What Will Pandemic Nostalgia Feel Like?

In the mid-1980s, a futurist named Faith Popcorn became famous for inventing the idea of “cocooning.” “We are trying to control everything,” she told the New York Times reporter William Geist in 1986, “to protect ourselves from a harsh and unpredictable world.” The signs of cocooning were everywhere, in wholesome television series such as The Cosby Show and the renewed popularity of frozen dinners such as Lean Cuisines, in the explosion of VCR sales and the uptick in gun ownership. Emerging from the drug-addled, sexually revolutionized 1970s and early ’80s, cocooning captured a cultural retrenchment and a desire for everything to feel homier and safer.

Cocooning caught on, so much so that Merriam-Webster added the term to its dictionary in 1986. Understood as an emergent trend, cocooning rendered disparate cultural shifts into part of the same story—linking couch potatoes to Jane Fonda workout videos to the surge in ’50s nostalgia. Corporations as varied as Domino’s Pizza and Kmart used cocooning to rethink their strategies. As Popcorn wrote in her best-selling 1991 book, The Popcorn Report, “Cocooning is about insulation and avoidance, peace and protection, coziness and control—a sort of hyper-nesting.”

Popcorn had been talking up cocooning for years before it hit the zeitgeist. And once it did, she kept on talking: Cocooning would reign in the aughts, she predicted; cocooning was a trend to watch in 2006, according to her consultancy, BrainReserve; the financial cutbacks of the Great Recession would instigate a trend of “uber-cocooning.” No surprise, then, that BrainReserve calls the pandemic’s closed-off, sanitary existence “deep cocooning.”

Such constancy warrants skepticism, but in this case, cocooning does accurately describe what the pandemic has wrought. With the outside world disrupted and inaccessible, many people have been all but forced to retreat into a protective shell. As Popcorn anticipated in the ’80s, people fear the outside world and are careful about who and what they allow past their barricades. Stimulation happens inside; screens provide a controllable window onto the world. For some, the cocoon has a softness to it, with anxious hours occupied with home improvement, baking, and crafting. And just like the cocoons of yore, COVID cocoons are rife with nostalgia, especially as inhabitants binge on old episodes of The Sopranos or listen to decades-old music. Mel Ripp, a writer in Madison, Wisconsin, told me about going through her favorite albums from her youth because “nostalgia and my memories of being a kid seem like the one thing I can control.” The familiar is armor against a scary, unknown world.

Rather than think of Popcorn like a broken clock that’s right twice a day, it’s more charitable to say she identified a deep cultural impulse that has transformed the relationship between the individual and the public. The ’80s cocoons never fully opened. The pandemic accelerated a metamorphosis of the home that’s been decades in the making. Even as states reopen their economies, practices such as working from home, video first dates, DIY dye jobs, and nonstop online shopping will not completely vanish. They’ll stay because they are more convenient and cheaper than their in-person alternatives. And they’ll stay because they’re good enough and the pandemic has changed us. We’ve become both stronger and weaker, more accepting and less tolerant, more resilient but also more wary.  

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