Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to: navigation, search
"Do you remember a time when chocolate chip cookies came fresh from the oven? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Do you remember a time when women couldn't vote and certain folk weren't allowed on golf courses? Pepperidge Farm remembers."
Futurama, "A Fishful of Dollars"
"The past is not what it was."

One of the reasons for Hollywood History is the average scriptwriter or executive having a very cursory understanding of the era in which they're setting the story. Usually, they just want to take advantage of the basic 'theme' of that period, and figure that most viewers won't be able to tell the difference, anyway.

The other, equally onerous culprit for simplifying history is nostalgia, especially where dealing with recent history. For example, you almost never will find a movie or show set in The Sixties that does not paint the time as an idealistic period. In that period, we're told, every person below the age of 25 was a free-thinker and activist, kids cared about the future and were willing to fight for it, everybody had orgies all the time, and revolution was just around the corner ... or that's how nostalgia would have it seem.

It gets worse with The Fifties. Since many writers grew up in the Fifties, it's rarely shown as anything but wholesome and brilliant, with Nothing but Hits blaring out of every radio and every teenager playing rock'n'roll. Despite the continuing mistreatment of black people, the lead in paint, gasoline and food cans, and the (supposed) threat of nuclear war, the Fifties is often considered something of a golden age. The worst parts of earlier decades are similarly not brought up or even totally ignored.

The reverse is also often true; later decades such as the The Seventies and The Eighties—which, not entirely coincidentally, many of these writers were no longer growing up in, being adults—will be painted in a very negative light, with all innocence lost and the dream most definitely being over. The negative aspects of these decades will be stressed, and any positive things quietly ignored.

This is so all-pervading that it affects even younger writers who weren't even alive during the decade in question, as a kind of "proto-nostalgia". This could have something to do with the way pop-cultural output is treated; between the 20- and 30- years ago mark is when the clothes go from hideously dated to retro chic, the TV shows from ubiquitous reruns to material that has to be sought out, the cars from clapped-out clunkers to seldom-seen, cherished classics and the music from stuff the "new music" stations play on the commercial-free Sunday afternoons to bona-fide oldies. Similarly, the cultural output that is remembered and stands the test of time tends to be the good stuff (or at least, the stuff that the majority of people enjoyed), with the rubbish being quickly left behind or forgotten; as such, we tend to remember The Sixties as being a time of great music because the stronger music of the decade keeps getting played and covered and included on soundtracks, whereas the rubbish music (or at least, the music that no one listened to) has been quietly forgotten.

Of course, there are plenty of (often younger) writers who happen to like the present fine, thank you very much, and can be quite keen on skewering this trope by pointing out exactly what they think was wrong about the past (often with a none-too-subtle 'screw you' directed at the perpetrators of this kind of mindset in the process). This is not surprising, as all the writers mentioned above did the same thing when they were young. Suffice to say that these young, hip writers so eager to take the past down a peg will in twenty years' time be as irrationally nostalgic for the 2010s as George Lucas is for the late Fifties.

This trope is not nearly as awesome today as it was in past centuries. For example, to Stendhal (1783-1842), everything went downhill after the fall of Napoleon; Gibbon thought the world went to hell after the death of Marcus Aurelius, in 180 AD. Hesiod insisted things had been going wrong at least since the invention of iron, making the trope Older Than Feudalism.

See also Ye Goode Olde Days and Nostalgia Filter.

Examples of Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be include:

Comic Books[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Averted in Justice League: The New Frontier, with both comics and cartoon adaptation showing (briefly, in the latter's case) the fate of John Henry, who survived lynching (his family didn't) and took revenge on the Ku Klux Klan, only to be caught by the KKK near the middle and murdered as well. The story also dealt with the McCarthyism paranoia of the 50s. On the other hand, JFK in the coda is all but treated as the saintly embodiment of everything good, virtuous, and true.
  • The Phonogram arc "Rue Britannia" examines this trope; the story involves the protagonist coming into conflict with 'retromancers', who are attempting to magically rewrite Britain's cultural scene in order to ensure that their musical tastes don't go out of fashion. He at one point explicitly uses the Pulp song "Common People" to access a "Memory Kingdom" of Britpop, which he is guided through by a representation of Luke Haines, a noted outspoken critic of nostalgia (as noted below in the "Real Life" examples), and faces the Anthropomorphic Personification of Britpop, resurrected as a decaying zombie-like figure. The story is ultimately about the protagonist learning to let go of his nostalgic memories of the era, and remembering it fondly while not downplaying the not-so-good parts.
  • Planetary subverts this trope at one point; one issue takes them to a funeral for an Expy of John Constantine which is attended by other homages to the Vertigo Comics characters of the 1980s and 1990s. Although Jakita is a passionate champion of them, the Affectionate Parody nature of the scene is pointedly undercut when Elijah bluntly points out that, divorced of their original political and social contexts, they can't help but look a bit ridiculous. Jakita is forced to concede that he has a point.


