America in the 1950’s.
Slavery was a thing of the past, but racism was still an ever-present and intense part of daily life.
The women who had held jobs during World War 2 wanted them again, forcing the patriarchal society to launch a campaign celebrating the ‘perfect housewife’ – that heterosexual, white, humble, suburban woman who was satisfied with nothing but cooking and cleaning and taking care of her self-sacrificing and golly-good man.
Really, life wasn’t all that great for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, middle-to-upper-class man, and I’m not even convinced it was all flowers-and-sunshine for them either, being forced to play the role of the masculine, stable, unemotional breadwinner as they were.
And yet, the 1950’s is one of the most romanticized eras to the youth of our generation.
I find myself doing it too. Though I’m perfectly aware that America in the 1950’s had its intense, irreparable problems, I still maintain that human style and beauty reached its zenith in the 1950’s. My signature look on a day-to-day basis involves winged eyeliner and red lipstick, and whenever I can find it, cute polka-dots and retro dresses.
The 1950’s was an era characterized by images. The image of the high school sweethearts sharing a milkshake at the local diner. The image of the bad-boy greaser, smoking a cigarette while he leans against an old car. They’re all highly idealized images, of course, but they’re powerful images nonetheless, and I think that they stick with a lot of us.
But that isn’t the only thing that I find myself envying the 1950’s for. No, there’s something else, and something that I think to be a bit more important.
Hope for a bigger and brighter future.
And, I know, that sounds like a funny thing to characterize the era with, when they were constantly paranoid of being bombed by Russians (which, really, is kind of cute in retrospect, isn’t it?). But there was something else going on at the time, something that I think we’re missing nowadays.
The Space Race.
Something that was based in a competitive need to be better than another country resulted in hope. It resulted in people looking up at the stars and being struck by the reality that they might reach them someday. It resulted in countless writers, artists, film makers, trying to imagine a planet beyond our own, a civilization built entirely separate from human life. It resulted in people theorizing about all the possibilities. Could humans ever visit the moon? How about Mars? Could they possibly terraform another planet and live there? Sure, why not!
And that’s something that’s sorely missing nowadays. The question of ‘could we’ has been answered too often with ‘of course not’. Funding for NASA has become less and less of a priority, and why wouldn’t it when there are so many enemies on earth to be killed? Visions of a utopian future where we all drive hover-cars and have robot maids have been replaced with visions of dystopias, where, best case scenario, we’ve become hardened badasses who stomp zombie skulls beneath our heavy boot. We are awash in pessimism, looking toward the stars and seeing nothing more than another terror, something else that could possibly kill us.
Don’t get me wrong, pessimism isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I just hate that it’s become our only option. I hate that people no longer dream, they just hope to stay afloat.
And maybe that’s related more to our maturing as a human race. Maybe, in the 1950’s and 60’s, we looked toward the stars with wide, hopeful eyes because we were young and innocent, still naive about what we were capable of, and maybe now we’re a little bit older and a little bit more experienced. But that doesn’t give us any sort of excuse to just give up. To stop wanting to better ourselves and build forward.
I think we need hope. I think we need something to keep us dreaming, to make us keep striving toward some brilliant, if unattainable end goal. And I think that’s something that America had in the past that it no longer does: a desire to move beyond the bad and create the good.
So maybe we shouldn’t go back to the 1950’s. The gender roles were stifling, and the racism was… well, a little bit more upfront than it is now. But we can always borrow from it – borrow some of that hope that we lost somewhere along the way, and bring it to the modern day. Bring it here so that we can start looking to the stars again and asking, without pessimism, without doubt, “what can we do?”