Dishing Up Domestic Nostalgia by Tonya Davidson
I have this fantasy about hosting a retro potluck. My friends would show up at my door with casseroles, macaroni salads, Jell-O salad and Spam loaves—all of which I’d present on macramé trivets. We’d drink old-fashioneds and applaud ourselves for our commitment to ironic leisure. My plan never quite gets off the ground, however, because, well—Jell-O salad is gross.
Jell-O salad is also an apt metaphor for the popularity of retro-sexist nostalgia that has seeped into consumer culture during the last decade. On the surface, it’s kind of a fun idea (Jell-O, marshmallows and chunks of ham!). However, in reality, it doesn’t quite sit well in the stomach—the whole arrangement is overwhelmed somehow with an artificial sweetness.
Representations of femininity from the 1940s to the 1970s have been a fertile source of inspiration for young feminists since the turn of the millennium. Many embrace knitting and making cozies for fire hydrants and street posts to claim urban spaces through yarn bombing. Women also revived the 1970s female sport of roller derby and have embraced neo-burlesque, two practices that have been discussed in this magazine. By mining these femininities of the past, contemporary women are not only embracing the skills, ingenuity and herstory of their foremothers but are demanding that these pursuits be taken more seriously in the 21st century.
While some nostalgia regarding past femininities focuses on under-celebrated herstories, other aspects of this nostalgia are meant to be read as campy, as ironic or as a joke on past sexism. It’s an attitude seen in those kitschy fridge magnets depicting women in 1950s fashions that are headed with sayings such as, “Wine: How classy people get shitfaced,” or, “I only have a kitchen because it came with the house.”
Retrosexist nostalgia has also emerged alongside the growing popularity of 1950s and 1960s fashion in cupcakeries and in television programs like Mad Men, Pan-Am and Bomb Girls. There are even two reality TV shows, the American Wives with Beehives and the British Time Warp Wives, that document the lives of contemporary families invested in living as if it were still the 1950s. Meanwhile, the increasingly un-ironic embrace of 1970s moustaches (think Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation) is also an example of retrosexism.
What Ever Happened to Camp?
Somewhere along the way, camp femininities have become diluted. When there is a saturation of this kind of irony, irony ceases to be meaningful. Instead, such overuse of irony can even kill camp.
Susan Sontag characterized the camp aesthetic in her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” For Sontag, camp was a style, an artifice and the “love of the exaggerated.”
Drag queens and drag kings are classic examples of the camp aesthetic; campy performances can have subversive ends. By embracing the excessiveness of girldom—“I will wear heels AND long Holly Golightly gloves!!”—campy feminists highlight how gender is a performance. Singer
Dolly Parton, with her largely feminist lyrics and commitment to an over-the-top performance of femininity, is often viewed as campy in this way.
However, there is a limit to the subversive potential of camp, and that limit is reached when over-thetop and nostalgic representations of femininity are taken at face value.
Pop culture’s retro nostalgia is also threatening camp. Just look at Katy Perry, whose look draws on post-Second World War pin-ups, 1960s Playboy iconography and various Disney characters. Her performances drip with excessive girly-ness. And, while neo-burlesque performers consider the gender politics of their performances, Perry has managed to divorce her own gender performance from this critical nod to the past. Perry, who has a huge girl fan base, has even created herself as a doll come to life, complete with her own mascot—Kitty Purry.
By understanding herself as aspirational for young girls, Perry seems to take her image seriously. Yet, such a camp aesthetic is not a role model for children. Camp is grown-up fun.
Another public figure whose image is killing camp is actor-singer Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel is both celebrated and mocked for her love of baby doll dresses, hair ribbons and preppy mid-century fashions. While she publicly identifies as a feminist, she has also produced a fashion line with Tommy Hilfiger that is described as inspired by the swinging ’60s.
“We can’t be feminine and be feminists and be successful?” she asked in a 2013 Glamour interview.
“I want to be a f__king feminist and wear a f__king Peter Pan collar. So f__king what? ... If you are tearing down somebody who had forged her own path just for wearing a tiara, rethink your priorities.”
Ryerson University fashion professor Janna Eggebeen sees Deschanel’s style in a historical context. “Zooey Deschanel’s fashion is certainly part of a larger trend, already going back a number of years,that can be traced to the influence of Mad Men. Prada, and retailers such as Banana Republic,and American Apparel, and many others, have put out collections that are similar to Deschanel’s collection for Tommy Hilfiger.”
