The “Good” Ol’ Days: Romanticizing an Era That Didn’t Exist

The so-called ‘good old days’ weren’t so good for everyone, so why are they constantly romanticized? When people talk about “the good old days,” what they usually mean is the mid-20th century – and perhaps one of the reasons this is looked on so fondly in America is because it feels like that’s when a lot of what we know about contemporary America was born. There was a spirit of post-war optimism that now, at a time of great global anxiety, there feels like a need to harness. But not everyone had the luxury of being optimistic. This was a time of huge inequality. So by romanticizing that era uncritically – both in art and in our real life politics – we’re in danger of endorsing that culture, which becomes even more dangerous – given that right now, so many of the gains that have been made in the past half century feel like they’re being rolled back.


Why are we so keen on romanticizing the so-called ‘good old days’ – when the reality is that the time period wasn’t good for everyone?

When people talk about “the good old days,” what they usually mean is the mid-20th century – and perhaps one of the reasons this is looked on so fondly in America is because it feels like that’s when a lot of what we know about contemporary America was born. There was the first explosion of youth culture, the utopian image of nuclear families in their suburban, white-picket-fenced houses, the birth of rock and roll And all these artforms embodied a spirit of post-war optimism that now, at a time of great global anxiety, there feels like a need to harness. Hugh Armitage of Digital Spy notes, “Even shows ostensibly set in the present – we’re thinking Riverdale and the upcoming Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in particular – adopt a carefully crafted timelessness and hark back to the drive-in cinemas and diners of the ‘50s.”

And the obsession doesn’t stop at our screens – there’s been a resurgence of mid-century modern design that has dominated our homes and instagram aesthetics since the 2010s and shows no signs of stopping. Journalist Dominic Bradbury writes: “Today we all need that spirit of optimism that mid-century modern carries with it.”

But not everyone had the luxury of being optimistic. This was a time of huge inequality. Women were still limited in what they could do in society. Homosexuality was illegal. And the Civil Rights Movement was being fought in painful, bloody battles across the country. So by romanticizing that era uncritically – both in art and in our real life politics – we’re in danger of endorsing that culture, which becomes even more dangerous –- given that right now, so many of the gains that have been made in the past half century feel like they’re being rolled back.

Elise Dean: The Supreme Court has overturned Roe V Wade. -The Wall Street Journal

Here’s our take on how cinema loves reliving the so-called good old days, and why we should stop looking through the rearview with rose tinted glasses.

The glamorization of the good old days often feels like a lament for its loss. In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Tarantino does touch on some of the seedier, darker undercurrents of the movie business in the post-war era, but the overall feeling seems to be that back then, the cultural climate was better, freer, and more exciting. And given Tarantino’s recent comments on Disney, Marvel, and the state of cinema in general, you get the feeling we’re being invited to make a comparison between then and now, and come to Tarantino’s same realization – movies were better back then.

But by focusing on one aspect of the good old days through one specific lens, it feels like a lot is being glossed over. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis and Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can both paint a picture of an exciting, opulent post-war era that feels almost aspirational. While both stories contain a darker heart, these feel hidden beneath the focus on fashion, architecture, and culture.

The elephant in the room here is race, and the fact that these stories hark back to a time when society privileged whiteness even moreso than they do today. In Mad Men – which arguably began this revival of the mid-century aesthetic – the world is one where white men rule over everything. However, over the course of its seasons, we see how Peggy and Joan push up, and eventually break, that glass ceiling that’s been built over them. While this speaks to how the era changed, it still promotes – and maybe even glamorizes – a culture of individualism. It’s also telling that the biggest arcs are given to the show’s white women, whilst the black characters like Dawn and Shirley are sidelined.

There’s a similar dynamic in The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which again leans into the glamor and excitement of the entertainment industry in the post-war era. The speed at which Midge rises up the ranks of that industry undoubtedly exposes her white privilege in that era, but that privilege isn’t really interrogated. And the Civil Rights Movement — which is happening at the exact same time the show is set — is almost entirely absent.

Midge Maisel: That’s why New York is so great, though. Everyone you care about can despise you and you can still find a bagel so good, nothing else matters. -Marvelous Mrs Maisel

A lot of the problems of that era are still present today, but the fact that we’re talking about inequality more now, and making progress to correct imbalances, has meant that there’s a certain section of white people — cishet white men in particular — who feel like they’re under attack. There’s been a surge in white nationalism in the last decade and groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front – who formed out of the fear that their voice and authority in America is at risk – have amassed a worrisome following. Scholars at UC Berkeley have said that, “Though white men as a whole remain dominant across society…their widespread feelings of loss and insecurity are linked to deep psychological reactions — a sort of bitter nostalgia, a sense they are being cheated and left behind, a growing conviction that they must take justice into their own hands.”

Many of these men were emboldened by Donald Trump’s most popular slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. So many people – specifically working class white men identified with this – a message of returning to a better time – even though the version of America they wanted to get back to was not so great for a lot of other people. And it wasn’t just white men – white women overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020… despite the fact that they would have also faced adversity and suffered from inequality during this supposedly “great” era of American history. But perhaps this shows us just how powerful nostalgia can be – it can even make victims of the time period miss it. In fact, the connection between the success of Trump, his slogan, and nostalgia may be even stronger than we realize. A 2021 study found that higher levels of national nostalgia predicted both positive attitudes toward President Trump and towards racial prejudices.

For a large number of voters, revisiting this previous era seems to feel comforting, a simpler time when they would be able to get away with far more. So in glamorizing this era, are we playing into their hands?

