A Christmas Story is one of those movies that has become a fixture of American culture in ways that you can notice even if you’ve never seen the film. Various characters and scenes from the movie have found their way onto “A Christmas Story” t shirts, among other kinds of merchandise. Let me tell you a little story.
Once upon a time, it was around Christmas and I was walking to the gas station. I forget exactly what I was after. It may have been eggnog because I was feeling festive. It may have been cigarettes, because I still smoked back then. It may have just been snacks, a protein bar or shake. I don’t remember if I was lifting weights at the time, but it might have been a protein bar I was after. This was when I lived in a sleepy mid-sized Midwestern city.
I usually walked to the gas station because I didn’t like to drive when I could walk. I had a car. I’m just a person who walks everywhere. Especially after I’ve moved to a new place, I feel that it’s better to walk everywhere than it is to drive. When you drive, you’re insulated from the location. You don’t see much. When you walk, it forces you to get up close and personal with the new place you’re living in. And that is what makes all the difference in really making yourself at home in a new town. I had lived in that city for a few years by then, but I always took walks and tried to take a different route each time. I felt that it made the place more personal for me.
So there I was. It was a few days before Christmas. There was a lot of snow on the ground. It was the wet, crunchy snow that falls in that part of the world sometimes. Not light powdery stuff, oh no. This was heavy and deep. I was wearing a set of hiking boots and they were still leaking a little. It was a brutal winter. I lived in a suburb on the edge of town and there were streetlights all the way to the gas station. Their light was cold and blue. I was all bundled up in my scarf and gloves and ankle-length coat. I had a big beard back then and it had ice crystals in it.
As I walked to the gas station, I passed many houses. It was dark, but not too late in the evening, so a lot of them still had lighted windows. I paused at one of them because something perched in the window caught my eye: It was a lamp, shaped like a woman’s leg, with a lampshade on top. It’s the exact same lamp that the father receives in the mail in A Christmas Story! I smiled to myself and thought, “Well, I guess somebody won a major award…”
It has been a decade and a half since the release of 300. Released in 2006, the film was a blockbuster. Grossing over four hundred million dollars, the film was praised for its style, unique color palette, quotable dialogue, and over-the-top action and gore. Although the film was released fifteen years ago, people still quote it today and wear 300 t shirts. So I have to ask myself: what made 300 so good? Why is that movie a classic?
A little background on me. I first saw this movie in 2006, when I was a teenager. I went to the theater in my small town with a friend and we sat in the back, ate some popcorn, and watched. I remember when, coming out of the theater, my friend was so pumped about it. He stood on the street corner and said, “Where do you guys wanna go eat? Because I was thinking that tonight, we could dine in hell!” He screamed that last part. I’m not the pubescent video-game-playing Red Bull-swilling kid I was then, but I vividly remember seeing 300 in the theater that night. It’s an experience I can’t forget.
And the unforgettableness of that movie really is what makes it a classic. But that, in turn, begs the question: what makes it unforgettable?
A few things. First, the movie is all about style more than substance. Or, to put a finer point on it, it’s style-as-substance. Who cares if it’s historically accurate or implausible? The point is the style. The whole movie is shot in a weird color scheme to make it look like a comic book, and this reinforces the surreal, mythological view of the whole thing. It doesn’t feel realistic. It doesn’t feel like real life at all. But it’s not supposed to! The whole point of 300 is to feel like some strange dream, the kind you have when you’ve got a high fever and just had a lot of cough syrup before bed. Everything in 300 is over the top and cartoonish, and that’s what makes it so delightfully archetypal.
The second aspect of 300 that makes it immortal (but not like a Persian Immortal!) is its quotability. Say any of the following to someone:
“Tonight, we dine in Hell!”
“Spartans, prepare for glory!”
“Madness? THIS IS SPARTA!”
Everyone knows those quotes. Everyone! Even people who have never seen the movie because they weren’t born when it came out know those quotes. They’re all over t shirts and memes and everything else. The quotable dialogue and unique style together make 300 an unforgettable film. Nobody can forget the over-the-top getup worn by Xerxes when he makes his first appearance, nor the sheer violence and gore. Add the agelessly quotable lines of dialogue ot that and you’ve got yourself a winner.
