Dialogue: Culture, media, and the generations

My former student and current friend, D., emailed recently with a thought about his reaction to watching the TV show The Goldbergs. It got us started on a discussion of how we perceive our culture and the differences between culture over the recent generations, and how we draw our ideas about these things from our media.

D.:

The Goldbergs is a reminiscence of the creator’s family when he was growing up during the 1980s.  It’s somewhat comedic; I’m not sure I care for all of the actors, but it is what it is.  I was, of course, disappointed with it overall. Why was I disappointed in it?  Because it didn’t feel as close to The Wonder Years as I wanted it to be.

Then I started thinking of the absurdity of this thought.   Its basic premise is that a show that is reminiscent of an earlier time, should be close to the reminiscence I have, which is later than the time depicted in the first show of a show that was reminiscent of an even earlier time than that depicted in the first show.  How dare someone mess with my reminiscence of someone else’s reminiscence of a time I didn’t live in!

I should mention that I didn’t really live in either time period that the shows depict — while I was alive in the 1980s, I don’t have any particular memories of the 1980s that would make me particularly nostalgic for that period.  But I suppose it’s all nostalgia that I wanted it to feel like The Wonder Years — which I do recall, if not for having re-watched it as an adult.

My EMailed response:

I’ve only watched a few minutes of Goldbergs, and my reaction was that it was almost as dumb as an ’80s sitcom (say, Who’s the Boss or Perfect Strangers), as if it were borrowing plots and/or scripts from those dumb shows. It didn’t seem to match the tone of Wonder Years, which I remember as being a little wistful, fairly intelligent, and serious, in tone.

That said, I was 14 when Wonder Years started [in 1988], so I remember watching it and it being about people who were almost my age, but 20 years earlier, so it was kinda nice. I don’t know how I’d feel watching it now — probably the way I feel about watching Girls, which is that it’s hard for me to take the characters seriously. I mean, I remember the angst I felt in my mid-20s, about career and life-purpose and ambition and what-not (and you as a student in my physics class witnessed some of what teaching came out of that angst). But now that I’m almost 40, the wisdom (of knowing more of who I am and what I really want and need out of life) of my current age more than makes up for the fact that I didn’t become whom I, in my 20s, thought I might become.

Sorry, that’s not what you were asking, but that came up.

So, I was watching Wonder Years when it was new, and it was about a time before I was born, so I had 2 perspectives on it. You were watching it in reruns, and so you had at least 3 perspectives on it — as a show about 1968, as a show made for 1988, and as a rerun (in whatever year you saw it). So I’m not sure quite what you were saying here — when you were watching Wonder Years in rerun, did you have nostalgia for 1968, 1988, or both? So I’m wondering if you’re comparing Goldbergs to how you remember the 1980s feeling to you, or if you’re comparing it to how you felt about Wonder Years, either 1968 or 1988?

P.S. I described this to my wife, and she had the thought that Wonder Years filled a role for people our age in that it kinda explained our parents’ generation’s culture to us, and this was a culture we still lived immersed in in the 1980s (with oldies radio, M.A.S.H. reruns, and just the media/cultural hangover of the 1960s hippies and 1970s Vietnam/Nixon ideas). I know that you’ve said you got a dose of 1950s culture from your parents, and I’d be interested in hearing what you think was the cultural milieu for people your age [D. graduated high school in 2003]– but my suspicion is that you did not get a constant dose of the ’80s the way we got of the 1960s/’70s — partly for the fact that the so-called Baby Boom demographic was so large that, other than the cultural blip that was grunge music, nothing from my teens/twenties has had much influence on people your age and younger. Maybe I’m wrong — I’d be interested to hear your perspective.

D. Responded:

I think you actually did understand what I was saying.  I was pointing out my own absurdity – the absurdity that I am mad about a show in 2013 that depicts the 1980s, because it doesn’t remind me enough of a show from the late ’80s / early ’90s that depicted the late ’60s / early ’70s.  And that in neither case could my reminiscing go far enough back to the period depicted in the show.  Therefore, I am nostalgic for someone else’s nostalgia, and angry that a third person’s nostalgia is not the same as the original nostalgia that I liked.

That said (and poorly clarified), you raise a really interesting point about generational cultures.

When I think of my sister J.’s kids, I think they are growing up in a relatively modern family.  J. began having children at the age of 25 (which right now seems really really young to me – though she is a natural mother).  So her kids have parents whose cultural influences are relatively contemporary.  Sure, my sister J. has a strong like for ’80s power ballads, but her actual cultural heritage is more akin to the mid-’90s (she was in high school ’93-97).  And she and her husband are relatively young compared to the other kids’ parents that her kids go to school with.