Films[edit | hide]

  • Across the Universe is a recent film that eulogizes the passing of the 1960s.
    • May actually be a bit of a subversion, since (for example) the hippy spiritualist is a massive dick, the antiwar protester is a mad bomber, and the general veneer of "man, the 60's were awesome!" is relatively thin over rather more realistic depictions of the era.
      • Actually that stuff is a reference to the perception that the anti-war and hippie movements lost their "innocence" when the seventies rolled around. The "mad bomber" is a reference to the Weather Underground, and the asshole spiritualist is meant to represent the "movement" selling out and moving to the west coast.
  • Back to The Future shows the Fifties to be extremely bright and happy. Then again, it was California (also, racism is briefly shown in the film).
    • Not to mention that Marty's mother is shown to be a somewhat promiscuous smoker and drinker, and Biff Tannen is a Grade A bully and attempted-rapist.
    • The series is arguably an aversion or a subversion. It shows the bright, happy and clean veneer while also showing the negative parts that existed just below the surface.
  • Played with in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; the movie is something of a pastiche of 1930s screwball comedies, and so is set amongst a wide array of glitzy fashion houses and nightclubs and glamorous apartments, with everyone having lots of fun and living it up, and everything's swanky and wonderful... but it's set in 1939, and there's plenty of ominous foreshadowing that World War II is on it's way and about to really shake things up for these people. Furthermore, the titular protagonist starts the movie homeless, and her miserable situation isn't entirely glossed over.
  • Appears in Boogie Nights, which is set in the Los Angeles porn scene during the late seventies and early eighties. Whilst not exactly perfect—it is the porn industry, after all -- The Seventies are depicted as being a colorful and carefree time, and considering the setting quite innocent as well; everyone's largely happy, everything's going well, and everything's bright and cheerful. Then along come The Eighties. The Eighties suck for all concerned. Truth in Television, the porn industry took a hit in the 80's with the onset of AIDS, VHS replacing film and the Reagan administration declaring war on it.
    • The movie follows a similar plot structure to Goodfellas, which depicts The Seventies as being a time when everything's going pretty well, and The Eighties as a really sucky time for everyone. Although even less rosy than Boogie Nights - Goodfellas, after all, deals with The Mafia - the similar structure nevertheless paints The Seventies as a time of optimism for its characters, and The Eighties as a time when everything came crashing down. In both cases cocaine (and the main characters' increasing addiction to it) plays a strong role in the misery that follows.
      • The Sixties are portrayed even more idyllically in Goodfellas, with Henry describing it (in almost those exact words) as the Golden Age of Wiseguys.
  • The specific idealization of The Fifties is parodied and ultimately subverted in Pleasantville; the titular Leave It to Beaver-style television show is initially an innocent and 'wholesome' reflection of the 1950s and the elements of which that are usually yearned after (the nuclear family, clean and pleasant suburbia, etc). Then, when the 'color' that the two real-life kids who have entered the world of the show begins to spread, the resulting tensions between the citizens who are in color and those who are still black-and-white begin to reflect and demonstrate the uglier side of the decade that is often played down, such as racial discrimination and political repression. However, the movie does this in such an Anvilicious fashion that some believe it acts to the detriment of the film (the town literally has no world outside it at first, sex literally doesn't exist instead of happening offscreen, etc).
  • The Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked (Pirate Radio in the US) is a nostalgic celebration of the The Sixties counterculture but also notes some of the less pleasant elements, especially the way 'free love' could morph into selfishness and amoral hedonism. As one character puts it: "the dark side of rock and roll."
  • In the René Clair film Les Belles de nuit (1952), Gérard Philipe's character has vivid Walter-Mitty-like dreams which always start out romantically but which end with him getting into trouble. In them he always meets an old man who tells him how bad this particular era is and how much better things were in the old days, setting up that the next dream will be set in the "good old days" referred to. Thus the first dream is set in the Sahara before World War 1, the second during the French Revolution etc. In the end he dreams of being in the Stone Age and even there the old man shows up to tell him how things have gone downhill since the good old days.