Any good retro gamer is familiar with the beat ‘em up genre. A common fixture of arcade and console games in the 1990s, beat ‘em ups were the addictive game par excellence. If the local laundromat had an Altered Beast arcade machine, then you knew you’d better wash your clothes before using it. If you don’t, then you won’t be getting any laundry done, because your time and quarters will swiftly be eaten by the arcade. Beat ‘em ups are addictive because they are difficult. The basic premise is that you have a dozen lives or so, and your character walks through a stage beating up hordes of enemies with kicks, punches, and special moves. You will die quite frequently, and in the arcade versions, you get more lives by depositing quarters. There are generally different playable characters with unique special moves. Sometimes the basic punches and kicks are different, too.
Many superheroes and supervillains have made their appearances in beat ‘em up games. Thematically, the beat ‘em up is very suitable for use with superheroes because it involves one or two main characters fighting their way through hordes of mooks, which is exactly what superheroes are meant to do. And who better to serve as boss than a supervillain?
Enter Carnage. Everybody knows about Spiderman and Venom, and even people who aren’t total comic book geeks know who Carnage is. You might even have seen him on some Carnage t-shirts. In the 90s, there were two popular beat ‘em ups featuring Carnage: Maximum Carnage, and Spiderman & Venom: Separation Anxiety. In both games, Carnage is the final boss.
Separation Anxiety is the more well-known of the two. Although the game is repetitive, with a lot of unavoidable hits that make it fiendishly difficult, nobody can deny that it’s entertaining. The plot has Spiderman and Venom teaming up against the nefarious Life Foundation to stop a horde of genetically-engineered symbiotes from running amok. After fighting your way through several levels full of goons, you fight a number of new symbiotes with names like Riot and Agony. At the very end, you face off against Carnage.
The controls are responsive and the game is considerably fun to play. There’s a wide variety of moves. You have the basic punch/kick combos, as well as the ability to climb on walls and drop down with an aerial attack. One of the game’s big positives is being able to play as Spiderman or Venom. Both characters have a shield that they can use. Spiderman’s is a web shield held close to his body. Venom, on the other hand, melds his hands together to create a shield from his symbiote suit.
If you can acquire Separation Anxiety in a compilation, or get the original cart, I strongly recommend it. It’s a good game and a lens into the state of console gaming in the 1990s.
Saved By The Bell
Saved By The Bell is one of those shows from my early childhood that I remember my older siblings laughing at, but never quite understanding myself because I was too young. Years later, I grew up to actually watch the show and see what all the fuss was about. Why did so many people like this, and why do so many people to this day still wear Saved By The Bell retro TV show t shirts? Whether you remember the 90s or not, Saved By The Bell is one of the most iconically 90s pop cultural items. It’s something that just screams “1990s!” by even being mentioned.
Come on, you remember crop tops. And if you were old enough at the time, you probably enjoyed seeing them (if you’re a guy) or wearing them (if you’re a girl). Crop tops, in case you didn’t know, are shirts that cover the top of the torso but not the midriff, leaving the stomach exposed. This article of clothing was so popular in the 90s that even cartoon characters could be spotted wearing them. They disappeared sometime around the year 2000 and vanished for twenty years. Since 2018 or so, they’re beginning to make a comeback, much to the delight of adolescent males everywhere.
A lot of people now don’t even know what a soul patch is. A soul patch is the tuft of facial hair just under the lower lip, in the center. It’s that tuft of hair that grows independently of the rest of the beard. Back in the 90s, it was fashionable for a short time to save everything but the soul patch. Unlike the crop top, the soul patch has, unfortunately, not experienced a revival, and still appears gauche even in 2021. We can still hold out hope, though, for some celebrity to decide that he’d look good with a soul patch and make an appearance on YouTube.
Nu-Metal had some unlistenable acts, but it also had a lot of great songs. It’s true that Limp Bizkit did not age well. But the 90s also brought us acts with some staying power, such as Disturbed and System of a Down. The distinctive sound of nu-metal guitar can never be forgotten: de-tuned, with the treble turned down and playing thumping palm-muted riffs with bouncy offset rhythms. Anybody who has listened to Korn’s “Here To Stay” can hum the riff from memory. And of course, System of a Down tracks, such as Chop Suey! and Toxicity are immortal classics.
If Nu-Metal was the late 90s personified, then grunge was the early 90s. As the musical craze that marked the transition from 1980s to 1990s, grunge combined riffing that was too sloppy to be metal, but far too heavy to fit into any of the softer genres, with depressive lyrics and the trademark 90s “Who cares?” attitude. By catering specifically to the teenage mindset, Nirvana was able to touch off a musical craze overnight from their home city of Seattle. Complete with flannel, body odor, and a stale cheeseburger, grunge is the Platonic form of 1990s music.
