Nostalgia has always been appealing, but now it’s become a ‘thing’.
There is no fonder time than the past, no greater mirage. Social media would agree, as it has become a trend on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and TikTok to reflect on prior eras with worryingly flawed historical accuracy.
Nostalgia is not a new trend in of itself, but a connotation exists between quarantine keeping people indoors, and the resurgence of these aesthetic-driven trends. What, with the temporary loss of the standard 9-5 or school routine, there is ample time for reflection on the past versus the present. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all.
The science of nostalgia
It is important to note that, by nature, nostalgia is not malicious or damaging. There’s a science to it. My own nostalgia involves the lens with which I look back on old PlayStation 2 video games; games that, since my memories of them are imbued with nostalgia, seem so refined and enjoyable, even if from a critical standpoint, they probably weren’t that good. Nostalgia enables us to see beyond the constraints of ‘quality’ and instead assess the worth of a product, or experience, based solely on the sentimental value, as opposed to soulless commercial value. It doesn’t matter if other people didn’t enjoy these games, TV shows, books, or products — because we did. And that’s not a bad thing. We watch films as children that, were we to rewatch them in our twenties, they would probably cause us to grimace as we are forced to confront poorly aged special effects and odd script writing. Nonetheless, the films we cherish are almost immune to criticism because of the emotional weight they carry. This form of nostalgia is innocuous enough, but the scope with which its shallow perspective is relied on for analysis is growing into territories it is not suited for.
A perusal of Twitter, or any of the aforementioned sites, will eventually lead you to a certain type of post, often in a compilation. Although the subject varies, the format remains near identical: the post portrays some iteration of a past era and zooms in on the aesthetics. Here are some common samples: Look how cool the 1950s were, because they had diners and Paul Anka’s love ballads and drive-in cinemas. Look at these flapper dresses and hedonistic parties and economic gaiety; weren’t the 1920s marvellous! Oh, to live in the 1970s, their fashion sense was just so superior. But more worrying is the false corollary that life and culture were somehow better in those eras than the are presently — based on such determiners as clothing design and skewed interpretations of the past.
The danger of indirect nostalgia
This type of nostalgia, often disturbingly from people who lack first-hand experiences of the periods they relish, is rampant with flaws. Simply put, it isn’t true. Repeatedly in these posts, ‘nostalgia’ distorts modern perceptions of the past, and in order to make the past as airbrushed for the aesthete’s eye, any egregious realities that dare poke holes in the facade must be forgotten. Yes, the 1950s segregation meant black people couldn’t enter the same cool diners as white people, but that isn’t aesthetically pleasing; it must be vociferously scrubbed clean in the name of nostalgia. Yes, the 1920s saw the accelerated normalisation of anti-Semitic attitudes through many national ‘numerus clausus’ clauses that restricted Jewish access to education, but bigotry doesn’t fit a Great Gatsby moodboard, so it has to be forgotten — ironic, as Tom Buchanan’s white supremacy and selfishness serves as Fitzgerald’s commentary on the haunting reality of the Roaring Twenties’ patrons.
This twinkly aestheticism also seeps into television, with potent examples being TV shows such as Stranger Things which, when it isn’t about monsters from the Upside Down, likes to remind its audience how admiringly cool the ’80s were. But pause the Tears for Fears soundtrack, take away the outlandish permed hair, and it is obvious to the point of painful just how much Stranger Things simplifies 1980s America without sufficiently confronting actual issues (a recession, the AIDS epidemic, rising anti-Japanese sentiments and the War on Drugs — to name a few) and powerful themes other than Season 3’s almost comical baby-proofed mantra of ‘America good, Soviet Union bad’, together with a perplexing scene in which a 10-year-old girl explains why she loves capitalism.
Consider also the trend of ‘dark academia’, in which fans adulate the artistic aspects of university in media. Favourites include Dead Poets Society and If We Were Villains. Essentially, it is an aesthetic obsession with fountain pens and tweed jackets and dark trench coats and castle-like universities set against desolate woodland. Creative though it is, its admirers routinely neglect to acknowledge that a frequent feature of this art style involves some form of academic exclusion on the basis of social class. The same goes for clandestine homosexual relationships, another staple of the genre, except these relationships in reality require the prerequisite of homosexuality being considered a shameful act, hence secrecy.
An exacerbator of this particular movement was Donna Tartt’s 1992 modern classic The Secret History, in which six students study Classics at a prestigious Vermont university before ultimately succumbing to murder. With its autumnal New England landscape and superfluous usage of untranslated Latin, it is obvious why this specific book acted as a catalyst for the style. To give the novel credit, it at least acknowledges how one character’s bigotry of the time contributes to their downfall, but because homophobia and sexism aren’t aesthetic enough, this aspect gets forgotten by dark academia fans, whom prefer myopic idealisation of turtlenecks and Homer’s Iliad. Once again, interesting periods of history are misrepresented as wholesome periods — denying them their full complex flavour.
In short, there is nothing wrong with appreciation of art styles and the more materialist aspects of former decades, but to deliberately argue that the early 20th century, societal values and all, was superior, requires wilful ignorance of reality. Critical assessment of the past requires equilibrium; the good cannot be divorced from the bad. It is after seeing this selective nostalgia which favours glitzy aesthetics over reality, that I am reminded of a wonderful line from Tartt’s novel, of all things:
‘There is nothing wrong with the love of beauty. But Beauty — unless she is wed to something more meaningful — is always superficial.’