  • Dazed and Confused both plays this straight and subverts it. It portrays, for the most part, an idealized, nostalgia-inducing view of the 1970's, yet also shows how people are often discontent with a period simply because it's the present. At one point in the film, a girl is shown talking about the "every other decade rule"; the 50's were lame, the 60's were great, and the 70's obviously suck, and maybe the 80's will be awesome. Additionally, Pink says "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."
  • Played with and ultimately subverted in No Country for Old Men. Throughout the entire plot, Sheriff Bell despairs for the modern world and how it could allow someone like Anton Chigurh to live unmolested in it, and generally holds the belief that nobody like Chigurh would have been able to do so much evil in the old days. However, towards the end Bell talks to his Uncle, who relays the story of how his grandfather was killed - Shot on his own porch by a group of native americans, who stood and watched as he bled to death on his own steps. Bell's uncle tells him that men like Chigurh have always existed and always have done evil, and bluntly tells Bell that thinking the past was any better is no more than vanity.
  • Explored in Midnight in Paris: Owen Wilson's character is transported back to the 1920s, a time period he idolizes. While there, he meets a woman from that time period, and both of them are transported back even further to the Belle Époque, which time period she idolizes. The artists there, however, idolize the Renaissance. Owen Wilson realizes that it's better to just make the most of the present than try to live in the past.
  • Averted remarkably in Far From Heaven. Roger Ebert notes the great pains the filmmakers took to film it like a movie from 1950s Connecticut, which is an extraordinary accomplishment.[1] Gender roles are paralyzingly rigid for both men and women: sex is a chore for housewives to giggle at over martinis, and they work hard to maintain an outward appearance of flawlessness and gaiety only to lash out in infinitely subtle ways. White people are generally in favor of some nebulous concept called "equal rights for the Negro" but openly criticize integration. Black people are hardly champions of racial harmony either - when a Black man brings a White woman to a Black establishment for dinner and dancing, the other patrons see it as a violation of their safe space. A doctor gently tells his patient he has a modern view of homosexuality - if you're willing to work hard enough, there's a small chance you can be cured. And there's no scene where people defiantly flaunt their liberal views, and everybody has a change of heart from The Power of Love. The Black love interest decides to put on elephant-sized blinders and simply ignore the way everyone else sees his friendship with a White woman (in the dinner scene everyone is staring at them angrily, making comments, and he smiles and says, "See? This is a welcoming place!") and he and his family end up paying for it dearly.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Bill Bryson's childhood memoir The Life & Times of The Thunderbolt Kid really wallows in 'fifties nostalgia when it comes to the stuff of 'Kid World': comic books, crummy TV, small Iowa farming towns and their many 'Mabels', Atomic Toilets, rocket-powered mail, electric football games and Dick & Jane books. More serious stuff is handled more objectively.
    • Even the nostalgic parts are qualified with a cheerful acknowledgment of how lame most of "Kid World" seems in retrospect, Bryson seeming to take the position that nostalgia should exist despite the flaws of the period, rather than because of their perceived absence, subverting the usual Nostalgia Filter.
      • Consider the fact that he wrote about many of the same subjects in The Lost Continent with a decidedly anti-nostalgic bent.
  • Kim Newman's short story "The End Of The Pier Show' skewers nostalgia for World War II; a group of old veterans have used magic to force an old seaside town to be as it was during the war because they don't like modern times and preferred the war, when everyone 'pulled together' and things were 'much better'. Curiously, the 'modern times' they can't get the hang of are the 1970s, and the hero bluntly tells them that whilst the decade isn't perfect, they have to suck it up and move on; they have no right to force their outdated ways on the present just because they can't get the hang of decimalisation. He also notes that in their rosy-eyed view of the war years, they've conveniently forgotten the rather nasty group of people over the channel who were the whole reason for the war in the first place -- and who also have a presence in their little fantasy-land...
  • The King by Rudyard Kipling makes fun of the retroactive romanticism with "Nostalgia is Older Than They Think". The author projects this trend into the Stone Age and Twenty Minutes Into the Future, thus predicting Steampunk just as a natural continuation of this.
  • One of the guys who started all this was the Greek poet Hesiod, who put the myth of the Golden, Silver, Bronze etc. Ages into writing. Just think of how in particular the term of the "Golden Age" came to be applied to anything from national histories ("the Golden Age of Spain") to popular media and genres ("the Golden Age of Superheroes").