There’s no two ways around it: jerks are funny. For some reason, one of the most amusing things you can see on a television show is a character who is a total, unmitigated, incorrigible jerkwad. This comedic device works so well that television shows like Archer and House MD have “this guy is a jerk” as their entire premise! In fact, far from being reviled, these characters are beloved. Archer’s entire character just comes out to being a jerk, but for some reason, you still see him on Archer t shirts. So what gives?
I think that it’s ultimately funny because of incongruity. It’s funny when someone is a jerk because it’s something you don’t see every day, and something you don’t expect. We’re accustomed to living in a world with standards, with certain expectations and rules. Humor, at its root, is largely about incongruity, and people acting like jerks provides a ready source of incongruous humor. Even slapstick cartoon gags, such as stepping out of the way and trippings someone or slamming a door in their face as they’re running toward you, are a species of comedic incongruity. They don’t fit with their surroundings, and that’s the point.
The second big reason is the mean-spiritedness of it. Not to say that everybody is secretly mean, but we all have a little bit of schadenfreude in us. Every single one of us can think of a time or place where we would have loved to pop off with some horrible response to a person who was annoying us. Shows like Archer can provide stress relief in this way, because they allow us to get our jerk fix vicariously. Maybe you can’t be a jerk when you’re mad at someone, but you can have that experience vicariously by watching the right TV.
A third reason is that it allows for situational comedy and wordplay. When someone is being a jerk, it’s much easier for the show’s writers to steer it into an absurd situation, because unrealistically jerky behavior can plausibly lead to situational comedy. Additionally, there is all kinds of fun to be had with the verbal aspect of humor. Think of R Lee Ermey’s insulting monologues in Full Metal Jacket. Part of what makes those monologs funny, besides the sheer crudeness, is the creativity of the verbiage in the insults he uses, the sheer strangeness of what he says.
So in summary, jerks in TV are funny for the following reasons: they’re incongruous, they play to the pent-up meanness in all of us, and their attitude allows us to experience novel situations and dialogue. So the next time you see someone in an Archer t shirt, think of this article. You know why they’re wearing that shirt, and you know why everybody finds shows like Archer funny.
Here we have the main character, the one most frequently seen on Harry Potter movie t shirts. A member of House Gryffindor. While it’s not always the case that the main character is the author, and while not all books are autobiographies, it’s still true that the main character frequently has a piece of the author inside of them. JK Rowling is typically typed as INFP or INFJ by the fandom, so it’s no surprise that Harry is an INFP. Harry worries about his competence, reflecting inferior extraverted thinking. He also is a little fussy about having things just right, but is overall disorganized, reflecting tertiary introverted sensing and his overall Perceiving nature. He makes decisions by following his heart and has a frowzy, disheveled appearance, reflecting dominant introverted feeling and secondary extraverted intuition.
A lot of people are tempted to type Hermione as INTP or INTJ, but I’m going to dispute that. First of all, Hermione is far too organized and by the book to really be an INTP, because INTPs are famously oddballs. INTJs are organized, but they’re also unconventional and typically do not memorize their sources or internalize concrete information precisely, preferring abstraction. Her preference for concrete, memorized information speaks to dominant introverted sensing. Additionally, Hermione’s organization and excellence in a conventional setting speaks to an SJ with Te. So Hermione is ISTJ.
Luna Lovegood: INTP
INTPs are known for being the single weirdest type. Luna’s spaciness and absent-minded nature fit perfectly with the traits of the INTP. She is also very unconventional, and spends her time on hobbies that are strange and esoteric even by wizarding standards. Another factor that clues us into her type is her role in the story. Like many INTP characters, she plays a peripheral role in the story. Her position as a “side” character is one of the biggest clues that she is INTP, because INTPs in fiction are almost never main characters.
Remus Lupin: INFJ
At first blush, one is tempted to type Lupin as INTJ. He’s mysterious, intelligent, and a loner. One knows almost nothing about him. In the books, he presents as an oracular presence, an unknown quantity. Additionally, he teaches a self-defense class (Defense Against The Dark Arts) which seems like a very INTJ thing to do. However, Lupin is simply too soft to be an INTJ. And when we have someone who looks and acts like an INTJ but just doesn’t appear cold and hard enough, then we know that we have to change that third letter: INFJ.
