Movies + TV

Pop Culture Comfort Food

This stuff isn’t cool, or smart, or good…but it’s the stuff that pulls you through.

Illustration by Kelly

Between the ages of 13 and 14, I was unhappier than I’d ever been. Not coincidentally, I also managed to memorize all the words to all of the songs in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Actually, I memorized The Great Muppet Caper, too. And The Muppet Movie. That whole trilogy was on a fairly constant loop in my family’s VCR, the first thing I turned on when I came home from school. I knew the plots, the words, the jokes, and the punchlines to the jokes; I could probably have recited them from memory. But I kept watching.

Thirteen was a bad year. I had gone from being the barely tolerated girl in elementary school to the not-at-all tolerated girl in middle school, and it seemed to get worse every year; I had no friends, no social life, and not a lot of hope. Kids stole things out of my gym locker if I forgot to lock it, or from my desk when I went to the bathroom—my notebooks, my clothes, my calculator—and hid them, tore them up, or broke them. Or they’d leave notes in my locker, stupid bitch nobody likes you, stuff like that. Some guys would get weirdly, scarily sexual, asking me how often I masturbated or if I wanted to see their penises. One boy offered me a sip of his Coke, and then told me that he’d jizzed in it—clearly, the Clarence Thomas hearings had left an impression—and when I told him to fuck off before going to see the vice-principal about it, that vice-principal told me that I had “also used foul language,” and so he couldn’t punish the boy unless I was willing to accept a day of suspension. “Sexual harassment” wasn’t in that teacher’s vocabulary. He thought it was all about bad words.

My point is: I was not exactly gifted with an abundance of people who were happy to see me, when I was 13. But Kermit always was.

Together again, he sang, every time The Muppets Take Manhattan started up—just that one fuzzy little green puppet, against the black screen, singing directly to the audience. Gee, it’s good to be together again. I just can’t imagine that you’ve ever been gone!

Yeah, well: that’s because you saw me yesterday, Kermit. But I’ll take it.

I knew I was too old for these movies. I knew it was weird to watch them so much. But the Muppets made me feel safe. Their world was about warmth and bright colors and corny jokes; nobody in the Muppet movies would call anyone a “stupid bitch,” not even the bad guys. They just sang about friendship and being yourself and following your dreams; they felt comfortable, like getting under a big, warm blanket on a cold night. They took away the chill.

I’ve since learned that I am not alone in this taste for pop-culture comfort food. This is stuff that you don’t watch (or read, or listen to, or whatever) because it’s good—often, it’s sort of embarrassing—but because it makes you feel good. I once knew a guy—a grownup—who would deal with a rough week by purchasing some sugary cereal on Friday night, then getting up early to eat it while he watched Saturday morning cartoons in his pajamas. My mother prefers ancient BBC sitcoms and Meg Ryan movies. My current boyfriend’s bad-day go-to is, as he puts it, “spin-offs in the Cheers-o-verse,” like Wings and Frasier; he appreciates them, he says, for how “predictable and formulaic” they are. My favorite example: I once had a friend who was a hardcore goth, who actively scared people with her multiple facial piercings and tendency to black leather outfits, and whose favorite entertainment, on a good day, was grown men screaming about how much they identified with Satan. She confessed to me that when she was really bummed, she watched Mad About You re-runs. This, for those not in the know, is the sitcom where Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt play a married couple who wear lots of khakis, have a large, loving family, and encounter various problems along the lines of, “Oh, no! Our Thanksgiving turkey has been eaten by our adorable dog!” To be fair, I guess, even Satan would be frustrated by that one.

Music can work this way, too. I know quite a few women with a secret Tori Amos stash—she’s not the most fashionable singer in the world, but sometimes she sounds like the only person in the world who knows why you’re in such a bad mood, and what to do about it. I’m also a fan of Fiona Apple, in her earlier, angrier moments. This stuff—which I’ve heard referred to, by more than one dude, as “whiny chick music”—seems embarrassing, when you’re in a better mood. But when you’re down and out, getting permission to “whine,” even just via your iPod, can be a lifeline.

