Nostalgia was coined as a medical term in 1688 to describe a potentially fatal case of homesickness. In 1873 nostalgia was defined as a contagious disorder with the potential to spread tragically through army induction centers, and it still appeared on the Surgeon General’s list of standard illnesses during the Second World War (Lowenthal 1985:11).
Though today nostalgia may not be classified as a pathological illness, it is still perhaps a dangerous condition. The suggestion of a better past, or a nowhere-place ‘in the good old days’ negates the realities of oppression, racism, sexism and the general unpleasantness of certain times in history. These histories and all that can be learnt from them are then replaced with an unfocussed, fuzzy need to go back there, without any knowledge of where, exactly, there is.
As Lowenthal states, “mistrust of the future also fuels today’s nostalgia. We may not love the past excessively as many did in the nineteenth century, but our misgivings about what may come are more grave” (1985:11). Nostalgia was last this big at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the uncertainty of our new century, and indeed millennium, causes what Dr. Barbara Stern refers to as the “fine de siecle affect”, where “cultural anxiety about the experience of discontinuity” (1992: Online) causes a social uncertainty that reassures itself by looking back.
Older people have a reason to be nostalgic. Most of their lives are behind them. That young people are looking over their shoulder so much is a sign of underconfidence, I think. The reassuring thing about the past is that we already know the outcome. (O’Neil 2004: Online).
As asserted in the above quotation, many would assume that the aged lean more towards nostalgia. The nostalgic tendency, however, is prevalent not only in the work of many young artists, but in the stylings of youth culture, corporate production and mass media. Hasbro recently re-launched the My Little Pony doll. Transformers have become collectors’ items and have begun appearing in advertisements for cars that the children who played with them can now afford. Eighties music has made an huge comeback, and Hallo Kitty, cutesy dresses and designer toys are aimed at a culture of young adults. Thus, young people are not only being sold nostalgia, they are happily buying into it in a desperate attempt to cling to their recent childhoods.
In looking back at the origins of the word’s usage, however, nostalgia’s affliction in young people becomes clearer. As opposed to the ancient grandmother, the youth still feel the wound of their responsibility and independence. More recently thrown from the
womb of (remembered) carelessness, the twenty-something particularly is new to the sense of alienation, discomfort and displacement in the world, with the homesickness of nostalgia an unsurprising symptom of this malady.
Born perhaps of fear, and rife amongst young people, the millennial nostalgia movement has come with a particularly anti-feminist backlash. For, after all, if nostalgia is a longing to “return home”, then there had better be a woman there waiting with a warm dinner. The fact that nostalgia has seeped into every facet of popular culture, sub-cultural style and political sensibility, has allowed for a call to return to ‘old fashioned’ ideals that often equate to dangerous regressions in notions of sexual difference and womanhood.
With American president George Bush’s consistent calls for the return of the nuclear family and images of 60s housewives selling trendy products in the city centre in 2008, nostalgia seems to have trumped irony with a resurgence of anti-feminist sentiment and the re-emergence of the idea that it is only behind great men that great women lurk. Oprah Talk Show cast-off and award winning author and T.V. pop psychologist, Dr. Phil, has a wife who dutifully walks out and holds his hand at the end of every daily show. Her description on both their websites begins: “Robin McGraw, wife of best-selling author and television talk Showhost Dr. Phil McGraw, has made “family first” her mission. Married for 31 years to Dr. Phil, whom she fondly refers to as “Phillip”, Robin has made her marriage and raising their two sons Jay, 28, and Jordan, 21, her priority in life”.11
While mothering is by no means an unimportant position for women, this daytime television show (which is watched by millions) seems in many ways to be an extension of the recent resurgence in nostalgic and near-sighted wishes to return to the ‘good old days’ when men were gentlemen and women were happy mothers and housewives who didn’t have the unnecessary pressure of having to vote or work. This trend is particularly evident in an alarming resurgence in literature extolling the virtues of housework and motherhood over careers and ambition, typified by Danielle Crittenden, whose column and eventual book on the joys of housewifery, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (2000), led to Erica Jong describing her as “ignorant” and Betti Friedan calling her “anti-woman” (Thomas 2003: Online). The link between this new kind of anti-feminism and the millennial love of nostalgia is an important one, where gender politics mesh with popular sensibilities and trends: “Crittenden has achieved fame in an era of nostalgia worship. Swing dancing, lounge music, and vintage shopping are today’s retro fads. Crittenden and her antifeminist sisters are there to provide political views that won’t clash with that smashing ’50s dress” (Lipman 1999: Online).
A reasonably unconcerned Sunday Times writer described Crittenden and her ilk, “a new kind of post-feminist is emerging that would have the suffragettes turning in their graves” (Thomas 2003: Online). Of course, post-feminist here means only “after feminism”, where gender studies, activism and women’s struggles under patriarchy have, apparently, ended. To quote a young woman I went to school with when I ran into her at a club recently, “I mean I’m glad Feminism happened and all, I’m just glad it’s all over now”.
11 See: http://www.drphil.com/shows/page/robin_bio/ and http://www.robinmcgraw.com/meet_robin.htm. 23.10.0825
NOTE: This is an excerpt from my thesis I Love You to Death: the Voice of the Woman Artist: Sex Violence Sentimentality. The full text (with full references) can be downloaded here