the past in pop culture

Category: Women

By the Decade: Russians in Mom Jeans

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall (Photo credit: jbcurio)

The new show The Americans on F/X features a perfectly typical (ok—TV typical, meaning white and affluent) family living in the DC ‘burbs just shortly after Ronald Reagan became president. The catch is that, really, they’re super undercover Russian spies. So super undercover that they never ever speak Russian and even in flashbacks to their spy-in-training days they merely have heavy accents. Their kids aren’t in on it and so they innocently pipe up with the occasional mindless anti-Soviet remark. Meanwhile their mom, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), bustles about the kitchen but is really wondering whether she should go cut the throat of the Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile.

There are two ways to explain the appeal of the show’s premise. One is to put it down to Cold War nostalgia. The other is to chalk it up to 1980s nostalgia. Of course, since they happened at the same time, the answer can also be both. If the political issues were serious, the rest of the 1980s now seem quaint and laughable: look at those glasses! that hair! Isn’t that Roxy Music? Really, though, it’s the mom jeans. The show’s drama is supposed to be dark and serious, its moral quandaries, quagmires. But when the suburban mom / Russian double agent is wearing mom jeans, we’re in Red Dawn territory. No, not the remake, the original with Patrick Swayze (rest in peace), C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and even Charlie Sheen. The movie’s Cold War conceit—that high school students would lead the resistance after a Soviet invasion of the heartland—was pretty late in the game to be convincing. By 1984, the dark threat of nuclear annihilation still loomed, but fears of a full scale invasion were so 1950s. Thus Red Dawn—the dawn of the Soviet occupation that is—was more of a red herring. The movie’s most dramatic moment comes when C. Thomas Howell executes one of their own when he’s found to be hiding a Soviet tracking device. The Cold War setting just happens to be contemporary but its values have more in common with the 1980 WWII film, The Big Red One. And so it is with The Americans. It’s not about the Cold War, it’s about characters who aren’t sure who they can trust. Its 1980s setting seems like comic relief.

The mom jeans, in other words, beg to be laughed at. Just in case you didn’t know this, what we now call “mom jeans” are direct descendants of the above-the-bellybutton style of the ‘80s. Some people debate whether the high waist alone is enough to define a pair of pants as mom jeans, but it’s nearly impossible to look at people wearing jeans from the early ‘80s and not think it. To test this theory, you might try watching one of the live versions of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. As they perform the power ballad of the decade, the band members are decked out in muscle shirts, mullets, and, c’mon say it, mom jeans. Even so, surely one of the reasons the song has remained a hit for all these years, is its total sincerity. Its chorus, and Steve Perry’s performance of it, don’t hide a trace of irony. The band still tours on the strength of this song, even now that Perry refuses to have anything to do with them. (Amazingly, the remaining members managed to outsource the job to a singer from a cover band in the Philippines who they discovered via a youtube video. Really.)

The nostalgia of looking at and laughing at early ‘80s style in a 2013 show would seem to have a lot to do with the reputed sincerity deficit of our own times. No doubt it also has a lot to do with the fact that people who were teenagers in the 1980s are now forty-somethings, and suffering the first pangs of mid-life crises. It’s somehow less ridiculous to look back longingly for one’s lost youth if one first engages in ritualistic mockery of it. And sad to say, middle aged women bear the brunt of it (mom jeans, after all, feminizes something that was unisex back in the day). How else to explain the popularity of recent episodes of What Not to Wear that featured makeovers of Mindy Cohn (Facts of Life) and Tina Yothers (Family Ties), adolescent stars of 1980s hit shows? Both decided to hide their aging, and now less than famous selves, behind ill-fitting clothes until Stacy and Clinton swoop in to save them. The show’s usual early doses of humiliation are made collective by virtue of the fact that they were practically family for those old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s. The women’s ultimate redemption—now clothed in of the moment style—is that much more satisfying for the suffering. We can laugh at the 1980s and love them, too. The Russians in The Americans are about as threatening as they were back in that Wendy’s commercial. But Boy George, who was hard to take seriously back in 1983, now seems so sweet, so sincere, and so right when he points out that the past is never truly gone.

Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon,

You come and go, you come and go-oh-oh-oh . . .

Sing it, everyone.

The Facebook Mystique

Betty Friedan, American feminist and writer.

Betty Friedan, American feminist and writer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s funny that the origins of Facebook now seem historical. The fun of The Social Network was the wink-and-a-nod of knowing how it all turns out since audiences were already living in a world that had been transformed by friend requests and status updates. By the time the movie came out in 2010, “to facebook” had already entered the English language as a verb and in 2009 “unfriend” had won the vocab equivalent of an Oscar by being named Word of the Year. By now, the pre-Facebook period is practically the Pleistecene.

Time flies faster in the digital era. Facebook is now one of the world’s largest companies and its executives some of the world’s wealthiest people. This has ensured that the press rollout for the soon to be published book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (who was responsible for making the company profitable) has gotten some attention. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead wants women to learn to lead by joining “lean in circles” for self-empowerment.

Sandberg’s book just happens to be coming on the heels of another publishing milestone in women’s history: the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. 1963 sure was another era. Noreen Malone points out in Slate that when Friedan wrote about the long, boring days of the housebound hausfrau in Mystique, she definitely didn’t have Wi-Fi. If she’d had, she might have re-connected with her Smith classmates not at a reunion but via Facebook and the book might have been a blog. Instead, it became a social movement. She had to leave the house to get that going.

Although Friedan became an active part of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, Feminine Mystique got a lot of criticism for saying it was about women but actually being about white, middle to upper-class women. Sandberg’s got it even tougher of course since she’s in the yet tinier demographic of self-made billionaire women. And so Friedan’s fiftieth and Sandberg’s first coming within a few weeks of each other has generated a lot of discussion of what feminism was, is, and should be. Friedan’s flaws might now be forgiven since hers was a historic moment but Sandberg is getting a lot of push back as an out of touch self-promoter. It may well be that her advice is more pragmatic than idealist and might only work for women who are also CEOs, but it’s worth noticing that she’s using her position to point out that there’s still some glass at the ceiling. Some of the criticisms of Sandberg echo those that the HBO show Girls has gotten for being about affluent, well-educated white young women. In a New Yorker review of the show, Emily Nussbaum questions this fretting over privilege and concludes that, “when there’s a tiny aperture for women’s stories. . . when almost no women are Hollywood directors, when few women write TV shows, of course it’s the privileged ones who get traction.” And even being Hollywood insiders doesn’t spare them the industry’s mockery–just ask Seth MacFarlane.

Which brings us back to The Social Network. Although more fiction than fact, it offered a nice little origin myth about the company’s founder as a smarty pants jerk who couldn’t figure out how to get people, especially girls, to like him. So he creates Facebook as a means of revenge against all the slights and snubs of the Harvard hotties and their frat boy hookups by offering an anonymous means of rating them hot, or not. It succeeds wildly and soon the character-based-on-Zuckerberg and his good friend Eduardo (before he’s viciously unfriended) are getting it on with two Asian American fangirls in a bar bathroom. The kindlier Eduardo manages to convert one of these women into a girlfriend. She later turns out to be a psycho Tiger Mom who hasn’t had kids yet, but that’s another story. (Note from Hollywood to model minorities: no matter how model, we’ll find a way to put you in your place.) Facebook’s founder remains sadly alone through the end of the movie when he gets some tough love advice from an über-competent female lawyer. This character seems like a proto-Sandberg. And so the movie begins with the practical, but common, woman who dumps him and ends with the practical and super-successful woman in a man’s world who just deals with it. In between, it’s pretty much girls, girls, girls even if they are all students at the nation’s most elite universities. These two scenes don’t quite save the movie from perpetuating stereotypes of women as bimbos just as Sandberg’s book fails to speak to the problems that women from outside the Ivy League are likely to face. But if the book puts another crack in the glass, well, that would be something.

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