Breaking down one of the year's best trends is easy-queasy.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
December 24, 2019 at 12:00 PM EST
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Barbara Nitke/STXfilms; Claire Folger/Lionsgate; Justin Lubin/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images
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2019 shall henceforth be known as the year that made retch happen.

This year pop culture saw fit to gift us with not one, but three good-hearted worrywarts who carry their stress in their stomach. I’m speaking of The Good Place’s Chidi (William Jackson Harper), HustlersAnnabelle (Lili Reinhart), and Knives Out’s Marta (Ana de Armas) — three souls too good and pure for this world, who, for various reasons, are induced to intense stomachaches and projectile fireworks when placed under duress.

Anxious indigestion was the hot trend of the year, and I’m chucking it up to our general state of cultural distress reduced to the microcosm of an upset tummy.

Since The Good Place debuted in 2016, Chidi has been defined by his anxiety and his tendency to get an upset stomach when faced with any decision, from choosing a classmate for a team at recess to debating whether to protect someone not actually meant to be in the “Good Place.” As a student and teacher of ethics and moral philosophy, Chidi can spiral into crippling stomach pain at the prospect of the smallest decision or a hint of unethical behavior.

This fall’s mid-season finale gave us glimpses into 800-plus versions of Chidi’s life. As it turns out, Chidi has always had a strong link between his mind and his gut — as a baby, an innocent rhetorical question about whether he likes his name produces a tummy ache, and later, we discover he was the youngest person ever to be diagnosed with a stress-induced ulcer.

Knives Out and Hustlers define their characters’ quirks as even more tied to morality than indecisiveness. Hustlers’ Annabelle vomits anytime she’s nervous or scared by illegal dealings, and it reaches its peak when the police show up at her door. Similarly, Knives Out’s Marta suffers from a bizarre affliction, the inability to lie without vomiting, which ultimately plays a key role in the whodunnit plot.

In each case, it is played for laughs — fear, indecision, and falsehoods the impetus for heaving one’s woes back up, an all too relatable (if also extreme) circumstance. But it also feels like a loving acknowledgment of the physical cost of stress, a comedic cataloging of the unexpected side effects of mental strain.

We live in a time of high anxiety, and our culture is doing an increasingly better job at depicting mental health as something other than the butt of a joke, whether it’s Randall (Sterling K. Brown) on This Is Us or the various trauma of the teens on Riverdale. But what makes the weak stomachs of 2019 such a delight is not that their anxious tummies are a source of humor, but that they get to be in on the joke.

Seeing Chidi, Annabelle, and Marta onscreen this year was a relief (and not the kind you find in a Pepto Bismol bottle). For those of us with anxious stomachs of our own, it was a chance to laugh at ourselves and feel seen in a new way, while also reveling in the ridiculousness of it all. But it also tapped in something more potent about our present cultural moment.

The humorous heaving is hyperbolic, but it gets at a core of truth — the physical extremes of our subconscious worries and fears. It doesn’t hurt that in each of these cases the stomach pains are indicative of something inherently good about these characters. They’re literally throwing up their dismay at turpitude, at deceit, at greed, at inequity. The physical manifestation of their anxiety is a rejection of a multitude of ills, from late-stage capitalism to entitlement to the arbitrary valuation of what it means to be “good.”

And in each case, they have at least one person who finds their behavior endearing. Someone who recognizes their tendency to hurl as a sign of some innate goodness, whether it be naivety, innocence, kindness, etc. The corruption and strain of the world around them has made them literally sick. But it doesn’t stop them from trying to make things better, to win a victory for the underdog, to tip the scales slightly in the favor of true moral justice.

In 2019, there is no more fitting hero than the anxious vomiter. Who doesn’t have a stomachache in this social and political landscape?

In Chidi, Annabelle, and Marta, we have characters who put it all on the line (including the contents of their stomach) for what they believe. The symptoms of their anxiety might be funny, or even relatable, but their striving in spite of it is noble. They prove that no matter how paralyzed we might be by the state of the world, it is possible to succeed in spite of our anxieties — to find love, to beat the bad guys, and to find the answers (even if they don’t really exist). All we have to do is wipe our mouths and keep going.

So here’s to the chief upchuckers of 2019, our new favorite pop culture gag.

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Knives Out

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  • Rian Johnson

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