History Pop Culture

I adore ’20s aesthetic, but its depiction in pop culture is deeply troubling

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.



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…

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History Poetry Forgotten History Lost in History

You probably don’t know about Hettie Jones, a crusading Beat poet

You’ve heard of a Jack Kerouac, but have you ever heard of a Hettie Jones?

The Beat Literary Movement of the 1950s is coined for its explicit subject matter and bohemian lifestyle. Americans in the 1950’s lived in largely suburban towns and felt threatened by things like communism. Men went to work in suits and women stayed home to cook, clean, and tend to the children.

The rebel, beatnik, group of authors that made up the Beat Generation were iconoclastic. Much of their work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. They experimented with form and structure while writing about sex, drugs, and religion. Traditional literary houses rejected them and looked down on them as a group as being defiant, untalented, and unprofessional. 

I think that their being unconventional was the whole point, though.

They were the antithesis of mainstream American life.

They wanted to publish anything that was deemed inappropriate by society. These people were tired of the routine, and frankly, felt beaten down by the conservative lifestyle that they were stuck in. They were highly controversial in that they were the antithesis of mainstream American life and writing. Many of their works of poetry and prose focused on shifts of consciousness and escaping “squareness.” The stereotype around the Beats is that they were not in favor of what they considered to be straight jobs. Instead, they lived together, packed into small and dirty apartments, sold drugs, had sex with each other, and committed crimes. They are also known for exploring homosexuality, which was a highly taboo topic in 1950’s America.

Though they set many precedents together, the Beats still succumbed to the blatant sexism of the time. Most, if not all, of the women involved in the Beat literary movement were overshadowed by their male counterparts for no particular reason other than gender. These women were just as intelligent and qualified to question society as the beatnik men who have become well-known poets and activists.

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One of the most iconic, and downplayed, female poets of that time who deserves righted acknowledgment is Hettie Jones. 

Hettie Jones published 23 books- and yet, we forgot her

Hettie Jones is most known for her marriage to the famous Beat Poet Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Few people know that Hettie helped run Totem Press, one of the more important beat publishers, along with her husband. She went on to publish about 23 books, one being a memoir of her time spent with Amiri and the rest of the Beats titled, How I Became Hettie Jones (1990). She has also written for many prestigious journals, lectured writing across America, and began the literary magazine “Yugen.”

Hettie is one of my favorite poets, so I think that her writing deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement, right there with the boys who got so much praise for their work. 

Hettie’s writing is rooted in practical idealism. She left her family home in Long Island to go to college and to fully discover herself. When she graduated in 1955, she never turned back, and moved to New York City. She met Amiri while working at The Record Changer, a jazz magazine. He was a young, black poet with just as much intelligence and intensity as Hettie. They quickly fell in love and moved in together. They would go to poetry readings at cafes and bohemian bars, where they met many of the other Beat poets.

Hettie deserved to be at the forefront of the Beat movement.

When the pair founded their own magazine, they published the writings of many of the iconic beat players who could not find a home for their writing in the traditional sphere. Hettie was in charge of editing the works that were to be published in the magazine. It was here that she honed her craft and found power in the refined writing that makes her work stand out from the rest. 

By 1960, Hettie and Amiri had two children, were married, and lived in New York City. Being a biracial family, though, countless bigoted remarks were directed towards them regardless of the Beat scene. Hettie was on the receiving end of most of these cold stares and was able to see the world through the eyes of her husband and children. This affected her incredibly and eventually became a recurring theme in her writing.  

When Amiri became tightly involved with the Black Power movement, he was criticized for having a white wife. They divorced in 1968. Hettie thrived on her own though and made a living with her children while teaching and editing. Her separation from her husband also gave Hettie an outlet to speak up and finally publish works of her own. She has been quoted to say, “Without a him in the house, there was more space/time for her, and I tried to redefine the way a woman might use it.” 

To this day, Hettie’s writing is compassionate. She writes about her own experiences in a compelling manner while weaving in the issues that she cares about. Currently, Hettie lives in New York City, and is a writer and lecturer. In addition, she runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women where she recently published a volume of writing by incarcerated women.

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Bohemian grunge: an encounter with my past self


People. It has happened. While at work the other day, I came upon a bookshelf cluttered with textbooks, interesting relics, and a VHS tape with a label of my name written in black Sharpie letters: JASMINE. My hands were trembling and my throat was itchy as I reached for the tape. This was it. I finally found the tape my future self sends to my present self to warn me that I absolutely must not, under any circumstances, go to that cheese festival next week.

After I watched the tape, I was so grateful for the knowledge that future me imparted on present me that I hoped to return the favor. I traveled back in time to one of my most vulnerable years, my junior year of high school, a time when I was desperately praying for things I didn’t know I would ever acquire. Here’s how it went down:

*I magically poof into the room to find Past Jasmine (PJ) doing math problems with dry erase markers on the closet doors that are also full sized mirrors. Dashboard Confessional serves as background study music*

Me (trying to sound unphased from the surely terrifying phenomenon that time traveling is): Why, hello, Jasmine.

PJ: It’s about time! What took you so damn long?

Me (suddenly realizing that Millennial entitlement was a real thing all along): Okay, um, well, I guess I’m just here to give you advice and knowledge and stuff but seems like you’re busy so I’ll just–

PJ: Where do we go to college? We do go to college, right?

Me: Yes. We go to UCI..Damn! Forget I said that. I’m not supposed to reveal anything concrete.

PJ: We didn’t get into UCLA?

Me: No. You go to UCI as an English major, not a bio major. Honestly, you should just apply to liberal arts schools on the East Coast, the professor to student ratio is–nevermind. Forget I said anything.

PJ: What? What’s a liberal?

Me: Listen, just go to UCI, okay? You’ll really love it. You meet your closest friends there, come to understand and embrace your intersectional identity, and meet your husband there.

PJ:…what’s his name?

Me: I can’t tell you that. It all has to happen organically. Don’t go looking for him either. So help me God if I go back to 2015 and I’m not married to him because some of your meddling with matters already settled I will come back here and make sure neither of us make it back to 2015.

PJ: OK. but…just tell me….does he wear a messenger bag? And flannel shirts? And ooh did we meet him at a poetry slam where he doesn’t actually write the poetry but he just leans against the back wall and appreciates the mood?

Me: No. Absolutely not. Stay away from those boys. Stay far, far away from them.

PJ: So, you don’t have red dreads.

Me: What??

PJ: Where are your red dreads?? And the piercings?? And do you even drink herbal tea? Don’t you remember? All I wanted to do in my early 20s was exude bohemian grunge.

Me: If you want dreads you do that now because I don’t have time for that. As for piercings, you did have a few but they closed and now I’m too lazy to get them redone. Also, we are a bit grungy but that’s just because of what was on sale at H&M.

PJ: Do we at least live in San Francisco?

Me: No…but you live in Burlington, Vermont and the hipster scene is pretty rambunctious there, too.

PJ:  What the hell’s a hipster?

Me: You’ll come to know soon enough child, in fact you probably only have one more year of blissful ignorance left.

PJ: And what do we do exactly?

Me: Um, I’m working on it.

*The Dashboard album has ended. PJ restarts it and continues practicing math problems on the mirror*

Me: Past Jasmine, we still listen to Dashboard from time to time. And…Candace is still our best friend…And we’re going to be okay.

PJ: Thanks, Future Jasmine. I believe you.