Which is not to say that it’s all heavy: silly pop music can also work wonders. Admitting that you can be pulled out of a funk by “Party in the USA,” or Ke$ha, or even (shudder) Blink-182, feels goofy. Yet all of these musicians have been described to me as pop-culture comfort food: simple, familiar, and uplifting. In your worst moments, you don’t want to be challenged. You want something that reminds you of growing up, or that feels safer and cleaner than the mess you’re in. You want to be taken care of, basically. And who’s to say that’s a bad reason for watching or listening to something? Why is it necessary to always want Great, Sophisticated Art? Pop-culture comfort food gives you permission to be sappy. It lets you enjoy things that are too young for you, or too silly, or too sentimental, or too dumb. Pop-culture comfort food isn’t the stuff you consume on your best day, to prove how cool you are. It’s the stuff that you save for your worst day, the stuff that pulls you through.

I wasn’t completely cut off from pop culture, during my year of Muppet movies. I had lots of Sonic Youth albums. I watched My So-Called Life, and even dyed my hair Angela Chase maroon, like every other would-be alterna-girl in my grade. I’d heard about Welcome to the Dollhouse, and I was interested. But that year—the year when I was alone, scared, overwhelmed, hopeless—I didn’t want to hear about yet more harshness or alienation. And I didn’t have the energy to be cool. In that moment, I didn’t need Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon; I needed Miss Piggy and Kermit.

I haven’t watched the Muppet movies in a very long time. It turns out, after you’ve watched three movies for 365 days—about 121 times apiece—fatigue does, in fact, set in. But this fall, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens had a Jim Henson exhibit. I went. It had concept drawings for the Muppets, and clips from Jim Henson’s experimental films, and a plan for a weird hippie nightclub that he’d apparently designed after seeing it in a nightmare. But, more important, it had Kermit. The actual Kermit puppet! I think it had even been used in The Muppet Movie. There he was, perched on a little log in a glass display case, right as you walked in.

I paused there, for a moment. Tried to wrap my head around it. Here was this tiny little object—nothing more than a stuffed animal, really, made out of foam and felt; you could see the seams—about half as long as my arm. And it was what had pulled me through the toughest year of my life. I’d known Kermit’s name since I could talk. He was always there. When they stole my binder, wrote “SLUT” on it in Sharpie, tore my science notes out of it—Kermit was there. When they slipped me notes about how no one liked me—Kermit was there. When that guy told me I’d just swallowed his semen, when the vice-principal told me I would have to be punished for not reacting nicely—there was Kermit, with his gentle, chirpy little voice, singing lullabies, making me feel safe. And now, here he was. I just can’t imagine that you’ve ever been gone, the song goes. It’s not starting over, it’s just going on.

Twenty years after he took Manhattan, Kermit and I were both in Queens. And he was a stuffed animal. A doll. Not a real creature, in any sense. But I don’t know if I would have been OK, without him. It felt important to stand there, in front of him. To let him know that I was safe now. I had turned out fine. ♦

60 Comments

  • Fortune_Goddess December 19th, 2011 3:44 PM

    This is so sad, but a really good message.

  • christinachristina December 19th, 2011 3:59 PM

    This is wonderful. I think everyone’s got their secret, guilty, comfort pleasure that makes everything okay. Mine is Archie comics – they aren’t funny or interesting in any way, really, but i grew up with them and anytime I just need to get out of my head for a bit, I pick one out of my embarrassingly large collection and read about Reggie’s pranks, Jughead’s adventures with food and Archie, Betty and Veronica’s love triangle. I think nostalgia has a lot to do with secret pleasures like this; you grow out of things you enjoyed when you were younger, but that comfort still sticks with you and will always be able to provide that for you.

    • EmmaAmerica December 19th, 2011 6:06 PM

      Oh, I love archie comics :) Best things about them, is that somehow Archie manages to have two storylines where he is with both of them but also not in a creepy way, and the fact that they have been teenagers for seventy odd years and yeah I could go on for way to long :)

    • missblack December 20th, 2011 8:51 PM

      I love Archie comics. In a totally non-guilty-pleasure, non-ironic, non-nostalgic way. Haha.

      But only the old ones, when they were good.

  • I.ila December 19th, 2011 4:06 PM

    This is a wonderful article. I love knowing that everyone else has a feel-good TV show or book. Mine is Frasier, and also the book “Cheaper by the Dozen.” I can read that over and over, but I always have to skip the ending where the dad dies, because then I’ll cry.

    • Katherine December 19th, 2011 4:34 PM

      I know! Me too! Love that book so much.