Only sometimes do we get to see the true, less-appealing nature of our country’s mid-century era onscreen. The optimism and glamor that’s portrayed in a lot of these “good old days” was the same utopian ideal that was being sold to people living in that time period – and both are bound up with a kind of nostalgia that is, by definition, anti-modernity. In Revolutionary Road, Frank and April are sold on the image of the suburbs, and the idea that in that world they will have a perfect, idyllic, peaceful life. But in actuality, there is a hollowness and malaise that grips them. The beautiful exterior masks a much more tense and difficult reality.

John Givings: You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don’t like! -Revolutionary Road

This same tension is explored in Don’t Worry Darling. The town these families have moved to is perfect, but it’s almost too perfect. To exist there happily the families must uncritically and unquestionably accept whatever is going on beneath the surface. This almost acts as a metaphor for mid-century nostalgia itself. It does look nice! But you have to deliberately ignore all the uglier parts — and sometimes that’s easier said than done.

It’s telling that the town in Don’t Worry Darling is called Victory, because that’s what underpinned this whole image of optimism and prosperity, the shadow of the war. But seeing it through that lens reveals how dangerous mid-century nostalgia can be. It takes these complicated, geopolitical situations and flattens them into digestible stories of winners and losers. One of the biggest cultural icons to emerge from that era was Captain America, who was invented in the shadow of Pearl Harbour as a propaganda tool to help the country come out of their geopolitical isolation and support conflict. And even as Captain America enjoys his second life in the MCU, he still embodies that same optimistic, US exceptionalism, only now in a new context, with new threats.

In Pleasantville, we see the regressive nature of nostalgia play out when the 1950s TV town of Pleasantville is introduced to David and Jennifer, two American high schoolers from the 90s who get sucked into their world. The reason David is such a big fan of the show is because of how quaint, calm, peaceful and simple it looks – in contrast to his own high school experience. However, the more modern values get introduced to the town, the more pushback there is, and it becomes clear that for the people living there, it’s not the perfectly manicured utopia it appears to be – but rather it’s depressing, stifling, and designed to uphold a patriarchal system. By the end, the men are desperate to hold onto those 50s values – which sounds a bit familiar. That’s what the glamorization of the good old days often fails to focus on. The tension between those who wanted change, and those who liked things the way they were. In reality, that tension has lasted longer – and was more dangerous – than a lot of cultural representations would have us believe.

George Parker: There was no-one there. No wife, no lights, no dinner. -Pleasantville

On some level, the world was opening up during the middle of the 20th century. But to view it as purely utopian and optimistic ignores the huge pushback that some of the more forward thinking ideas got. One of the biggest cultural phenomenons of that time were studies on sexual behavior – the first of their kind (explored on screen in 2004’s Kinsey and 2013’s Showtime series Masters of Sex). Both arguably had a hand in kick-starting the sexual revolution. But while these studies opened the world up for Americans, they were swiftly clamped down on. As McCarthyism took hold of the country, any progressive ideals were bundled together as being un-American. Goodnight and Good Luck, the biopic of the broadcaster Edward Murrow who took on McCarthyism makes no attempt to present this era with a utopian lens – instead washing everything out in stark black and white.

The stories that are buried in “good old days” content are the ones for whom the days weren’t so good. But recently — particularly since the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum — there has been a revisiting of that era through a black lens. Biopics like Selma, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Till all try to paint a more brutal, realistic picture of why the Civil Rights Movement emerged, and who its opponents were. With Judas and the Black Messiah in particular, there’s a sense that this story has been, if not buried, then underplayed for a long time. And now, as a spotlight is finally being shown on racial injustices in our current society – it’s the right time for it to be revisited – as a way of reminding people how long this struggle has been going on. At the same time, there’s also been a revisiting of iconic black cultural figures and cultural moments of the time. People like James Baldwin, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin are all well known, but recent films about them have tried to place their art in their historical context, and perhaps in some cases re-politicise what has become de-politicised over time

Malcom X: Do you think maybe your energy’s misdirected Sam, tryna tap into white people’s souls?

Sam Cooke: No I don’t, if I win ‘em over playin’ our music I’m knocking down doors for everybody, you watch and see. -One Night In Miami

What’s interesting is how often these representations manage to do both: show the political reality, while at the same time show some of what was good about that time. Take Summer of Soul – Questlove’s documentary film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Musically, it leans on the good old days, bringing in all of this incredible, unseen footage. But at the same time it shows how the black community was struggling, how the moon landing wasn’t really cared about by that community because of the inequality it exposed, and also the contextual reasons of why this footage was never seen.

We’re also seeing more stories from these eras through a queer lens. Occasionally queer stories or queer characters do emerge in nostalgic content — Mad Men’s Sal, for instance — but there haven’t been many and they lack depth. Harry Styles’ latest film, My Policeman is more explicit about the fact that homosexuality was illegal. That this love was not just culturally taboo, it was a criminal act, which lends their affair a more tragic, fatalistic quality. Similar themes are explored in The Imitation Game and Benediction, biopics of Alan Turing and Siegfried Sassoon whose names are held up as war heroes – one a genius technologist, the other a poet. But both were unable to live as the people they really were. With an increase in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation across the world – stories like these show us where we came from and serve as a harsh warning against reversing the progress we’ve made.

It’s not that these stories are without romance or joy, but they also speak to a more painful truth. While this may be difficult, if that truth is ignored, buried, or changed, then we learn nothing, and don’t get as rich a culture.

The impulse to romanticize the past comes, in part, from a fear of the future, and right now, the future does look scary. We don’t know what the world will look like going forward. Climate change, economic instability, the pandemic — everything feels uncertain, so on some level nostalgia is a comfort, because it’s already happened.

Abe Simpson: I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. -The Simpsons

But we can’t rewrite history, because then we’re in danger of repeating it. While some cultural touchstones of the past feel important to keep alive, we need to look at them in their proper context, and try to imagine a world in which what’s made in this era can be just as influential half a century down the line.