Remember the months leading up to this year, where everyone was ready to pull out all the stops to ensure our generation gets to live through our own Roaring ’20s with endless parties and extravagance? And how quickly that went south when the year began? 

Oh, the ’20s. There’s no period in history that has been so loved by writers, filmmakers, musicians, and, of course, audiences. A century later, we still fawn over for in the glitz and glamor.

I cannot pass a thrift store or vintage outlet without looking at the cloche hats and beaded gloves without wondering what it would be like to live as a flapper girl, a whole new world ahead of her. It has long been an idealized aesthetic for me. Maybe that’s because the romantic image of a pining Gatsby is at the forefront of our memory of the ’20s.

Advertisement

 

The fact that the latest Great Gatsby adaptation, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, has consistently been available on Netflix since 2014 is a sure sign that everyone is feeling nostalgic for that long-gone period. What better time than now, then, as we live through our own ’20s of the 2000s, to pick apart the way this period has been glamorized in pop culture and entertainment. Despite having tragically dark elements that lurk in its corners.

There are countless movies and TV shows set in this era, as well as themed costume parties, but can we ever excuse this period of history? Racial oppression, the mistreatment of women, there is so much that happens behind the glamour. For that reason, I can’t bear to entertain anything that doesn’t at least hint at the dark parts of this sought-after aesthetic.

Of course, at the center of it all is The Great Gatsby with its flapper girls, pearls, and swinging jazz music. Who doesn’t dream of dancing the night away at one of Gatsby’s extravagant parties or being yearned for by the man himself? This story has long been my guilty pleasure.

The reason behind my guilt is that it completely overlooks any of the questionable and outright terrible parts of that society. Other than the class divisions that spurred the tragic love story, the story neglects entire populations of people. There’s a cleverly titled review of the book, “I Love The Great Gatsby, Even if it Doesn’t Love Me Back”, in which a self-proclaimed “small town, Black girl” tries to see herself in the story she loves but feels so alienated.

None of the named characters in any of the adaptations are people of color. It is almost like people of color would be anachronistic to the time setting, which is unfortunately what most producers for period pieces seem to believe. Blackness has no presence in this time period, they seem to say. The Gatsby story acts like race doesn’t exist, despite the rising xenophobic sentiment among the American public during the particular time period following the First World War.

[Image Description: An African American flapper girl sits on a chair, wearing a fur hat, coat with feathery trim and extravagant dress.] Via See Jane Sparkle
[Image Description: An African American flapper girl sits on a chair, wearing a fur hat, coat with feathery trim and extravagant dress.] Via See Jane Sparkle

And why should the story acknowledge any of that? It doesn’t seem to interfere at all in the lives of the white central characters. Even though they enjoy the jazz and Charleston dance, they’ve disentangled those things from their roots in the Black community.

Wrapping the story in a Jay-Z soundtrack doesn’t negate the fact that it is devoid of any African American representation. As for its treatment of women, the Roaring ’20s was a time of increased sexual liberation for women. There was a gradual public acknowledgment (not exactly acceptance) that sexual desire was not only limited to men, that women possessed strong sexualities.

In the growing urban environments, men and women mingled much more freely with less supervision. Automobiles were becoming a staple to American society, serving as a private place for young couples. “Brothels on wheels”, a court judge called them – not as a humorous quip but a condemnation. Because, at the end of the day, women were still conditioned to accept that fulfillment came from adeptly performing their duties as a housewife. 

It’s too easy of an excuse to say that “the times were different” during the ’20s. As if it was only recently that we gained awareness of intolerance and how to present it on screen. If F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t see the importance of including the surrounding society in his story, maybe his work can be written off as a product of its time.

[Image Description: A vintage portrait of two women smiling at the camera, dressed in flapper style.] Via See Jane Sparkle
[Image Description: A vintage portrait of two women smiling at the camera, dressed in flapper style.] Via See Jane Sparkle

But how did the 2013 adaptation miss that whole part of history? Is historical accuracy second to aesthetic? Or even worse, the classic argument of supposed historical accuracy, the claim that ‘those groups didn’t exist within those circles’, that it would be “untruthful” to try to weave in diverse characters to historical time periods. 

That’s laughable, of course. But many are still surprised when they see the – frankly, stunning – photographs of African American or Mexican American flapper girls. Pop culture’s adoration for this story and this period is concerning because it has been flagrantly whitewashing history

Representing an era like the ’20s just for the aesthetic is just lazy. On top of that, it is a form of historical erasure. Telling a story is a responsibility. For many people, watching The Great Gatsby will be their only exposure to the 1920’s time period. They’ll hear the jazz and see the beautiful men and women in all their extravagance and pine for the time period, wishing they were part of it. But the reality is far from the truth.

[Image description: Black flappers enjoying a football game at Howard University, 1920.] via Pinterest
[Image description: Black flappers enjoying a football game at Howard University, 1920.] via Pinterest

It’s like a century from now, someone told the story of our Roaring ’20s, focusing on nothing but two (white, privileged) lovers split apart by the pandemic. No mention of the Black Lives Matter movement, the reformations, or any other international affair.

Doesn’t that feel so thoroughly disappointing? 

You would think, surely there has to be a more complex way to memorialize this time by…

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

https://thetempest.co/?p=148142
Amal Als

By Amal Als

Editorial Fellow