Severus Snape: INTP
This one may come as a surprise. Because of his hardness, many people type Snape as INTJ. However, when we get a glimpse into his past, we see something shocking: he was bullies when he was younger. INTJs are rarely the sort of people to have been bullied in their pasts. So while Snape has all the hallmarks of an INTx character, that fourth letter can be difficult because those two types often appear so similar from the outside. The decision on how we resolve his final letter is made by noticing his past.
Wolverine is quite an old character. I’m not talking about the fictional character’s age. I’m talking about when the character was created. Wolverine first appeared in a comic book way back in 1974, nearly fifty years ago! Most people today know who the character is, and learned about him when they were growing up. It has often been said that superheroes are the modern equivalent of ancient Greek heroes, and their place in culture seems to support that idea. While we all know the real-world origins of the fictional character, the idea of Wolverine, many people don’t know about his in-universe origins.
Wolverine, as a character, was created in 1974, but the creators did not give him an origin story until 2001. So the character had already existed for twenty seven years before he was given an origin story. His origin story appeared in a comic book series from Marvel called Origins. How… original. This was exciting for a lot of fans because Wolverine had hitherto been very mysterious in terms of where he came from and what his character’s background was. It was known that he was some sort of military or ex-soldier, but he was mostly an enigma.
Origins cleared up a lot of that by telling us where the character was born. It was explained that Wolverine was born in the 19th century, making him one of the older mutants. He is originally Canadian. It is also explained that he spent much of his time fighting in wars: Wolverine was known to have fought in the American Civil War, World War One, World War Two, and the Vietnam War. This explains the origins of his fighting skills. He was also “executed” once (under false pretenses) by firing squad, but survived thanks to his ability to regenerate.
The Origins story was then made into a movie eight years later. In 2009, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was added to the long list of X-Men films made around that time, starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. The X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie is heavily based on the events of the Origins comics. The movie was fraught during filming with a number of problems. The screenplay was still being written while the movie was being filmed. It was also filmed in three different countries, and an incomplete workprint wound up being leaked onto the Internet before the theatrical release of the film.
Wolverine is one of, if not the, most popular of the X-Men. He is frequently featured in comic books, and when you see someone in an X-Men t shirt, it’s usually one that involves Wolverine. A superhero’s origin story is a big part of their character. Some heroes, like Batman, have their backstory built in from the beginning, while others, like Wolverine, had to wait some time for their origin story to finally be filled in.
Einstein was a strange bird, there can be no doubt about that. My first assumption from childhood, when I learned about Einstein, was that his style of dress and his hairdo were normal for his time period. That wasn’t true, though. Einstein was considered strange, socially inept, and childlike his whole life. While the rumors about him being a terrible student are not true, it is true that he was inept at many non-intellectual things. The gist of it is that Einstein was crap with practicalities: he was very smart in theoretical things, but his intellect was a hindrance in any other realm.
One good example of this is in the job market. Einstein was not very good at holding down a job while he was young. In fact, he was consistently fired from most of the jobs he applied to. He was able to graduate from university, but he could not do any jobs without being fired. He even took jobs tutoring small children, and was fired from those jobs as well. Some have reported that Einstein was lost in his head much of the time and could not do practical work-a-day jobs very well. He simply wasn’t cut out for manual labor. He wasn’t cut out for tutoring, either.
Einstein’s big break came when he worked at a patent office. This worked for him because all he had to do was review paperwork. More importantly, he didn’t have to constantly pay attention all the time. There were long stretches where he simply sat at his desk and did nothing at all. During those long stretches, he could work on his physical theories. The patent office was a blessing because it gave him time to work on physics and did not demand things from him that he could not produce, such as constantly paying attention to what he was doing.
Einstein is now a man whose name is synonymous with genius. But there are some people who are too intelligent for their own good. If you’re too absorbed in abstract ideas, and cannot ground yourself in physical reality no matter how hard you try, then it may be that you’re past the point where intelligence has any practical value.
Another way to put it is that intelligence is only useful up to a point. The point where it stops being useful to an individual is when it can no longer work for practical things. Past a certain point, intelligence is only good for doing abstract theoretical stuff and doesn’t really help anymore with the ordinary practical stuff. In fact, as in Einstein’s case, it can even be hindrance. So keep in mind whenever you see a person wearing an Einstein novelty t shirt that the man on that shirt was brilliant, but handicapped in a way by his intelligence.
