The appropriation of nostalgia
The nostalgia of our generation is a dangerous commodity, writes Evie Woodforde. Evie placed first in the 2016 Opinion Competition, judged by Guardian editor Lenore Taylor.
My generation is unreservedly, unironically nostalgic. After all, we were born after irony went down with the twin towers. My generation attends pinup girl fairs and posts filtered photos on Instagram. My generation wears a choker as they sing along to The Smiths on a record player. My generation says their favourite movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My generation plays Pokemon Go. My generation misses radio. My generation yearns for an era, any era, we didn’t live through.
Can you blame us? We’re told that our own cultural artifacts are undeserving, uncultured, mass media, mass marketed consumer trash. We’re told it was better back when our parents were kids – back when Gough made education free, before they grew up and voted to get rid of it. In the same school hall where our parents watched the moon landing, we watched An Inconvenient Truth. Where they ate peanut butter sandwiches, ours were banned for allergies. We’ll graduate with $50,000 in student debt, and $2,000 in super, and work for a company that sells tech solutions to tech problems we don’t understand. Then we’ll meet our friends over $20 drinks to have an existential crisis in a pop-up warehouse bar.
Haven’t you heard? It’s never been as bad as this. Except that it has been, of course. The problem with nostalgia is that the reason we find it comforting is not because it feels familiar. Rather, nostalgia is comforting because it tells us that things used to be better, that we used to be happier and safer. It tells us that if we could go back, if we could halt the technology and globalisation and mass immigration of the 21st century, we could recapture the illusory sense of comfort. Nostalgia has become a signal for value and worth amid a deep discomfort with the modern world. But that vision of the world is dangerous too. It is easy to forget that racism, sexism, homophobia and poverty are also the cultural relics of the decades we idealise.
Instead, we luxuriate in a kind of decontextualised nostalgia – an aesthetic movement, not an emotional one. We pick and choose the parts of previous generations that suit us like scavengers at antique fairs and ignore the rest. It is a gluttonous, appropriative exercise, blind to anachronism. The choker was first worn by French women in solidarity with those decapitated by the guillotine, and then as a signifier for 19th century prostitutes and then in rebellion by 1990s goths. They are now sold to well-adjusted tweens by Dolly magazine.
We eat brunch in converted industrial warehouses because we like the juxtaposition of austere, cold brick against our warm coffees. We try on the persona of working class disaffection under the guise of urban chic, forgetting that only for us is it a removable costume. Investment bankers wear RM William boots on casual Fridays with their $5,000 suits like modern day swagmen. And with each passing reincarnation we scrub off the inconvenient dirt of the past and remember things as our own. Nostalgia is a fashionable excuse to insert ourselves into memories we can lay no claim to.
But nostalgia is also sold to us wholesale as a shoddy knock-off brand replicated by marketing firms to sell us restaurants and bars and clothes. Words like ‘vintage’ and ‘retro’ are stamped onto products fresh off the manufacturing line. Brands like Coca-Cola, KFC and McDonalds revitalise their 70s and 80s ad campaigns, even though we weren’t alive to see them the first time. We commodify our past and sell it back to ourselves at a premium.
Nostalgia is also peddled by politicians like Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump to justify xenophobic and regressive policy. They seek to make their countries great again for those few it used to be great for. Nostalgia is the purview of the rich and white and male who could only gain by going back in time. Nostalgia is a luxury item.
My generation is unreservedly, unironically nostalgic. But we should be careful what exactly it is we are nostalgic for.