1980s America) and the CSA survivor as retrospective narrator in both of these films.

This is potent in the narrator of ‘The Lovely Bones’, Susie, a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s who tells the story of her rape and murder from the safety of her personal heaven, where she is “forever childlike, innocent, and untainted by anger”.[5] Jackson invites us into her world, where we may watch warmly-lit, joyful bicycle rides around her suburban neighbourhood, her golden retriever running happily by her side, and follow Susie into her girlhood bedroom to snap self-portraits on her Kodak Pocket Instamatic, against a Peanuts poster that reads ‘Happiness is Loving your Enemies’.

“I remember, I remember”, repeats Susie in her voice-over, inviting us to remember this glorious space that we may or not have experienced for ourselves. Such a vision is epitomised in the film’s opening shot of a penguin snow globe, presenting to us an insulated pocket world of childhood, its tiny character fixed on the spot so that we may shake and shape their little universe at will. Through a Christian informed afterlife, and a comfortingly vintage vision of childhood, the viewer is gifted a “safe and supportive place in the face of a horror”, so the angelic survivor may tell her story.[6]These CSA-themed corruptions of the past do not sour the nostalgia, any more than irony inhibits an individual’s enjoyment of a ‘bad’ movie, but rather allow it to be savoured. The Lovely Bones serves as “a determined reiteration of innocence”, presenting a vision of “the American family unit [as] pure and good”.[7]

Stills from ‘The Lovely Bones’ (dir. Peter Jackson: Paramount Pictures: 2009).

This stands in direct contrast to the challenging queer vision of ‘Mysterious Skin’, which presents an uncompromising portrait of queer boyhood sexuality and sexual trauma, with our teenage narrator Neil’s first words being “the summer I was 8 years old, I came for the first time”. The colourful cereal that Araki uses to connote Neil’s sexual abuse by his coach means more than simply nostalgia for an innocence long since past. In substituting CSA for the image of a shower of Fruit Loops, queer histories are invoked, both of the homophobic slur of ‘fruit’ or ‘fruit loop’ and the utilisation of the term ‘fruit loop’ to denote cruising spots, itself a reference to Neil’s later position as a teenage sex worker, picking up older male clients at his local park. This is a vision of nostalgia outside of the nuclear family, begging the question of how the queer CSA survivor, the sex worker survivor and the queer child’s trauma can be addressed when queer sexuality is so often equated with the CS abuser itself. 

Here the reoccurring image of cereal reflects the isolated vulnerability of queer childhood. It is a nod to Neil’s single, working-class mother, who is so often away from home that young Neil eats mostly cereal. “My guess is you spend a lot of time by yourself, huh?” asks Coach, looking to confirm the child’s separation from society in order to groom the boy for CSA acts. This is the internal world of queer youth, where “a lot of time by yourself” invokes both the act of daydreaming, of gazing at your mother’s Playgirl magazines, but also of the adult who may take advantage of this lonesome figure. 

So far from Susie’s snow globe, this is not a space of suburban safety, instead we are confronted with a series of questions: in a world that neglects the queer child, what will the queer adult he grows into find himself nostalgic for? What use do terms such as safety or morality have in CSA survivor conversations, if they are built in direct opposition to the “peripheral sexualities” of the queer child and the young sex worker?[8] In a world that identifies this child as a threat, how can he ever be understood as a victim? What connections and affections will he idealise, who will canonise him as their “angel”, and how do his circumstances shape these experiences?

3. Nostalgia and Noughties Man-Boys in Hot Tub Time Machine, Seventeen Again and The Forty Year Old Virgin

We can contrast these questions of traumatic queer nostalgia with the mythical worldbuilding and fantasies of uncomplicated, youthful, heteronormative ideals in the time travel films of the late 2000s and early 2010s. These stories which follow straight, largely white, middle-aged men returning to the glory days of their 1980s youth. “We were young. We had momentum. We were winning. We were best friends”, reflects John Cusack’s character Adam in the comedy ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ (2010), which follows a bald, alcoholic 40-something white man with erectile dysfunction, who goes back in time to reclaim his hair and virility, accompanied by his unhappy band of middle-aged friends. This twists the traditional CSA structure, for the object of youthful desire is not the abusive adult’s wish for sexual interaction with a child, or the queer adult gazing back at an idealised abuser, but rather, in a system of narcissistic desire, the adult looks for a magical mirror of wish fulfilment to seek sexual pleasure from their younger selves.

