Why Is Pop Culture So Obsessed with the 1920s?

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A great science fiction author once said that every story of the future is really about the "unthinkable present." The same is true of stories about history. And right now, a lot of our most popular stories are set in the 1920s, from Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire to the forthcoming Baz Luhrmann adaptation of The Great Gatsby. 1920s styling has worked its way into science fiction too, especially in the gleaming world of Andrew Niccol's In Time, Woody Allen's time-travel idyll Midnight in Paris, and the soaring Metropolis-like cities of the Dark Knight series and Cloud Atlas.

You can call it post-steampunk if you want, or retro futurism with a flapper obsession. But there is also something about the 1920s — an era bookended by World War I and the Great Depression — that allows us to explore present-day issues that most people don't want to think about.

Illustration by Laurent Palmier.

The 1920s were a time of social change and wild financial speculation, and the entire world seemed gripped with futurist fever. German auteur Fritz Lang's science fiction epic, Metropolis, was in theaters. Czech writer Karel Čapek invented the word "robot," and group of amateur fiction writers in the U.S. founded influential pulp magazine Weird Tales, which started publishing dark, bizarre stories of undersea aliens by a young man named H.P. Lovecraft. And in New York, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, bringing poetry, fiction and jazz from the African American community into the mainstream. Slavery was becoming something that only your grandparents could remember; women had gotten the vote; and an activist named Margaret Sanger was teaching everybody about birth control so that they could have sex for fun instead of procreation.

In the 1920s, we also witnessed the beginning of youth culture and college hijinks — you could say that young people in this era were the first to experience a stark generation gap with their parents. Kids who had grown up with technologies like telephones, movies, and electric lights were accustomed to a radically different world than people who grew up with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps. And so those kids began to create their own culture, immortalized in a very attenuated form in the 1929 college comedy The Jazz Age. Times were changing so fast that each new generation seemed to grow up on a different planet from their elders.


Charlie Bertsch, who teaches in the Honors College at the University of Arizona, researches 1920s culture. He believes our current struggles with rapid technological change are similar to what people dealt with 90 years ago:

[In the 20s'], even the most open-minded and self-consciously modern individuals often found themselves wishing they could slow down and catch their breath. The new technologies that have so radically configured, through social media, the way we conceive of the most basic human interactions — learning from a teacher, having a friendship, finding a mate — have their equivalents in the "new" media that swept the world in the Jazz Age: cinema, recorded music and radio.

The arc of popular series Downton Abbey captures this generation gap, especially in the most recent season, where the younger characters are dragging their elders into a new world. Yes, it's full of new technological wonders, like cars, but it's also a place where aristocrats are led by bureaucrats and women become journalists. In the background of all this transformation lurks the Irish rebellion, presaging the many colonial uprisings that would erupt throughout the twentieth century. The Irish rebellion is a huge plot point in Boardwalk Empire, too, and underscores the degree to which there may be deeper political connections between the 1920s and the 2010s.

Both periods are marked by intense political crisis. In the 1920s, many people's lives had been destroyed by World War I and the global disruptions of 1919. Then, the decade ended with the Great Depression. The 2000s began with the 9/11 attacks and ended with financial crisis and mortgage meltdown. Now, in the teens, we are living in the aftermath of both events, trying to figure out what just happened. Revisiting the 1920s could be a way of thinking through the upheavals of the last decade. And then, of course, there's the wild popularity of the Hunger Games franchise, which are a callback to the hungry years of the 1930s.


But the violence and excesses of the 1920s seem to speak to us more than the dustbowl gumption of Katniss. Bertsch added :

That decade marked the realization that old ways of life were dying out, even for the rich, and the concomitant fear that this passing of "tradition" would result in a complete social chaos. The backlash against this overwhelming impression that a new era had dawned, from middle-American insularism to the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and the rise of fascism in Europe, reflected a futile desire to turn back the clock.


Indeed, we are seeing a resurgence of far-right, even fascist, politics across Europe, from Hungary to Greece. In the United States, there is a growing support for the Tea Party, whose politics are clearly a reaction against the social changes of the past ten years, from the rise of gay marriage to Americans' growing acceptance of gun control and public health care.


Author Genevieve Valentine, whose forthcoming novel from Atria deals with flapper culture, suggests that we love the 20s because it's such a heady mix of fashion and politics:

I think that the 1920s are coming back strong because it was such a complicated confluence of simmering changes that happened at once, with a lot of really stylish shorthand standing in for the gritty political stuff . . . It's not all glitter – the jazz developed by urban African-American populations was quickly co-opted by those who often wouldn't have dreamed of letting them actually perform it themselves, and miscegenation laws were being passed even as Anna May Wong became a silver-screen siren. But at least in popular culture, there was an overwhelming sense of self-awareness, style, and fast living in the 1920s, which makes it no mystery that we're in love with them again now.

A new British series about the 1920s, Dancing on the Edge, tries to chronicle this clash between African-American jazz culture and the traditional, white-dominated world of London. But we have yet to see a truly riveting recreation of Harlem Renaissance culture from the 20s; nobody is rebooting the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer just yet. Still, the tuxedo stylings and retro glamour of musician Janelle Monae hint at a neo-Harlem Renaissance vibe, which she spikes liberally with science fiction references. Nevertheless, the 1920s retro revival seems focused mostly on stories about an old, white empire that hasn't quite accepted that power is being wrenched out of its hands by a new generation.


When we shiver in anticipation of the next Jazz Age flick, or brace ourselves for another gangster fight in Boardwalk Empire, we also reflect on the glittery weirdness of our own era. It's the Information Age, whose shiny gadgets and memes are as bewildering to previous generations as cars were to people born in the nineteenth century. It's also an era when a great nation, built partly on slavery, has finally elected its first black president. And it's a time of reactionary politics fueled by an angry backlash against too much change, too fast. It's hard to process all this transformational madness. And so we look backward, to the futures we imagined almost a century ago, to figure out where the 'teens will take us.