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Madeleine White is a producer for The Decibel, The Globe and Mail’s daily news podcast.

Here are some telltale signs you’re getting older: You’ve found a grey hair. You’re perpetually “busy.” Body parts ache unpredictably.

But the scariest sign of all: The film industry is relentlessly producing movies that make you long for your childhood.

If you’ve been seduced by the pink-coated, feminist-flavoured nostalgia trip that is the Barbie movie – my friend, you are old. Welcome to the club.

Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It’s the pill we take to forget we’re dying: We don’t have to think about aging if we’re reminiscing about our younger years.

I mean – and this is a tiny spoiler – Greta Gerwig didn’t even try to hide this in her Barbie screenplay. Margot Robbie’s Barbie is experiencing the same thing as every geriatric millennial I know: We’re starting to get intrusive thoughts about death.

“Nostalgia, or a longing for the past, is a powerful emotion that influences all aspects of our lives,” American psychologist Mark Travers wrote in Forbes.

Powerful indeed. According to Warner Bros., Barbie raked in “a record-shattering” US$337-million worldwide and took the No. 1 spot in theatres in 55 markets. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given this movie has been marketed for months and the associated brand partnerships are everywhere, from clothes, to luggage, to dog toys.

But don’t discount the fact that nostalgia was the secret ingredient here. We all know our favourite content on social platforms is the stuff that makes us feel warm and fuzzy. And those Barbie poster memes everyone was sharing back in April were perfect for stirring up nostalgia and hype for the film.

This same energy translated into real life, as moviegoers innately understood that they must wear pink to Barbie. This is no easy task for a Jaded Old Person™ like myself, given that my closet is mostly black, white and beige (yes, I’m slowly transforming into my next evolutionary form: a 40-something lady who wears a lot of neutral clothing).

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Moviegoers wait their turn to take a picture with a life-sized Barbie box in Rio de Janeiro last week.Bruna Prado/AP

And that is one of the positive powers of nostalgia: It makes us happy. It gives us connection and community, which is increasingly hard to do in our individualistic, polarized society.

According to a 2021 study, reflecting on nostalgic memories is actually a form of self-care. Researchers found that there was a positive effect for people who engaged more in “nostalgic reflection” than in “ordinary reflection.”

That’s great. But let’s also not forget that nostalgia is also a convenient tool for capitalism. Packaging our love for the past into consumable bits of culture is not new. Think Happy Days and its nostalgia for the 1950s, delivered to a 1970s audience (in 1976, you could even buy a record called Fonzie Favorites, featuring doo-wop tunes and the Happy Days theme song).

But what the new millennium has brought us is nostalgia with an onslaught of specific tie-in products: Transformers, Lego and now Barbie are just the tip of a millennial-childhood-merchandise iceberg, as Mattel has several more movies in the works based on its IP, including Barney, Hot Wheels, Polly Pocket and, somehow, the card game Uno and the Magic 8 Ball. What’s a more satisfying form of adulting than buying a toy you wanted but were denied during your childhood? Mattel has got you covered for the foreseeable future.

Studios and theatres see this as a money-making opportunity, too. As Alex Barasch wrote for The New Yorker: “During the pandemic, multiplexes collapsed. The future of moviegoing now seems increasingly tenuous, and studios have leaned on pre-awareness as a means of drawing people to theatres: a nostalgia play like Hot Wheels is seen as a safer bet than an original concept.”

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Shoppers browse Barbie-themed merchandise during a Barbie pop-up at Zara in New York.STAFF/Reuters

This is not surprising. Nostalgia is the perfect antidote to crisis. How many of us found ourselves turning back to our childhood in some capacity during the long days of lockdown? I, for one, inexplicably binged the 1990s X-Men cartoon while eating bowls of sugary cereal, unconsciously reliving a simpler time.

Avoiding reality is a lot easier than confronting it. It’s hard to hide from the existential challenges that face us today: Canada is literally on fire. Countries are warring. Don’t even get me started on housing.

But that’s also why nostalgia is such a siren’s call. Why think about the slow erosion of life as we know it when you could just think about Barbie? It’s understandable to feel like giving up is an option if you’ve convinced yourself that your best days – heck, the world’s best days – are behind you.

This Barbie doesn’t have all the answers. But Barbie, the movie, actually offered a glimmer of hope. As Barbie (spoiler alert) cries while sitting on a park bench midway through the movie, she takes a long look at an elderly woman sitting next to her. “You’re beautiful,” Barbie says. “I know!” says the woman, in what reads as a not-so-subtle dig at our anti-aging culture.

Our days may be numbered, and the grey hairs may sprout, but good lord – we’re not dead yet. So in between the moments of nostalgia, let’s look after ourselves and each other, and do what we can to stay focused on the present.

What else we’re thinking about:

As a producer of The Globe and Mail’s daily news podcast, The Decibel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a podcast recommendation. Part of staying engaged with the present is reading the news. Sorry. I know – it’s hard. But one thing that really helps me is to add science news to my diet. In that vein, Science Vs is a goofy but informative podcast that covers topics from skincare to ASMR to bats. Host Wendy Zukerman is a fun time and, in true scientific-inquiry form, each episode ends with a list of citations.


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Marianne Kushmaniuk for The Globe and Mail

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