Such destabilised themes of age, nostalgia and sexuality are epitomised in the American comedy ‘Seventeen Again’ (2009), which follows a thirty-seven-year-old, straight white man named Mike, whose wish comes true when his body is returned to its adolescent image in a magical twist. Matthew Perry, already an ageing image of 1990s nostalgia due to his starring role in the wildly popular sitcom ‘Friends’ (1994-2004), plays a “high school star” who “never quite lived up to potential” and is “extremely disappointed in my life”. Mike has recently been fired, is soon to be divorced from his wife, and struggles to connect with his teenage children. The opening shots of the adult character show him sleeping alone in a bed clad with a childish space rocket duvet next to a poster for the classic American sci-fi movie, ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951). The choice of a 1950s film to signify a yearning for his 1980s youth reflects the fluidity of American nostalgia, which extends beyond the literal borders of history and personal memory, to gesture towards a broader aesthetic of idealism.

Mike’s frozen-in-time status is confirmed from the beginning, long before we watch him transform into the high school photo image he gazes at so desperately. His “glory days” are embodied by the then teen heart-throb Zac Efron, who plays his teenage self. Here, the film involves a peculiar performance by the teenage Efron, playing a middle-aged man pretending to be a teenage boy. We follow the “fake teenager” Mike as he enrols in high school and becomes embroiled in a series of comic hijinks: infiltrating his own seventeen-year-old daughter’s sex education class in order to encourage abstinence, before attacking her boyfriend while led on a pile of condoms being one notable example. Later on, he attempts to seduce his soon-to-be ex-wife inside his newly recovered teenaged body with the hope of rekindling his high school sweetheart’s affections. “You are a weirdo little man child! You are a pervert!”, she cries out in horror at Efron, returning us to the degraded and disordered horror status of the nostalgic straight white American male, who wishes so desperately to re-enter the space of his youth.

Stills from ‘17 Again’ (dir. Burr Steers: Offspring Entertainment: 2009).

This reflects how representations of geeks, nerds, nostalgics, serial killers and CS abusers all crucially use the same signs and symbols to reveal wider anxieties of the border crossing of age, masculinity and sexual deviance. Comedian Stephen Merchant emphasises this coding of the white male nerd and geek figure as an unattractive, immature, implicitly criminal and potentially murderous outsider, who functions as a warning to wider society:

“I should make it clear that no one chooses to be a geek. You don’t suddenly decide to grow lank, greasy hair and wear bad, ill-fitting clothes. You don’t wake up one day and think: ‘I don’t want to look cool and sexy any more. I want to look like I live with my nan and have a dead body in the cellar.”[9]

Such a frightening visual projection of an unattractive, immature, potentially violent white manhood is represented, and eventually resolved, in the American comedy ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ (2005). Here we find the middle-aged virgin Andy, played by Steve Carell, who lives alone in a California home filled with fantasy and film memorabilia and a “billion toys”, that looks like “you live in Never-Never Land Ranch”. Andy plays video games, reads comic books, cooks elaborate meals for one, plays the tuba, is a “seventh-degree imperial yo-yo master”, rides a bicycle, is an “accomplished ventriloquist” and struggles to urinate due to a permanent erection. His deviant status of perpetual boyhood is framed as an implicitly abusive state, with the figure of the sexually dysfunctional, heterosexual nerd fan and the figure of the serial killer intertwining in Seth Rogen’s character Cal’s observation that, “I’m pretty sure that… he is a serial murderer. [And] I don’t wanna end up a lampshade… in some creepy apartment.”

Andy’s position as a potentially murderous nostalgic is framed as an implicit crisis of twenty-first-century, straight American manhood needing to be resolved, his collection serving as a barrier rather than a predatory lure for a potential partner. This reflects the position of cultural consumption as a corrupting influence on heteronormative conformity in and of itself, the figure of the nerdy virgin and the figure of the paedophile once again intertwine. As Cal notes of his collection, “You gotta see this through the eyes of a woman, you know? What is she going to think when she comes in here? None of this shit is sexy.”

