Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Feature: 'The Golden Era (terms and conditions apply)' for The Isthmus

Here's another piece I wrote in August for The Isthmus, discussing our cultural obsession with 'retro' in light of our actual past. I really enjoyed exploring the issues surrounding this one. 

You can read it online here.

The Golden Era (terms and conditions apply)

By Anna Angel
“You were definitely born in the wrong decade,” a friend says as if it is fact. Sure, I wear vintage clothing, collect retro oddities and have been seen at gigs doing the twist. But I couldn’t agree with rockabilly queen Imelda May when she told British press “the ‘50s were better in every way”. I’m grateful not to have grown up in Australia in the first half of the 20th century. Why? My childhood epilepsy – then widely misunderstood – would probably have landed me in a psychiatric institution, such as this one, for a lack of better treatment options, as might my struggles with anxiety and depression. While that’s an uncomfortable thought, prospects would have been positively bleak if I had of been Aboriginalgay or a non-European migrant. As morbidly hilarious as 1950s anti-gay propaganda and relics of the societal oppression of women may seem now, these were hardly ‘simpler’ times for many members of society. I set out to discover why we idealise elements of the past such as music, fashion and dinner table decorum and glaze over the glaring injustices.

Amongst a wealth of recent films and TV series reviving times gone by (not to mention screenings of classic shows and movies), this year’s film adaption of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel The Helpstands out. As the movie begun, I turned to my friend and whispered something about how beautiful their replica 1963 outfits were, and eventually, how I’d like to break into their costume department and steal them all. In as little as half an hour, I felt uneasy. The film’s selective depiction of racial tensions during the African-American Civil Rights Movement is as disquieting as it is indulgent of our desire for a neat and happy ending. Regardless of colour or social standing, the women (except for our subversive lead) are portrayed as mothers and wives first and snarky society ladies second, privy to the whims of their men. All of this left me uncomfortable with the vintage sweater on my back in a way the arse-slaps of Mad Men never have. When people say they wish they were born into another era, surely this isn’t what they had in mind?
Nostalgia: it’s nothing new
The term ‘nostalgia’, coined in the 17th century, referred to a medical illness – a kind of melancholia akin to homesickness – though today it’s more often used to imply a general longing for the past. With the boom in retro culture has come a heightened interest in the history and cause of this particular form of sentimentalism in pop culture. Take for example this year’s Midnight in Paris, which explores a disillusioned screenwriter’s late-night forays into his perceived golden era – 1920s Paris. There he discovers an overwhelming sentiment that the age of tasteful art and culture had already past, and he must confront the realities of his own nostalgia. There have been multiple attempts to understand the consequences and reasoning behind our revival fixation, a great example is Simon Reynold’s Retromania. Reynold’s believes our popular culture is stagnating thanks to our apparent disinterest in the new and now.
Some psychologists believe nostalgia can be a healthy reflection of self, lifting solemn spirits and even creating a heightened sense of life purpose. Other studies show fixating on the past is simply a means of avoiding the anxieties of an undesirable present. While it’s clearly a stretch to suggest screenings of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off mean we, as a society, are in desperate need of a psychological pick-me-up, recent studies show we most often turn to nostalgia when at our most lonely, vulnerable or depressed. Especially in a year as disaster-ridden as this one, it’s understandable that we’d want to relive a time where there was no nastiness in the world; just milkshake bars with dapper young boys and girls saying things like “neato”. What we need to remember is that it never existed.

Sweet reminiscence or bigotry?
Especially in the US, there’s been a debate brewing between those who say their nostalgia is rooted in old-school conservative values and those who call it racism. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf sums it up nicely.
“America is radically more socially liberal than it was in 1949. Its television programs are cruder and filled with violence. Its out-of-wedlock birthrate is skyrocketing … College orientation now includes free condoms. Whatever one thinks of all these changes, it seems to me that Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were major enough events that, based on them alone, America should be deemed better today, even in the eyes of folks who think other stuff has gone in the wrong direction.
 But that doesn’t mean that older white people — or older black people — must stop being nostalgic about less racially enlightened times, or that their wistfulness is grounded in racism … or that it’s even possible for a human being to rationally evaluate the overall system of norms into which he was raised and then to judge which period was better.”
Is it okay for a conservative to seek a return to the ideals of his childhood when those same principles marginalised anyone who wasn’t male, white, straight and able-bodied?
The culture of revival
Revival culture itself has nothing to do with conservative backwards thinking, and is often led by those born in the later parts of the 20th century. Everyday people live and breathe vintage subcultures like kustom kulture and rockabilly. Nostalgia festivals such as WintersunKurri Kurri andGarterbelts and Gasoline are held across the country in celebration of “the cars, music, fashion, art and culture inspired from the 1940s and 1950s”. It’s a widespread belief that these were more ‘innocent’ and prosperous times even by those who didn’t live through them. Young people write on the walls of Facebook groups dedicated to previous decades without a hint of irony that they long for the time “when men were men and women were ladies”. A woman writes, “I wish I were born sometime in the 1930s so I could have rocked the ‘50s and ‘60s,” another says she “hates this era with a passion”. Overwhelmingly, music is cited as the main reason for wanting to return to a previous generation, but you can’t have protest songs and subversive cultures like rock & roll without something to rebel against.
The Mighty Boosh thought this was the logical conclusion to our retro obsession, but wherever it takes us, nostalgia is likely to remain ingrained in our society. So, what can we learn from the phenomenon? It seems we often look to the past and label it ‘better’ as a means of expressing dissatisfaction with elements of modern life, from its fast pace, to a perceived loosening of morality or the quality of popular music. As difficult as it is to argue with that last point (see thisthis or this, and these two, which manage to mesh retro with terrible, and especially this), we need to spend more time reflecting on how far our society has come in many ways, and crucially, how far it still has to go. Put your hair in rollers and collect all the vintage tea towels you like, but we’re in no position to view social injustice as quaint and outdated. Not when the pay-gap between men and women is widening, when mortality rates and living standards are so much lower in Indigenous communities, or when the LGBT community still don’t have the same rights as other Australians. After all, good music and high grooming standards alone don’t make a society worth being born into.

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