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Welcome to the Fads Issue of The Highlight

As the holidays approach, we look at the cult of Pokémon, what turns a tiny toy into a major obsession, and the upside — and dark side — of fad culture. 

Javier Jaén for Vox

The Pokémon franchise arrived in the US from Japan in the late ’90s fully prepared to cause a craze, so synergistic were its popular TV show, video games, trading cards, plush toys, theme song, and undeniably cute characters.

By then, America was more than familiar with fads: Cabbage Patch Kids and yo-yos. Rubik’s Cubes. Everything Lisa Frank. Grunge. Why would Pikachu, Snorelax, and company be any different?

Somehow, Pokémon has endured for more than two decades to become the world’s highest grossing media property. In many ways, writes Luke Winkie in our latest issue of The Highlight, Pokémania can serve as a case study for Americans’ changing relationship with fad culture, which was once maligned and increasingly is a way people form communities and connection.

But what makes our brains obsess over a fad? Lexi Pandell mines the Tamagotchi craze to demonstrate just how, over millennia, humans evolved to develop a brain chemistry that today draws us so irresistibly to fads. Just what is it about a needy, pocket-sized pet that made kids (and adults) across the nation obsessed?

The pandemic, too, has transformed the role of fads, writes Alex Abad-Santos. “We tend to treat the people who like fads as victims of suspect taste who mindlessly follow the herd,” he writes in an essay for this issue. But Abad-Santos found, during the height of lockdowns in particular, there were upsides to the monoculture, and something to learn about the way dismissing fad culture also dismisses the passions of young women, queer people, and people of color. When many of us were urged to lock down and isolate ourselves, participating in mass bread-baking, or Peloton riding, or collective TikTok dances, provided the sense of joy and community many of us had lost.

Finally, in her latest comic for the Highlight, Aubrey Hirsch looks at how women’s body parts have become commodities in and of themselves. Beauty standards have long been impossible to keep up with, but as women and girls immerse themselves in platforms that encourage the swapping of one’s butt or lips or jawline for a “better,” trendier version, she writes, we are setting up the vast majority for failure — and worse.

Pikachu rides a Godzilla-like creature over a city in this a cartoon illustration depicting the Pokémon franchise’s dominance. Javier Jaén for Vox

Pokémon will outlive us all

A wildly popular Nintendo franchise, Saturday morning cartoon, and trading card game, Pokémon had all the hallmarks of a flash in the pan. Two decades later, it’s a $105 billion empire.

By Luke Winkie

An illustration of two halves of a pink brain with a small Tamagotchi character in the middle. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

How the tiny Tamagotchi burrowed into our brains and became an obsession

Fads are more than a cultural phenomenon — they’re part of our brain chemistry.

By Lexi Pandell

An illustrated collage with Peloton exercise bikes, potted houseplants, disco balls, and coffee drinks on a light blue background. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The case for following fads

The pandemic stole our sense of connectedness. In their own way, viral trends help us regain it.

By Alex Abad-Santos

Aubrey Hirsch for Vox

The danger of treating body parts like fast fashion

Social media and the availability of new procedures have made our quest for physical perfection endless, setting women and girls up for failure.

By Aubrey Hirsch

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