  • Naomi December 19th, 2011 4:10 PM

    this made me tear up sady! so much truth

  • nikitha December 19th, 2011 4:15 PM

    YEAH! FIRST COMMENT!!! Love you rookie!! and party in the usa alwayss cheers me up! so does jesse mccartney…. my first-ever crush.

  • AndieP December 19th, 2011 4:22 PM

    I think it’s safe to say this article got me a little choked up. I know this feeling so much. After not seeing her since my elementary years, I recently picked up Sailor Moon again. Needless to say, she’s always been someone whom I can depend.

  • tallulahpond December 19th, 2011 4:22 PM

    I know this doesn’t come under the rubbish-but-makes-you-feel-good category, but two hours of listening to Maroon 5 does it for me!

  • fizzingwhizbees December 19th, 2011 4:23 PM

    I love this. Show tunes and the daytime shows on the Food Network are my personal comfort food.

  • Besu December 19th, 2011 4:27 PM

    This is such a sweet story!!!

  • Katherine December 19th, 2011 4:32 PM

    What cheers me up is listening to Taylor Swift’s songs, especially “Picture to Burn.” I only wish I’d found this outlet last year, when I was going through a really tough time.

  • spatergator December 19th, 2011 4:35 PM

    Almost cried a bit there. Thanks for the beautiful article.

  • Annie December 19th, 2011 4:45 PM

    I always watch Whitest Kids U Know when I’m in a shitty mood. It’s probably the stupidest show ever created, and, admittedly, not even that funny but it never fails to cheer me up 5:30 in the morning when I can’t fall back to sleep.

  • sorrysarah December 19th, 2011 4:58 PM

    Korean tv dramas got me through middle school, high school, and now college.

  • Minna December 19th, 2011 5:02 PM

    This is an incredible article! I’m not alone. I have memorized the words to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I put it on whenever I can’t sleep, whenever I feel sad. Also, I find immense comfort in the Brady Bunch. I’ve watched each episode too many times to admit. I love sinking into these safe environments.

  • Minna December 19th, 2011 5:03 PM

    Oh, and ROALD DAHL BOOKS

  • MissKnowItAll December 19th, 2011 5:13 PM

    For me it was a picture book called “I love You Stinky Face”. Any time that I feel espically crappy, I read it and realize that I’m still a beautiful person. And I think that’s what every person needs.

  • Juniper December 19th, 2011 5:23 PM

    I watch white chicks. :)

  • sedgwick December 19th, 2011 5:36 PM

    mine is….. the princess diaries books. and sometimes the movies. they’re just so cute.

  • Jeane December 19th, 2011 5:46 PM

    After I was expelled from school when I was 16 and got to be homeschooled for a semester, I watched the complete series of Lost since it was ending that year. I don’t think that counts as embarrassing, but it’s definitely my pop culture comfort food.

  • EmmaAmerica December 19th, 2011 6:04 PM

    I am so glad to know I am not the only one that does this! Sometimes, I am so not up for things that are clever just things that are simple!
    http://inthissummerhaze.blogspot.com/

  • koolkat December 19th, 2011 6:49 PM

    I really needed this article. Personally, curling up with a Vampire Academy book does it for me. I love how cheesy and young-adult-y it is, how it’s kind of predictable in a way and I don’t have to dig into the deep, metaphorical meaning of it all :P

  • brynntheredonethat December 19th, 2011 8:05 PM

    Where the Wild Things Are = my pop culture comfort food. I’ve been struggling with depression this year, and I would definitely feel much more alone if it weren’t for that movie, its soundtrack, its characters, and its conflicts. It’s also the root of my Karen O obsession. haha!

    • missblack December 20th, 2011 8:53 PM

      Oh my God, Worried Shoes is like my theme song. I love it so much.

  • Olive December 19th, 2011 8:41 PM

    These don’t really embarrass me, but my comfort food songs are “Where You Lead” (the Gilmore Girls theme version) and “Keep on Tryin’”.

    • Chimdi December 20th, 2011 11:47 AM

      I can sing the song “Where You Lead” completely from memory at any given moment…

  • juliette December 19th, 2011 9:00 PM

    what a bunch of jerks at your school, you poor thing! i know what you mean about this comfort thing too, i turn on spongebob squarepants whenever i’m glum. something about that shrill laughter and those big bug eyes of his cheer me up

  • bohobambi December 19th, 2011 9:02 PM

    Billy Madison, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Seinfeld, George Carlin, and Smosh youtube videos tend to cheer me up. None of these are embarrassing but yeah. :)

  • Maialuna December 19th, 2011 9:03 PM

    I like to watch anime or Korean dramas. Some of it is really good though!