Live-Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Averted in Carnivale. The 30s seem like a craptastic world where America is replaced by a wasteland that actively tries to kill anyone, no institutionalized justice exists, bigotry is rampant, the poor are callously abused and imprisoned, and even Messiahs have to harm people to perform miracles.
    • The 1930's haven't been idealized (if indeed they ever were) for a very long time. Everyone knows about the crapsackitude, and few challenge it.
      • Probably the only people who have ever idealized the Thirties were those who were actually there, and for the most part they probably only did it while they were actually happening - because, after all, how else are you supposed to get through a rough time?
  • Lampshaded and then some in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Sisko called out a holodeck program specifically for being period inaccurate with regard to the various prejudices of the day. It was then immediately pointed out to Sisko that it wasn't supposed to be an accurate representation of the era, but the era as it should have been.
  • Actively averted in Foyle's War, which attempts to explode the myth of wartime Britain being a rosy place where everyone pulled together for the common good by showing just how desperate, venal and damaged people were by World War II, a common theme being that war changes people, usually for the worse. Corruption is rife, as people attempt to exploit their positions to either profit from the war or avoid it altogether, people are at times cowardly and incompetent and scarred by the necessities of war (namely hundreds to thousands of people being killed by or killing hundreds to thousands of other people on an almost daily basis) both physically and psychologically, and in the early seasons particularly there's a sense of defeat as the Nazis seem to be an unstoppable, omnipotent war machine crushing all in its path, with Britain likely to prove no different. Furthermore, the government is quite willing to let people get away literally with murder if there's a chance that they can help kill even more Germans, thus raising the question of what the point of investigating murders and other 'trivial' crimes during wartime actually is. Of course, it's not an entirely hopeless place, and there are decent, brave and even heroic people around as well.
    • People who were around at the time, on the other hand, think Foyle's War went much too far in the other direction, portraying Britain as more hopeless and venal than it really was. Most people at the time didn't really change that much: war just highlighted the best and worst of what had already existed. (And no, the government wasn't so soft-headed as to let murderers get away, even to kill Germans: they knew that would be a disaster in the long run.)
  • Averted hard by Mad Men. Set at the transition point between The Fifties and The Sixties (culturally, it's the 50s; JFK isn't dead until the end of the third season), the people behind the show go to great lengths to avoid the nostalgia factor. And not with mere background details; what appears often serves to make situations that would be easily resolved in our time hopelessly complicated. In other words (the show is trying to say), although The Sixties weren't that long ago, they really were incredibly different, and were not by any stretch of the imagination "better" than our time. Nevertheless, the characters are so engaging and the visual style so distinctive that the series really has to work hard to avoid Truffaut's Theorem.
  • Savagely mocked in this The Daily Show clip, in which John Oliver satirizes conservative pundits harking back to a simpler, better America than the one they believe is being ruined. After interviewing several people from each of the periods that pundits such as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly grew up in which they discuss how things weren't really that great, Oliver claims that the reason these pundits constantly look back to and reference these times as happier and less complicated is because they were children then, and the world usually seems happier and less complicated when you're a child.
  • Averted on The Red Green Show when Red talks to teenagers and advises them not to listen to older people who become nostalgic for The Sixties. Giving viewers the real story from someone who was there, he explains that a lot of people did in fact try free love...but then they went to the free clinic. And yes, a lot of people did try new stuff...but then they had their stomachs pumped. And yes, half a million people showed up at Woodstock...but a lot more than that went overseas to Vietnam. And yes, the decade did have a lot of great protest songs...but they also had bands like the 1910 Fruitgum Company. He concludes by advising today's youth that, whenever an adult rips on them for not being born in the 1960s, they can just hum back "Yummy Yummy Yummy/I Got Love In My Tummy."
  • Both subverted and played straight on Married... with Children. Al Bundy relishes The Sixties and the classic oldies songs from when he was in high school, but another episode has him ripping on The Seventies, claiming that the fashion, music and culture all really sucked.
  • Dads Army mostly averts this, although there are times when things are glossed over.


Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

  • Candorville demonstrates this trope for less than a strip during a bout of Mental Time Travel, then subverts it hard in the last panel. The time traveled to is the U.S. right before Lincoln's assassination, and while the American Civil War may be over, the prevailing attitude towards blacks hasn't changed much.


Videogames[edit | hide]

  • The Fallout series invert this showing an America where culturally the Fifties never ended as a shallow, corporation-run nightmare that barely hides the fact that democracy fell by the wayside to Red Scare paranoia. The Federal Government basically became the Nazis.


Web Original[edit | hide]


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • This trope is called out in one episode of The Real Ghostbusters. Ray reminisces on the Fifties and notes what a simpler time they are. Egon tells him that there's no inherent proof of that, and that each decade has its own individual challenges.
  • An episode of Justice League does this when some of the heroes end up in a Golden Age-style alternate universe. Green Lantern doesn't quite know how to take being called a credit to his race.
    • The episode could also be viewed as a more pragmatic look at the comic books released during that time, free from the usual Nostalgia Filter fans look through with them. The catchphrases and corny lines are almost painful to listen to and the villains behave in such absurd ways you get the sense a story like this would never be published today. On the other hand, all those elements were a ton of fun to watch due to how goofy they were.
  • Stan Smith and Hank Hill are both very nostalgic for The Eighties, due in no small part to the fact that Ronald Reagan was President at the time.
    • Stan, despite not having grown up in the early 20th century, longed for the "simpler days" where men ruled everything and women had no say. When his boss sends him to Saudi Arabia, he is reluctant until he realizes they hold the "old fashioned values" he held dear. This eventually backfired when Francine was about to be executed for singing and dancing in public while wearing lingerie and kissing other men.
      • Of course, Saudi Arabia makes American culture even at its most puritanical look pretty open-minded. The Saudi government bans women's underwear ads, for example.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • The 'Dark Ages' are still seen as a bleak and decrepit period where human advancement stopped dead....despite the fact that there is no evidence for this and historians have considered the idea bunkum for around eighty years. The reason we think of them as the dark ages at all? Nostalgia inspired by the grand works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea that the Church suppressed learning? A complete and utter myth - they actually preserved very many Pagan writings and ideas and encouraged literacy (among other things).
    • Note also another idea central to the 'Dark Ages' being a block to 'human advancement' - that Europe was inevitably going to lead the world into the industrial era. Not because a centuries-long, highly complex tale of economic factor forces saw investments in instruments and mechanisation which almost accidentally lead to unprecedented scientific breakthroughs (encouraged by rising labour costs, the result of mass-migration to the New World at a time when north Europe's regional economies were growing), but because the innate superiority of Christian European civilisation made it inevitable.
  • Almost ubiquitous in the message of political "culture warriors"; apparently, all the evils of the world came to America along with The Beatles.
    • The Fab Four Horsemen of the Applepocalypse!
  • The Gay Nineties
  • As noted in the Phonogram example above, Britpop curmudgeon Luke Haines is famous for decrying nostalgia in all its forms, because of the way it warps people's perceptions of things.
  • Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, notes the futility of nostalgia, saying that it's necessary to make the best out of each generation. However, Yamamoto not only claims that the good old days were actually better, he notes that each generation is less than the one before it because the world is coming to an end.
  • "What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"-- Plato, 4th Century BC
  • With crime rates declining in the US, some criminals have begun pining for the good old days. In the words of one former crack dealer: "These few blocks here were the murder capital of the murder capital of the world, and right here's where I did my business. Made a lot of money too. Even sold it down by the White House. Could do anything back then. We owned this city. Now it's like everywhere else. One giant coffee shop."
  1. Its themes, values and style faithfully reflect the social melodramas of the 1950s, but it's bolder, and says out loud what those films only hinted at [...] The civil rights revolution predated gay liberation by about 10 years, and you can see that here: The movie doesn't believe Raymond and Cathy have a plausible future together, but there is bittersweet regret that they do not. When Frank meets a young man and falls in love, however, the affair is not ennobled but treated as a matter of motel rooms and furtive meetings. Haynes is pitch-perfect here in noting that homosexuality, in the 1950s, still dared not speak its name.