When I think of my sister L.’s kids, I think the opposite is true.  L. started having kids at 31, but her husband was 44.  L. grew up in the 1980s (high school ’84-88) and [her husband] S. grew up in the ’70s (high school ’71-75).  L. and S.’s cultural influences are from a much farther back time than J. and [her husband]. I think neither set of cultures has a real strong hold over on the kids, though.

I’ve always wondered about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s that has made it so pervasive in the minds of future generations.  Surely, they were going about their lives as you and I go about our lives.  But it seems like there is a holdover from the 1960s and 1970s that differs from other ages.  The only other time periods I sense had the same holdover effect in my time were the Great Depression and World War II eras. I seem to recall my grandfather’s cheapskate ways being explained as something he learned from the Great Depression (although he played the stock market rather than the mattress market).  I’m also not sure that’s not a bit of historical revisionism — his father owned the first gas station in McHenry County during the Great Depression, sold it twice to move to Hollywood so his wife could be an actress, and came back and re-purchased it each time.  I find it hard to believe the Great Depression was all that Great for him, but I could be wrong.

Maybe it’s because the current cultural landscape seems so much more diffuse right now than it would have in the ’60s and ’70s?  For example, I would bet it’s difficult to corner five random kids in the high school and have their favorite band be even within the same genre of music, let alone the same band or musician.  Back in the ’60s and ’70s, culture was more unified — not completely unified, but more singular.  Or maybe it wasn’t as unified, but certain movements of the population were more unified.  Fads may have, surprisingly, had more power than they do now.  For some reason, I’m coming up with haircuts as fads, but also maybe shoes?  I’m basing some of this on what I’ve heard older people tell me about the ’60s and ’70s.  How everyone had to have this type of hair cut, or that type of shoe.  Obviously, fads still work their magic today, but maybe not to the same degree?

I’ve always thought the unifying act of a generation was its war, whether it’s a military war or a civil war or a philosophical war. But even my generation’s war (or wars?) seems diffuse compared to Vietnam or World War II or Korea.  Even the Cold War seems more concrete than either the “War on Terrorism” or the Afghanistan / Iraq Wars. Perhaps we’re gearing up for a philosophical war about government, but even that doesn’t seem very likely or unifying.

A thought just occurred to me that my generation’s parents were probably more diverse than previous generations.  My dad was older than the Baby Boom generation, and my mother was squarely in the middle of the Baby Boomers.  But it’s not uncommon for my friends to have parents that are 10 years younger than my mom, and in some rare cases older than my dad.  That reduces any unifying element to a certain degree.

I guess, to answer your question, I don’t know the cultural milieu of my generation, other than it feels like it’s more diffuse and less unified than other generation’s seemed to be.  Of course, other generations may only seem unified in retrospect, too. Best answer: I don’t know.

Me again:

I appreciate your response here — and I agree with your closing thought, that pretty much any discussion of culture and generation and cultural generations is gonna be vague and subjective and whatnot.

But I do share your view about the ’60s and ’70s being a more singular/monolithic cultural time — in fact, I remember even the ’80s and early ’90s as being a time when there was more shared media experience, at least. There were so few TV channels, and without the Internet, radio, newspapers, and magazines were much more influential, more culturally central, than now. I also remember that, without having the Internet to allow comments and viral-fads, it was never clear back then when others liked a TV show or movie, or thought it was important, except when we talked to each other in person and asked “did you see Cheers last night?” This also meant that writers never got much feedback on their work, and a lot of stories just seemed to be published and forgotten about, as if sent into the aether. There would be a few times when some talk-show person or morning personality would praise or discuss some show or magazine article — this is back when maybe pundits/columnists were far more influential than they are today — or let’s not say “influential,” but authoritative — when David Broder or someone wrote a column in the ’80s or ’90s, there weren’t dozens/hundreds of comments saying how the column was misguided or even just wrong. I’m sure some of today’s older pundits still have this authority in mind when they speak, and they don’t want to admit that they don’t have it now.

So there was perhaps more “steering” of cultural tastes back then, in the days before Springer and cable news and reality TV — but I wonder if there always existed a market for dumb TV (TV for Dummies?) but which market wasn’t being served until there were niche outlets?

So, sure, I believe that the ’60s and ’70s were more culturally remembered because they happened during more media-monolithic times, but I also think of the ’60s-’70s culture as a reaction to and refutation of the narrowed culture of the ’50s, which was probably a reaction, a desire to return to normalcy, after the Depression and the WW2, and these two events/cultural moments were also significant, and I think we remember them as significant partly because of the mass-media that grew up in the ’20s and 30s, with radio.