So, Andy must hide his childish collectibles, before eventually selling it entirely, in order to discover his virility, secure a romantic partner and progress to an adult life. His younger, sexually active male colleagues Cal (Rogen), David (Paul Rudd) and Jay (Romany Malco) teach him how to immerse himself in homosocial male bonding over childish isolation, a ritual finalised in David sharing his “big box of porn” with Andy. The film concludes in Andy marrying his girlfriend in a lavish open-air wedding, consummating the marriage on their honeymoon, his days of being misread as a serial killer clearly long behind him. Apatow uses the figure of the ‘forty-year-old virgin’, alongside his dysfunctional friends, the ‘stoner’ Cal, the ‘stalker’ David and the ‘cheater’

Jay, to raise broader questions of the American straight male as a lost ‘man-child’ figure adrift in a quickly changing world. This is the question of:

“Why don’t women in their mid-30s have vintage pretty ponies still in their original packaging? Are we a bunch of Man-Boys? Why are there no Woman-Girls? Is there a problem with being a Man-Boy?”[10]

From the 1990s onwards, the Man-Boy is a figure embedded in the world of technology, for much like the digitally located figure of the CS abuser, the nerd/geek figure is defined both by his relationship with technology and as a form of technology. His volatile position of both violence and vulnerability, when updated from offline screen culture to interactive online meme-making, can be identified in everything from the current cringe cultures towards overly earnest adult fans of all genders, performative outrage of the Ruined Childhood genre of 2010s to the stranger danger of the online-chatroom creeps of the 1990s and 200s. This sense of corrupted nostalgia, twinned with the language of sexual violence utilised to express this upset, continues as a reoccurring villain in screen media both online and off. 

References

‘17 Again’ (dir. Burr Steers: Offspring Entertainment: 2009)

‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ (dir. Judd Apatow: Apatow Productions: 2005)

Bricken, R. ‘Why Did the ’80s Turn So Many of Us into Nerds?’ Gizmodo, 14th August 2013,

available at: https://io9.gizmodo.com/why-did-the-80s-turn-so-many-of-us-into-nerds1135806865

‘Desperate Housewives’, season three, episode eight (dir. Wendey Stanzler: ABC: 2006)

Ed. ‘The Awkward Years’, The Guardian, 12th August 2011,

available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/aug/12/teenage-awkward-years-stephenmerchant

Foucault, M. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France (London/NYC: Verso: 2003)

Foucault, M. ‘About the Concept of the “Dangerous Individual” in 19th-Century Legal Psychiatry’, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1978) 

Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon: 1978) 

‘The Lovely Bones’ (dir. Peter Jackson: Paramount Pictures: 2009)

‘Mysterious Skin’ (dir. Gregg Araki: Tartan Films: 2004).

‘Saturday Night Live’, season twelve, episode eight (dir. Paul Miller: NBC: 20th December 1986).

Smith, A. ‘A Perfect Afterlife’, The Guardian, 17th August 2002, available at:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/17/fiction.alismith [last accessed 27/09/2018]

Whitney, S. ‘Uneasy Lie the Bones: Alice Sebold’s Postfeminist Gothic’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2010)


[1] Michel Foucault, ‘About the Concept of the “Dangerous Individual” in 19th-Century Legal Psychiatry’, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1978) pp. 5, 8

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon: 1978) p. 36, 37.

[3] Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France (London/NYC: Verso: 2003) p. 75

[4] ‘Saturday Night Live’, season twelve, episode eight (dir. Paul Miller: NBC: 20th December 1986).

[5] Sarah Whitney, ‘Uneasy Lie the Bones: Alice Sebold’s Postfeminist Gothic’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2010), p. 359.

[6] Ali Smith, ‘A Perfect Afterlife’, The Guardian, 17th August 2002, available at:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/17/fiction.alismith [last accessed

27/09/2018]

[7] Ibid.

[8] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 48

[9] Stephen Merchant, quoted in Ed., ‘The Awkward Years’, The Guardian, 12th August 2011,

available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2011/aug/12/teenage-awkward-years-stephenmerchant

[10] Rob Bricken, ‘Why Did the ’80s Turn So Many of Us into Nerds?’ Gizmodo, 14th August 2013,

available at: https://io9.gizmodo.com/why-did-the-80s-turn-so-many-of-us-into-nerds1135806865


Bethany Rose Lamont is a writer and researcher exploring themes of trauma, mental health and popular culture. Her work has previously been published in First Monday,  i-D, Rookie Magazine and the Palgrave Macmillan volume ‘Discourses of Anxiety Over Childhood and Youth Across Cultures. She is the editor in chief and founder of the art and literature journal Doll Hospital, and the co-producer of Sad Girl Cinema, a feature length documentary on representations of mental health in film and television. She lives in Bristol, U.K and works in arts education. 

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