Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Generation Z – generally defined as people born between 1997 and 2012 – is having a nostalgic moment. They’re obsessed with the early 2000s. Take a scroll through their regular digital haunts – platforms like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and the shopping app Depop. They’re peppered with hashtags like #Y2K – a fond callback dissociated from the feared global tech disaster millennials and older will recall – #2000s and #noughties.
These usually sit alongside photos of Hello Kitty bags, plastic jewelry, frosty eye makeup, Juicy Couture, iconic early noughties couples like Bennifer (the first time around), Britney and Justin and teen hairstyles millennial observers who test drove them the first time around would rather forget. For Gen Z, this is an era they are either too young to remember at all, or will have only vague memories of, from their young childhood.
The Y2K fixation has bled through pop culture over the last few years, influencing art form after art form. One of its earliest manifestations was in Ariana Grande’s music video for “Thank You, Next” at the end of 2018. The video is a montage of Grande playing classic noughties chick flick characters – Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde,” Regina George from “Mean Girls” and so on. After the pandemic hit, the trend exploded, and elders – like millennials and Gen X – got interested. We re-watched “Friends,” went wild with speculation over a Jennifer Aniston vs David Schwimmer romance (which Aniston’s representative denied), and became obsessed with the reunion between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck – along with its iconic photo callbacks.
But, though we’ve all thrilled at the images of Ben and Jen canoodling on yachts again, it’s still Gen Z leading the nostalgic charge. In her newest music video “Brutal,” Olivia Rodrigo – 2021’s runaway pop music star – rages about the angst of being 17 from her current vantage point as an 18-year-old. Her look is pure noughties – hair full of butterfly clips, lips coated in the kind of mirror-shine gloss every millennial remembers leaking inside their Jane Norman school bag. Doja Cat’s music videos are similarly full of neon highlights and hair stylings that could’ve come directly from Gwen Stefani’s noughties lookbook, and kids on TikTok are posting their takes on classic “Y2K” looks.
Elsewhere on the internet, Lauren Giraldo, a 23-year-old former Vine star, is flooding her Instagram, where she has nearly a million followers, with throwbacks. In one photo, she’s wearing frosted blue eye shadow and purple eyeliner, alongside one of Britney Spears made up the same way two decades ago. “The 2000s called, they say to watch my new YT (YouTube) video,” she captions it. Under a sponsored post for Galaxy phones, she writes “Y2K called … flip phones are back.” All over YouTube, post-adolescent vloggers are posting thrift “hauls” featuring similarly ugly-cool styles, their videos awash with double denim, spaghetti straps and low-rise jeans.
Nostalgia for a cultural milieu you might only have fuzzy memories of at best is an understandable inclination. Romanticizing the noughties seems to play into Gen Z’s reasonable desire for something recognizable, and less overwhelming than the grim (almost) post-pandemic, burning planet reality they’re facing. Their demographic has known almost nothing but turmoil. Whether they were conscious of the Great Recession or not, you can bet their parents were. Social media mushroomed throughout their childhoods, and the young have been consistently the most likely to use it. For as long as they can remember, Gen Z’s brains have been flooded with a volume of information incomprehensible to those born even a decade earlier. They are hyper-aware, and that awareness percolates through every facet of their lives.
Where millennials haphazardly caked-on foundation in their youth, Gen Z had YouTube tutorials on how to contour. While millennial kids might have caught the news on TV before or after school, Gen Z has had access to constant updates since most of them could read. One of the biggest stories of their lives so far was characterized as a hashtag – #MeToo. It’s no wonder they’re looking for distractions.
“There’s something about reading a book,” muses Emma Chamberlain, a YouTuber The Atlantic described in 2019 as the “most important today,” with 10.5 million followers. “If it’s kind of like, based around history … that can be very grounding,” she continued. This advice is from Emma’s video from April this year, titled “Reading makes you hot.” Chamberlain was born in 2001. As she explained, she’d barely read for pleasure until she was 19 years old. But now, reading is as much about coping with social media, as it is an end in itself. “When you go on the phone or on social media (after reading) you see right through it … because your brain when you’re reading is more conditioned to put things into perspective.”
Marketing to Gen Z’ers involves a complex interplay between social responsibility and nostalgic messaging. Their ambition and social conscience (read: Greta Thunberg and Co.) fuels their desire for a better world, but they’re also drawn to the comfort of what looks like a simpler time. “Growing up on the internet, everything’s kind of fake. Everything looks better than it is,” Chamberlain told Brown University students during a fashion week interview.
The thing is, Gen Z’ers are also making Y2K look better than it did. As a millennial who grew up during the noughties, I both envy and admire Gen Z’ers capacity to idealize those years. It’s unfair that they’re managing to make bucket hats and aggressive brand logos look anything besides tragic, but commendable that they’re paying a ton more mind to where they’re sourcing their clothes than we did.
And while it’s lovely for the Gen Z cohort to think of Jen and Ben reuniting, and to look back indulgently on Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan partying, they weren’t there for the horror show of celebrity culture at the time. They didn’t see the grotesque paparazzi harassment and brutal media coverage – remember, Bennifer cited “excessive media attention” as a key component in their 2003 breakup – and the crushing misogyny.
Rom-coms and sitcoms played off the same heteronormative ideal – with single and/or fat women demonized as tragic and desperate. “Fat” was interpreted liberally. When Renée Zellweger “piled on the pounds” to play Bridget Jones, she remained slim by comparison to most real people. It was cute and acceptable to be a nonthreatening klutz, not so hot to be sexually liberated and being objectified in any way was a compliment. The decade was pretty dire for anyone LGBTQ+ too. Remember how Chandler’s dad was a repeat punchline? And the “good gay/bad gay” vibe of Will (good, straight-presenting gay) and Jack (childish, performative gay) on “Will & Grace?”
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Worse was the way in which these representations were so often fed back to us as groundbreaking – even empowering. We were supposed to be satisfied that one non-rail-thin woman with a sense of self had become a mainstream darling, even though women were still hugely underrepresented on-screen (and Bridget Jones was also obsessed with marriage and her weight), and that queer characters were finally acceptable in any capacity on TV. To ask for more – or to point out the almost blanket Whiteness of shows like “Will and Grace” – as well as “Friends,” “The O.C.,” and the vast majority of movies to boot – would be considered nitpicking, spoiling the comedic fun.
I wish I’d lived in the Y2K Gen Z imagine. One where people have a social conscience and good fashion sense, where no one’s sexuality was a joke, and where celeb culture was just a fun merry-go-round of amazing gossip, with no social media fishbowl. But staring down another savage year, I can’t begrudge their more joyous, aesthetic twist on it. They’re going to have to save the world soon. Let them have whatever they need to soften the blow.