Qwhite nostalgic

One person's nostalgic dream could be another's daily nightmare

24th April 2018

After reading The Great Gatsby it is a guaranteed fact that you will not shut up about wanting to experience one of his parties for yourself.

Despite having never lived in the 1920s, some version of this American dream permeates. If it’s not the roaring ’20s, it’s the ’50s or the ’80s — we can’t help but enjoy looking back to recapture the ideals of youth and innocence, a time when online trolls didn’t exist and before everyone was arguing about Brexit.

Yet, we often forget that these images only capture a single moment of fantasy and longing.

As a person of colour, it is difficult for me to accept the eras gone by as times of pure bliss. Especially when you realise that it was not long ago at all when minorities were treated as second-class citizens. The impact of this mistreatment still seeps its way into present-day society but is often ignored. Sit back and relax for a good, old-fashioned history lesson.

If you google “1950s aesthetic”, you’ll get mounds of images: A-line skirts, pin-ups, vintage cars, Coca-Cola, neon signs, diners, drive-ins, boys and girls sitting in a red booth sipping on a milkshake. These are all commonly remembered as the charming aspects of the 1950s. It certainly was a ball if you were a white, heterosexual man. You had dolla to spend, connections to enjoy and most importantly, freedom to revel in. Even now, you will often hear people complaining that they wish they could go back to the “good, old days when those damned snowflakes weren’t getting so offended over everything!”

Nostalgia glosses over facts and ends up contributing to a white-washed version of history

Equally, segregation was one of the most defining aspects of American society during the 1950s. Black people were discriminated against in everyday interactions as well as in the social, economic and political power structures. Although landmark cases such as Brown vs Board of Education ruled segregation in schools to be illegal, these laws were rarely enforced. This was also the time of Rosa Parks’ brave refusal to give up her seat at the front of the bus.

Nostalgia for the past, however, glosses over these facts and ends up contributing to a white-washed version of history. This is because it is convenient to adopt an escapist attitude by choosing only certain aspects of the past to revive. Thankfully, we are no longer in the “good, old days” and we can be outspoken about why it was not an enjoyable time particularly for minority groups.

’50s nostalgia is incredibly popular, despite it being a time of enormous strife for many people

Re-imagining the past only creates an idealistic lifestyle that is far from the reality of the previous time periods. By focusing only on the superficial aspects, we risk wiping out the history of entire groups of people. Ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ people were not granted the privilege of having their stories written down in the history books and in popular culture. They were taught to live in fear and faced obstacles that isolated them from society. If you were a person of colour or openly gay, even going out to the local diner for a quick bite would have come with a great deal of trouble.

It is time to put away the rose-tinted glasses. Old Johnny down the road might be going on about how much of an amazing time it was for his dear Grandmama and Grandpapa but forgets all about the “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” signs and the gay men who were chemically castrated.


Code breaker Alan Turing was one of the men forced to undergo chemical castration

The suburban boom in the 1950s produced the desire for a home in an idyllic landscape with a neat house and a garden for the kids to run around in. A picturesque kitchen resembling a doll’s house that was overseen by a woman dressed prim and proper was another must-have in both the UK and the US — which we seem to favour when it comes to ’50s nostalgia.

This ideal, which many people think of as a time of both freedom and privacy, compared with modern technological surveillance, was anything but.

It was the 1950s when the US government enacted a mass campaign that involved interrogating and firing LGBT+ identifying civil servants. The employees who were targeted were deemed untrustworthy for leading what was dubbed a “double life”,  and the security precautions were considered necessary to protect the government and public from secret communist sympathisers.

Clearly, it was a time when personal life was the centre of attention, especially when you were suspected of engaging in the so-called “gross indecency”.

Nowadays, we love to throw around the term “Orwellian state” to describe infiltrations of privacy. Back then, individuals were forced to adapt their lifestyle and preferences just to survive.

That aside, the appeal of wanting to live in a stifling, suburban setting, focussing on the perfect nuclear family is beyond me.

In a soft, nostalgic drama, there’s no place for the realities of some people’s lives

Currently, TV shows like Riverdale are borrowing from the vintage aesthetic in order to bring this nostalgia to the teenage demographic. The show, following the lives of high school students battling with different types of darkness, is set in the modern day and is based on the Archie Comics. Every episode contains the mandatory scene in which the cast are hanging out in their red booth at Pop’s diner with a tempting milkshake.

The show has a mass following because of its ability to produce a balance between favourable elements from past eras and a wide range of characters. It is certainly an improvement to see that an influential stylised TV show does try to tackle discriminatory attitudes.

It features strong female characters, who are unafraid to call out the boys for their toxic masculinity, same-sex couples, as well as an ethnically diverse cast. But it’s far from perfect.

Despite these progressive attitudes, Kevin, one of the openly gay characters, is completely defined by his sexuality, as his contributions to the plot are centred only around his sexual orientation. Similarly, Josie and the Pussycats, a band made up of black singers, are rarely given any significant screen time. These characters remain stunted and only ever used as sidekicks. In a soft, nostalgic drama, there’s no place for the realities of some people’s lives.

The dreams that some people long for now were a nightmare that many others were forced to endure daily

Although the 21st century does seem to be making progress towards addressing horrific attitudes of previous generations, the distant past is being manipulated as a source of refuge to escape the horrors of the present day. The dreams that some people long for now were a nightmare that many others were forced to endure daily.

We must acknowledge the individual experiences that have been removed from the mainstream narrative. It is time to check your privilege, drink your Maccies milkshake and accept that we are in 2018. 

24th April 2018