And, as any observer of fashion can tell you, cyclical fashion returns are the norm. “Older women such as myself who lived through the ’60s and ’70s are definitely not the market for this trend,”
Eggebeen says, “which appeals to younger women who never experienced the overt sexism of that period. For young women, they make no connection between garden-party dresses and the repressive gender roles and enforced juvenility that these frocks represent to older women. I guess that’s a good thing!”
While Eggebeen believes that repressive gender roles have been divorced from retro fashions, I think it is just another example of the slipperiness between a nostalgic aesthetic and one that celebrates an infantilized, frivolous femininity.
What Deschanel reads as her prerogative to have fun, be flirty and bat her eyelashes to excess, others read as a throwback to a time when women were treated as child figures. And, while the proliferation of tiaras may not be as significant as issues such as pay equity or affordable daycare, the feminine iconography of tiaras is worthy of discussion by feminists. In an era when women are still not taken seriously in public life the way that men are, dressing in excessively girlish fashions and uncritically embodying the styles of a sexistbygone era are not politically neutral practices.
For contemporary pop stars like Deschanel and Perry, the opposite of seriousness doesn’t come off as a reflective playfulness or a movement towards unoppressive joy. Rather, it looks like the infantilizing and sexualization of grown women.
Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?
Much has been made of the gender politics in the television series Mad Men, which follows the lives of advertising executives on Madison Avenue, New York, in the 1960s. Many applaud the multi-dimensional female characters and credit the show’s many female writers for creating a series that complicates simplified nostalgia. No contemporary popular cultural reflection of the mid-20th century embodies the complexities of negotiating camp and retrosexism more than Mad Men. In fact, in her chapter “Everyone is a Jackie or a Marilyn: The Problematics of Nostalgia,” in the 2011 edited collection Analyzing Mad Men:
Critical Essays on the Television Series, cultural critic Tonya Krouse wrote, “The gender roles and sexual double-standard that govern the universe of Mad
Men cause discomfort, and this discomfort reflects the paradox at the heart of the show. On the one hand, in the first decade of the 21st century, we would like to believe that we have left the misogynistic gender and sexual politics of 1960 Madison Avenue behind. On the other hand, the historical specificity of the show gives us permission to take pleasure in a world in which those gender and sexual politics are front and centre.” Like other forms of retrosexist nostalgia, in Mad Men there is a complicated pleasure in viewing femininities from an oppressive time, while simultaneously trying to hold on to contemporary feminist politics.
Krouse focused her analysis on the season two episode “The Maidenform.” The episode focuses on an ad pitch to Maidenform that asks the question, “Are you a Jackie [Kennedy] or a Marilyn
[Monroe]?” During the episode, one ad man opens the door to display the female staff, and the men quickly decide which ones are “Jackies” and which are “Marilyns.” On first blush, the female characters in the show could easily be categorized this way— the many mistresses of the ad men as “Marilyns” and the wives as Jackies. However, when ad writer Peggy disagrees that women can be this simply categorized, the men agree and suggest that Peggy is a “Gertrude Stein.” In this episode the female characters, just like real women of the time, tended to challenge these constraints.
And yet, after this episode aired, a quiz, “Are you a Jackie or a Marilyn?” circulated on the Internet.
Many responses worked to solidify the dichotomous understanding of women, rather than contributing to the female characters’ critiques of this very dichotomy, with responses such as “Marilyn here…,”
“I’m a Jackie all the way” and “I hope we get to see some more rockin’ clothes on Peggy.” When the complexity of the Mad Men female characters and the show’s social commentary are lost, what is left is a superficial nostalgia for fashion that remains uncritical of restrictive gender norms.
Jell-O, with its amorphous, colourful blobs of instant satisfaction, could have symbolized a moment, one in which women became untethered from the kitchen. After all, in the postwar 1950s, there was a huge growth in the sale of kitchen appliances and convenience foods. However, it came to be expected that these convenience foods would be fussed over by mothers and wives as expressions of love. Hence, Jell-O salad represents the paradox of women’s lives, one in which new household conveniences in the postwar era became burdened by gendered ideologies that demanded that women spend time in the kitchen.
The challenge for producers and consumers of female kitsch pop culture lies in ensuring that the irony of domestic nostalgia does not collapse. I still fantasize about my retro potluck, replete with its served-up varieties of Jell-O salad, but not as a celebration of nostalgic sexism. Jell-O salad is not an apolitical curious culinary creation—it’s a dish steeped in political ideas. Complicated engagements with the past must be preserved, so that we are not left with Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel as aspirational figures for girls and Mad Men as nothing more than a fashion shoot.
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