What do you do when you simply cannot deal? You faint, or you throw yourself in the trash. Even as your mom tries to sue someone on your behalf, or your older, wiser friend tries to lecture you on self-worth, there you are, on the floor of the closet with your feet sticking out like the second grade’s Wicked Witch of the East, or among your fellow refuse at the bottom of a garbage can. From the outside this is both depressing and a little funny. To me, that’s what a lot of pop culture feels like right now: either depressing and a little funny, or funny and a little depressing.
Last weekend, we were gifted with two prime examples of this mode of existence: There’s Forky, a sentient spork who drives the plot of Toy Story 4 with his need to throw himself in the garbage, and Amabella, Laura Dern’s over-coddled daughter on Big Little Lies who supposedly has a genius-level IQ and collapses in a closet after panicking about climate change. In both cases, the characters invoke a certain reckoning with anxiety, if comfortably at-arms-length, a way to invoke the pervading unease Of This Time, though primarily at a surface level. Which is to say, in both cases: lol, it me.
Let’s start with Forky, who was destined to be a meme as soon as he first wailed in a Toy Story trailer. Bonnie, the new girl who owns the Toys in this movie, brings Forky to life by piecing together a spork with some pipe cleaner, clay, a popsicle stick, and googly eyes — all materials Woody collected for her as part of a scheme to keep himself relevant. At first, Forky doesn’t understand that he has, by the perverse and arcane laws of the Toy Story universe, become a toy. So, instead of wanting to keep Bonnie company, as any toy should, Forky keeps trying to throw himself in the trash. Tony Hale, who’s also known for playing other anxious, incomplete men like Gary from Veep and Buster from Arrested Development, voices the word “trash” with a special fondness, like he’s describing the kind of sunkissed mountain meadow you see in ads for viagra.
Forky learns, eventually, that he is of actual value, both to Bonnie, and also in and of himself, though something about his primal horror in the face of existence lingers. The movie’s end credits introduce what appears to be a long-haired, knife-based, coded-as-female version of Forky (rude to enforce a gender binary on sentient trash, but okay!) and there we see Forky comfort her and promise she’ll learn that she, too, is not trash. But for all of us who identify as trash — and there are a lot of people on the internet that do — Forky provides a useful shorthand for expressing that feeling. Much of internet humor is predicated on a kind of punching inward, through grim memes that often reference anxiety and mental health, both as a way to communicate and normalize the expressions of those feelings, and also because it’s possible to get sympathy and attention through those feelings. To say that you are trash is both to express a very real panic inside yourself and also conform to an acceptable form of humor about that panic. Forky is that impulse — to both express pain and joke about it in a way that obscures its depth — made into a Pixar character, made plastic, fit seamlessly into a capitalist business model, purchasable as a toy or costume. He’s a “relatable icon.” Move aside, Mandy Moore’s old-age wig, “Forky is us.”
Another form of us: Amabella, Laura Dern’s second-grade daughter in Big Little Lies who has experienced nearly as many unfortunate events as the Baudelaire children. In the first season, Amabella got bit during class. In the second, she passes out both because she’s internalized the stress from her parents’ bankruptcy and because she’s terrified of the end of the world. Big Little Lies has always explored the space between tragic camp and tragedy, and the way people so often assume women’s stories are the former rather than the latter, and so it goes for Amabella. Her name feels like it was invented to bait Gawker’s baby name critic, the way her mother spoils her with themed birthdays is ridiculous, and yet her all-out panic is gripping. Despite the protections of race and class and whatever money Renata scrounges, Amabella will grow up in a world worse than the one her parents lived in, according to scientific fact.
Amabella’s panic about the future is the panic we should probably all be feeling, even delivered as it is through Big Little Lies’s rosé-tinted lenses. Amabella doesn’t throw herself in the trash like Forky, but her panic is also both self-defeating and treated as a little funny. Like Forky, her character offers a way to both make jokes about an anxiety we feel, both in our fear of climate change and in our Renata-like protectiveness of kids, and also have a little distance from it, provided by Laura Dern’s exquisite overdramatics and the absurdity of the very word “Amabella.” “Her boots sticking out of the closet are little, metallic metaphors for living in 2019,” Esquire writes. We know the terror Amabella feels, but we don’t know how to talk about it directly.
It’s weird to watch the panicked feeling of the moment seep into the major forms of entertainment we watch. In addition to Amabella’s panic and Forky’s continual self-abnegation, there’s Psyduck wailing with super-powered headaches in Detective Pikachu, the brightly colored, meme-able existential horrors of The Good Place, including a demon announcing “birth is a curse and existence is a prison,” or even Eurydice in Hadestown Broadway crooning “I want to lay down forever.” It feels like the concerns of the sad-com as expressed in You’re the Worst and BoJack Horseman have leached into the soil. Anxiety icons are everywhere. Stare into the void and popular culture sells the void back to you.
It’s worth noting that most of these characters are very young. It’s both in vogue and true to note that millennials and younger people are growing up with a lot more financial pressure (even SNL is doing it) and feeling exhausted, helpless, and burnt out in the process. But in the case of Big Little Lies and Toy Story 4 (the latter of which seems to speak to boomers), the attention is on the even younger generation. Amabella and Forky are infants (Woody’s basically a grandfather) and therefore projections of our collective feelings about the future. These are cursed feelings, that involve looking forward in time and feeling so overwhelmingly hopeless, and I say “cursed” because that’s also the common shorthand, distant and yet approachable word you’d use in a joke online.
In considering these icons of commercially viable and yet very-real anxiety, which also tend to be treated like young people, I realized the ultimate iteration of this trope might be the character Zendaya plays in HBO’s Euphoria. Her character Rue is a teenager with a drug addiction, who can’t process life in the universe without trying to block out all its noise. Because she’s played by Zendaya on a show produced by Drake, Rue is also helplessly cool and more than a little boring. She feels like an older generation’s attempt to capture adolescent angst and package it into something to sell back to those same people. Maybe Rue does know what it’s like to feel like a teen Right Now — I’m not a teen Right Now and couldn’t say — but it sure is easy to gesture at nihilism and call it a day. Maybe teens are just boring and angry and sad. I was.
Euphoria, I imagine, will show the slow process of Rue getting better, at least that’s how it feels like it’s set up. Amabella will recover from her panic and go to a disco birthday party — maybe she’ll fall into some tragedy, again, she sure has the track record. Forky learns to value himself. Their funny and yet-relatable moments of terror build to little. I greatly admired Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s attempts to reckon full on with mental illness and how hard it is to recover. The humorous pokes at anxiety we see in things like Forky are not nearly as deep, but they’re also much more glancing. Which is to say, maybe just give me a movie where Forky never stops screaming. That me.