Short story long, I suspect that how we think of the past decades and generations may be linked to the fact that there were mass media making us aware of both national stories and national culture (I’m thinking of, for example, how people reacted to hearing Kennedy was shot, or seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, both experiences nearly simultaneous for everyone in the nation — and now we only have that for big news events like the Boston bombing (and every modest-size event that gets magnified by cable news) and the Super Bowl.  I think the largest TV audience in history to this day is final M.A.S.H. episode in 1983. Not that people didn’t talk about culture and generations before 1920, but I suspect this framework was not as common as other frameworks for viewing society — say, immigrants vs. citizens, North vs. South (and other regionalisms), social class, etc. I often wonder what uneducated people did in their evenings before TV. My dad, whose farm family didn’t have TV until he was in 8th grade, said he recalls neighbors coming over for visits. My dad’s brother also has told me stories about people going on weeks-long drinking benders that makes me wonder if people drank more instead of watching TV.

I suspect you’re right about fads being more popular (and maybe being longer lasting than our current fads, such as they are) in past decades, and that the wars that were held were more influential as well — maybe because there were drafts back then, so more people were involved. An all-volunteer army isn’t going to make people get as upset or involved as a draft-army would.

It’s interesting to read you describe your own cultural experience as diffuse — that doesn’t surprise me. I feel like my generation’s experience was concentrated, but then almost immediately forgotten, which I partly blame on numbers: there was an increase in live births after WW2 — the baby boom — but the birth numbers dropped off and hit a low around my birth in mid-’70s, and then the numbers went back up as the baby boomers had kids — what I’ve heard called the Baby Boom Echo. [I actually heard or read a Realtor blame the housing crash of 2007 on this: that the average age of first-time homebuyers was 33, and it was my small birthyear that turned 33 in 2007. Of course, this was not likely the major factor…]

D.’s Response:

To be honest, I had never thought of the idea of a Baby Boom Echo, but it makes sense that the numbers ended up that way.  The idea of it affecting the 2007 crash is probably far fetched, but it probably didn’t help anything.  As a side note, I looked up some statistics on the Iraq / Afghan War and the Vietnam War. During Vietnam, roughly 1.8% of the population served in the armed forces, 0.03% of the population was killed as a result of the war, and 0.08% were wounded.  Compare to Iraq / Afghan War when 0.473% of the population served in the armed forces, 0.0024% were killed, and 0.017% were wounded.  There were much higher numbers of people affected during Vietnam, but it still seems smaller than I would have guessed. [I’m not sure the source of the above numbers. For details about military service, see here and here.]

Your point about what people did before television is an interesting one.  The perspective of your father and uncle is interesting.  I wonder if it would be different for a towns-dweller.  In my head, and purely residing there without any factual basis to back it up, people got together more often at social events.  You had community dances, not for highschoolers, but for the entire town.  People had each other over for dinner (rather than eating out).  People had each other over for tea.  But in my head, people also didn’t work as hard.  And of course, this is made up out of a bourgeois sensibility.  Industrialization and immigrant-laden poverty pockets created their own micro-cultures.  But even my dad recalled a time when immigrant ethnic groups didn’t intermingle in Chicago.  He, for example, lived in a non-Irish neighborhood (despite being very Irish) and generally associated with other ethnic Irish folk.  He also went to Irish school as a child. But he also knew which parishes (and that’s how they said where they lived – he lived in St. Gert’s, his brother now lives in St. Tar’s, etc.) were Irish, German, Polish, Russian, etc. So I guess working class folk of his childhood would have felt both more and less diffuse.  More diffuse in the sense that many clear cultural groupings existed.  Less diffuse in that you stuck to your own.

If I think about my own childhood, there was never any suggestion that I should “stick to my own” people.  Of course, growing up in Rochelle, there was really only one subset of people — white, lower-middle-class folk.  But even religion wasn’t pressed as a dividing point.  It would be interesting to see what the children of St. Pat’s right now are like in a few years.  When Father L.  was here, he was a big proponent that Catholics should only engage socially with other Catholics.  With the rise of home-schooling among the local Catholic population, and probably quite a few of those parents believing [Father L.’s] advice is good, it will be interesting to see if they have a better sense of cultural settling than I do.

I think its more than the lack of concentrated media guidance that has lead to the diffuse-nature of contemporary culture.  Certainly access to different cultural viewpoints makes the process easier. I think its more an effort to combat ethnocentrism, either purposefully or incidentally.  For example, my father went to Irish school on Saturdays, like I said earlier.  There are still Irish schools on Saturdays in Chicago (and other metropolises).  I assume my father didn’t send his kids to Irish school because of the lack of availability and/or the cost.  But it could have just as easily been that he didn’t find it valuable when he went as a kid.  I know people my age who were made to go to Irish schools when they were kids and found it very beneficial.

I wonder, too, if similarly aged individuals in other countries have this problem.  For example, it seems like the British are somewhat more culturally settled than the Americans.  But again, I don’t have anything to back that up.  It just seems that way.  British culture seems like an entity; American culture does not.

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