  • isadora December 19th, 2011 9:04 PM

    Thanks for this article! When I watched the newest Muppets movie, I laughed more than all the kids in the theater room together . It was simple, sometimes a bit silly or cheesy, but it made me feel so good, after a considerable number of lows in my life.
    The list of “guilty” pleasures is really long, but I don’t feel guilty about them at all! I’m 17 and Roger Rabbits will always make me happy! That’s what it’s about, after all, doing things that make us happy, right?

  • rosie December 19th, 2011 9:34 PM

    this is so sweet/sad, thanks for sharing. i’m seeing my current addiction to ‘Whitney’ (marathons on hulu) in a whole new light…

  • back2thepast December 19th, 2011 9:47 PM

    Sady you’re such an awesome writer. I loved this! Not come-feel-sorry-for-me like some articles can seem. You just put the truth out there. Rookie is all about making girls feel like they belong somewhere, something that would have been nice for your 13-year-old self. Keep writing!!

  • lapluiebleue December 19th, 2011 10:29 PM

    I have a secret Tori Amos stash, haha

  • cherrycola27 December 19th, 2011 11:30 PM

    This was a really sweet piece. I know we all have our comforts, and it’s interesting to see what they are to different people. That guy that gets up early on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons is great!
    For me it’s probably watching Gilmore Girls and listening to Ben Kweller. Not that I don’t love these things anyway or think they’re great, but they are the most comforting to me and when I don’t want to be “challenged”, just feel better, I go to them.

    • 1000swedishfish December 21st, 2011 6:35 AM

      yes! Ben Kweller always puts me in a better mood!

  • r0cketdog December 19th, 2011 11:44 PM

    oh my god this is exactly like me and how i met your mother and the waltons. and i’m sorry middle school was so tough for you!

  • yourpretendfriend December 19th, 2011 11:49 PM

    This post really resonates with me because during my junior year of high school, a senior girl that I didn’t know personally but knew of, was raped and murdered in my town. It was a horribly sad year that sent me back into my depression and the thing that made me feel safer and happier was reading Harry Potter. I could escape into the imaginary world of wizards and flying brooms and I didn’t have to think about the real world, where innocent, amazing people get killed for no reason. I did cry harder when certain characters died, though.

  • Charlotte December 20th, 2011 12:24 AM

    oh my god, this is me and Winnie the Pooh….also Blink-182 is the best/worst.

  • Miarele December 20th, 2011 1:21 AM

    To me, it was those somewhat angsty songs from pop punk bands like Simple Plan when I was in middle school. Now it’s the sugary, catchy, but strangely addictive songs of K-POP. But I’m not sure that I’m actually embarrassed by them, to be honest. Haha

    Anyway, loved the article. It’s really heartfelt, the kinds that are always my favorites in Rookie

  • gill December 20th, 2011 11:13 AM

    I love the Muppets too! Always have; watched the Muppet Movie every. single. day. as a little girl. Recently saw the new one and got all teared up at “the Rainbow Connection.” :’)

  • Chimdi December 20th, 2011 11:45 AM

    OH MY GOSH I love all you commenters who said yours were Korean dramas and Gilmore Girls-me too!

    The only thing about Korean dramas is that they’re toooootally sexist most of the time :/

    …oh, and Angela’s hair wasn’t maroon, it was “Crimson Glow”

    • sorrysarah December 21st, 2011 12:08 AM

      It’s always so surprising how many people love Korean dramas! I always feel like I’m the only non-Asian in the world who likes them, ha. But yea, they can be pretty sexist. All the wrist-grabbing and weak female leads. Yet somehow they still remain super addicting.

  • christinachristina December 20th, 2011 12:16 PM

    @emmaamerica, do you ever feel like they are sometimes totally feminist and sometimes totally not??

