Ever since the film based on the Genesis’ Sonic games got regenerated for Gen Zs, it’s got me thinking: “Gen Z’s” sounds a lot like “Genesis.” But, beyond that, it’s got me thinking about the ever-improving system we have in place for marketing nostalgia to Millenials, while also trying to convince new clusters of Gen Z kids to embrace these characters and franchises as their own.
Marvel comics became the MCU, the Star Wars continue unabated, and everyone’s so aware that we’re living in recycled times that… that’s all I’m really going to say about it. What’s interesting to me is just how perfect Sonic the Hedgehog is as a vehicle for this kind of weaponized nostalgia, and how he’s served as a measure of our relationship to coolness for three generations now.
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Obviously, by casting Jim Carrey in a wacky role and re-doing the CG to make Sonic look more like his classic self, the filmmakers aren’t shying away from appealing to fond Millenial memories (you know, for money!). But Sonic remains primarily a kids’ movie, and thinking about the ways that today’s young people may relate to the blue blur made me realize that Sonic said a lot more about the Millennial generation than we realized – whether he intended to or not – and he sheds light on some of the things that connect us across time, no matter our generation…except for the Boomers, who I guess we all hate now? Is that the meme? Regardless, to understand why Sonic is the fuzzy multi-generational mirror that he is, we’re going to need…
A Bit of a History Lesson
To be clear, I’m considering a Baby Boomer someone born between 1950 and 1965, a Gen X-er someone born between ‘65 and ‘80, a Millenial someone born between ‘80 and ‘95 (prime Sonic age), and a Gen Z-er anyone born after 1995.
When Sonic was initially released in 1991, I was six years old, and “being cool” was super important both to myself and all of my peers (except for the kid who brought a gavel to school every day). What I think younger folks today might not understand is that this quest for coolness was not about authenticity, individuality, or any kind of meta-awareness of our identities. We weren’t “cool,” we were Cool™, and Coolness™ was defined by brands, something most of us didn’t grow up with the media-savvy to question. It was about being in a minority product vertical: skateboarding, black clothes, skitchin’, rap and/or punk rock on MTV, and unironically spelling the word “extreme” with a capital X.
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Speaking of irony, I’d argue that the ’90s were the decade where Detached Irony was born, grew up, got perfected as chronicled in the 1995 Alanis Morisette song “Ironic,” and, in a sense, died. Irony is a toy we make memes with nowadays, but it used to be what we used to identify ourselves as – we were misfits who were “over it,” and therefore cooler than you. You were Coke, we were Pepsi. Flash forward twenty years and I’d call myself more of a Blueberry Acai caffeine-free Diet Coke guy; my point being that identity issues have gotten more complex over the years. And Sonic has all of that wrapped up in his fur. Needles? His…hedgehog…texture.
The ’90s were a gaming landscape dominated by Mario: a fat, middle-aged human who focuses primarily on jumping. This made Sonic feel like pure, uncut, corporate-designed cool in a way that immediately juiced the X-centers of my brain. If you were a Sega kid, you felt indie, edgy, a little more Pitchfork than your Nintendo playmates. Sonic focused on going fast, his head had Liberty Spikes, and he was such a crude, rude, awesome dude that if you stopped playing for a few seconds he’d look right into camera and give you the stink eye for wasting his time.
Amazingly, none of that seemed corny to us at the time. Sonic’s Cool was genuine and accepted by his fans with a naivete born of the mono-media culture of the ’70s and ’80s, and which has been slowly decaying ever since Fonzie jumped the shark. These days it’s almost been completely dispelled as the internet and other technologies drive us to be more aware of the systems around us from a younger and younger age.
Considering that, it’s no coincidence that the 90’s saw the ascendance of grunge music, pop-punk, an explosion in goth culture, the advent of “The Gritty Reboot,” and popular films with nihilism as a central theme. As a culture, we became obsessed with the “fakeness” of all the sheeple around us — irony became a way to interact with the broader world, and a signature part of the Gen X and Millenial attitude. Suddenly we were only interested in bands that hadn’t “sold out” yet, and anyone who didn’t think everything sucked was probably a phony.