Alchemy seems so mysterious. The word conjures up images of arcane charts, lists of obscure elemental symbols, wizards and alchemists turning lead into gold, fantasy worlds, goblets, alembics, mortar and pestles, retorts, furnaces and beakers. There is something very Frankenstein-ish about alchemy, something that tempts the imagination and fascinates the mind. But what was alchemy, really? Where did all of this strange symbolism that straddles the border between magic and science come from? There’s an entire history behind it, an entire world of esotericism and proto-science, so let’s take a look at it. You might learn something really cool.
Alchemy is a proto-science, but it’s also associated with magic. Many of the discoveries of ancient alchemy were legitimate scientific discoveries. The idea that you could control the conditions around a piece of matter and put it through different processes in order to induce desired changes is not, strictly speaking, wrong. Fundamentally, alchemy is the same basic idea as chemistry: the study of change. The difference is that alchemy and chemistry separated during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, with alchemy becoming more and more esoteric and magical, while chemistry joined the rest of the physical sciences. So alchemy is the origin of chemistry.
However, even before splitting off from chemistry, alchemy was still deeply involved with magic and occultism. This is clear from the associations between alchemy and the various esoteric philosophies of late antiquity. Neoplatonists, as well as magicians and writers like Hermes Trismegistus, who wrote the famed Emerald Tablet, all dabbled in alchemy. The famous phrase “As above, so below,” first recorded in Trismegistus’ Emerald Tablet, is part of the philosophy of alchemy.
Indeed, many people even into the modern era experimented with alchemy. Even Isaac Newton, who laid the foundations of physics from his time until the 20th century, was not immune. Newton had an alchemical chest and spent much of his time absorbed in strange and arcane ponderings on the nature of alchemical processes. He saw a thoroughly spiritual dimension in it as well. It wasn’t just another science to him. He really thought that there were occult and supernormal powers that could be granted through alchemy.
All of this makes alchemy a good basis for much fantasy literature. Writing, video games, anime, and television shows all draw from alchemical themes from time to time. The reason for this is that alchemy’s dated nature makes it seem foreign. Nobody has seriously studied alchemy for a long time, so the symbols are no longer familiar, and this gives it a strange, foreign feeling. This is why alchemical symbology still looks so cool on posters, mugs, and alchemical novelty t shirts.
There has been a big shift in entertainment over the past two decades. It has always been normal for adults to enjoy a little bit of children’s entertainment. You’re supposed to watch that stuff with your kids, after all. And there are plenty of grownup jokes in children’s movies that are there for the adults to pick up, and they’re designed to go over the kid’s heads. However, in the past decade or two, it has become much more normal for adults to consume children’s entertainment.
This has created a strange shift in children’s entertainment. Whereas older cartoons were just silly or banal, newer cartoons occupy a grey area between children’s shows and sitcoms for grownups. Good examples of this include the Regular Show, Stephen Universe, and, of course, Adventure Time. All of these shows are suitable for kids, yes. However, when consuming children’s entertainment, you usually have to suspend judgment. You have to let down your guard a little to enjoy kid’s entertainment. The difference with newer cartoons is that they’re written with a built-in grownup appeal, so that an adult can consume them without feeling as if they’re doing something age inappropriate.
Adventure Time is a good example of this on multiple levels. First of all, it’s a little known fact about the Adventure Time canon that the show is post-apocalyptic. This is incongruous with the way the show presents itself. It appears as something very happy go lucky. It’s also fantasy themed, and fantasy as a genre is typically characterized as escapist. But that extra layer of depth added by the way the world is constructed is just one example of how the show is designed to appeal to multiple demographics.
Another aspect of Adventure Time’s appeal to multiple demographics is its short length. Most episodes run about 11 minutes. This is intentional. If you’re a kid, then it’s bite-sized entertainment that can be consumed regardless of a child’s short attention span. If you’re an adult, then it’s the sort of thing you can watch on your phone while sitting at a bus stop or in a waiting room with some earbuds. The short, consumable nature of the show works for both children and adults, albeit for different reasons.
Adventure Time, and other cartoons like it, shows the changing nature of entertainment. First, cartoons were for kids. Then, they were for kids, but also watched “ironically” by college students and other people who wanted to signal their whimsical ironic sense of humor. Now, the irony has become sincere and you can quite comfortable be an adult running around in an Adventure Time t shirt.