  • kirsty December 20th, 2011 4:15 PM

    the show FRIENDS is my ultimate comfort food. talk about timing, i just read this article and today i dropped my fiance off at the airport – we live on different countries and i won’t see him for 7 months! so now i’m watching the pilot and ross finding out his wife is a lesbian puts my problems in perspective a little :)

  • marthaflatley December 20th, 2011 4:52 PM

    I loved this and related SO much. 7th grade is the worst. more should be said about it really. i used to watch winnie the pooh, read harry potter over and over again, and read archie comics–all those things other people have mentioned too.

  • karastarr32 December 20th, 2011 5:18 PM

    Omigosh, yes! Thank you! I, admittedly, probably have too many of these. Mine are:
    Taylor Swift
    Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (book and movie)
    Pretty Little Liars (the books)
    Disney channel original movies
    And
    Instant Star (a TV show)
    :)

    • karastarr32 December 20th, 2011 5:40 PM

      Oh and, of COURSE, Harry Potter. I’ve red them all way too much.

  • PearlFog December 20th, 2011 6:04 PM

    Such a moving piece, thank you :o)

    I have so many of these comfort things that have got me through the lowest period of my life, including Bobby Darin songs, the Bee Gees, Sting (when I was sixteen and my parents were getting divorced), ‘You’ve Got Mail’, ‘Frasier’ and an old British sitcom about a married couple trying to be self sufficient in their suburban back garden called ‘The Good Life’. There’s a picture book called ‘No Matter What’ by Debi Gliori that has dragged me back out of some nasty holes too. Plus Nigella Lawson cookery programmes and the film ‘The Birdcage’, everybody’s so sweet in it and Hank Azaria walks around in hotpants, how could you not feel happier? You wish could thank the people who make these things sometimes and tell them just how much they’ve meant to you.

    This whole subject reminds me of the Preston Sturges film ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ which has a great thread about the value of pop culture when people are in real pain.

  • FashionHauties December 20th, 2011 9:41 PM

    This is so true. Anytime I have a bad day, I turn on happy songs (unless I want to be all cut-throat for once and listen to angry music and keep the mood!).

  • Chloe Elizabeth December 21st, 2011 2:36 AM

    I never thought I could read something so beautiful thats simply about the Muppets.

  • 1000swedishfish December 21st, 2011 6:29 AM

    watching bbc period pieces, particularly anything by Jane Austen (especially pride and prejudice and sense and sensibility) are my comfort food.

    I’ll always remember my mum picking me up from my first ever high school party and staying up with her watching pride & prejudice and just talking.

  • RiRi December 22nd, 2011 2:26 PM

    Yes I’m going to be unoriginal – but Gossip Girl and Glee always do the trick.

  • Zayin December 22nd, 2011 8:59 PM

    What a brilliant article.

  • ReneeRevolution December 22nd, 2011 11:18 PM

    Wonderful piece. I also adore the Muppets. They’ve been a huge part of my life ever since childhood. I’ve seen the new movie three times already! The Muppets are always something that will make me smile, and it’s good to have something in life that can always give you that happy, comfortable feeling.

  • AshleyTheAmazon December 26th, 2011 12:32 AM

    Oh man. Thank you for this. The Muppets have always been safe refuge for me too, even now in my 20′s. Nice to know other folks feel the same way. And I’m totally checking out that exhibit!! Thanks for the tip that made my week!

  • areyoumental December 28th, 2011 4:00 PM

    We had a hurricane pass through my town (which is really strange considering the region where I live), and I stayed up all night reading through my favorite parts of Deathly Hallows- and let’s face it, that’s the whole book.

    Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Princess Diaries, and Miss Congeniality all instantly make me feel better. Sometimes Blues Clues and Sesame Street do the trick. ;]

    I used to ice dance and my absolute favorite performances are bad day staples, as well as my favorite regular dance performances and musicals/musical soundtracks.

    And also, That 70s Show, Lizzie McGuire, and That’s So Raven whenever they’re on TV.

  • Weeezy April 20th, 2012 7:15 AM

    ‘Yeah, well: that’s because you saw me yesterday, Kermit. But I’ll take it.’
    i laughed so inappropriately long in my loungeroom that my parents now think i am very strange.
    But this is a beautiful piece, and so sad and funny and lovely. it now lives in my favourites.

  • FunkiCheicho April 22nd, 2012 2:27 PM

    When I feel down I often watch old Disney cartoons – especially the really, really crappy straight-to-DVD sequel ones. Lion King 3, the Rescuers, and loads that no-ones ever heard of! Its embarrassing, but its true. Cartoons and chocolate = feel better!