In that environment, Sonic’s cool started to taste a little Chemical Zone-ey, a little factory-produced. Although the fact that his transition to 3-D graphics was far less graceful than Mario’s was definitely a factor, as a pop-cultural icon Sonic had to shift gears, too. The first Sonic TV show, essentially a kid’s comedy, was canceled and replaced with a much more action-packed and serious take on the Battle for Mobius (if you didn’t know, Sonic’s from a planet called Mobius in the year 3235, but it’s best not to question it).
During the same period, Sonic stopped moving merch, and Sega announced their retirement from the console wars. Which finally brings us to Gen Z, the generation that’s proud to be themselves and frankly doesn’t give a f**k what you think about it.
Sonic & Gen Z (or… Zennials or… Whatever You/They Want to Call Your/Themselves)
These days, truly being yourself, unique, authentic… just you, is huge business. Youtube and Twitch are filled with child billionaires who lean into their personality quirks and are loved specifically for that reason. Also some racism. But the bigger point is, in the new normal, ironic detachment isn’t nearly as valuable. It’s actually cooler, these days, to be into something than to be over something. Young people feel more empowered to simply like what they like, which makes it an ideal time for Sonic to re-enter the fray.
None of this is to say the movie will definitely do well (or even be good), but as a Sonic fan for life, it’s been interesting to watch him go from cool, to corporatized and “fake”, to “kinda corny and silly and… still fake, but that’s what’s funny about it.” The whole debacle with the initial CG Sonic reveal speaks to that…the filmmakers tried to make Sonic “realistic” and the internet said, “No you idiots, he’s a cartoon rascal that thinks he’s too cool for school, just let him be that!”
Gen Z is the first generation of humans to have grown up fully immersed in a digitally-enhanced society. Everyone is able to indulge their interests and hobbies much more thoroughly now, which has resulted in a galaxy of fragmented fan-bases and communal identities that make the “Are you a Sega person or a Nintendo person?” question seems quaint by comparison.
Nowadays, someone isn’t just a Nintendo or Sega player – they’re an anime cosplayer with an interest in tabletop gaming, or a maker of pixel-beats who crochets Star Wars scarves on Etsy in their spare time. The pop culture landscape is richer. Case in point: there were 130 more movies released in the US in 2018 than in 2017, and the number of scripted TV series’ have increased by 85% since 2011. In such a dynamic environment, generalizations are tough to make, but there is a lot of statistical data on Gen Z folks — mostly marketing data about buying trends, because Capitalsim™ — that I think bodes well for the possibility of a Sonic Renaissance.
Gen Z kids are more concerned about pollution, sustainability, and conservancy than any previous generation. Sonic the Hedgehog’s arch-nemesis is a boomer in a non-self-driving vehicle who’s here to automate all the flowers and animals and build a giant factory.
Gen Z-ers are notoriously thrifty, more likely to work a series of freelance jobs or change careers frequently, and always looking for bargains or a place to live that they can actually afford. Sonic the Hedgehog hoards gold rings and emeralds and is in danger of being gentrified out of his neighborhood.
Gen Z is the generation that “cut the cable,” and consumes most of their content on their mobiles, seeing screens as essentially interchangeable and TV as outdated. Sonic destroys hundreds of old-fashioned TVs every game and is mobility incarnate.
Gen Z places less emphasis on the importance of personal privacy. Sonic wears gloves and shoes but no pants.
Gen Z is consuming far less meat than previous generations. Sonic loves chili dogs, which is a tube of several kinds of meat with ground-up meat on top. Okay, that one doesn’t work. Um…
I’ve been seeing lots of kids with blue hair lately? What’s up with that?
Let’s see, how can I sound older than I already do? Oh! Bidets? No thank you! What’s all this fuss lately about bidets and bidet seat add-ons? I’ll stick to good old-fashioned American-made two-ply, thank you very much! Now, in my day, we had the Virtual Boy, and he was my best friend and oh my, the times we’d have…
Editor’s Note: Michael just kept typing out SNES titles until he got sleepy. We put a blanket over him to make sure he didn’t get cold.
What’s your take on Sonic these days? Corporate Shill or Moderately Funny In Sort of a Kitschy Way Corporate Shill? Let us know in the comments, or to really see how far the internet has fallen, check out what happens when you put the creepy old CG sonic’s teeth on other game characters.