Did the 60s Ever End?
True confession: I was not alive in the 60s. I know! But I know and love several people who were. And I’m pretty sure they would say that the 60s ended.
They would also probably agree that our culture’s fixation on that era is a product of both boomer narcissism (oy!) and a kind of national Freudian compulsive returning to the point of trauma. Reliving that time in order to understand it, to make peace with it, to stop it from hurting us. Culturally. What?
Except the 60s were ultimately good. They gave us the Civil Rights Movement, which in turn gave use the feminist and gay rights movements. And I am grateful for color-blocking, which I was doing before I knew it was a thing.
So here is an Official Blog Announcement: I am more obsessed with the 60s every year. This blog will feed my obsession. I have many exciting 60s-themed posts planned. None of them will have any paisley. At all. No paisley.
Today’s installment is about this stunning piece on movie interpretations of Helen Gurley Brown’s ambiguously proto-feminist hit Sex and the Single Girl.
I was only absentmindedly reading the article until Richard Brody started swinging mad sentences around.
Today, we live in an age dominated by the cosmetic, the plastic, and the depilatory. The cult of nature has moved to the culinary realm, whereas personal style seems to have borrowed from C.G.I. to turn the body into an infinitely malleable realm of intrinsic artifice.
Pardon my language, but there’s no other way to say it: shit like that makes a sleepy Thinker for Hire wake up.
Brody turns this subject matter—modern remakes of 60s sexcapade stories—into a lovely meditation on the role of the body in national morality since the 60s.
He’s got a familiar tight-loose thing going: the tightness of the 50s (gender roles, foundation garments, hair styles) giving way to a massive cultural looseness. And we can think of “tight” as “city/civilization,” while “loose” is your heavy off-the-grid, pooping in the woods back-to-nature 60s stereotype thing. The natural reaction in the 60s to what seemed like the moral decay of post-nuclear USA. THIS is what we did with all that science and technology? Better ways of killing people? Gimme some hemp clothes and tofu. I’ll smell you later.
The sixties saw demolition of cultural strictures in favor of works of nature. Social distinctions (such as those based on race, religion, class, and customs) fell to an ideal of intrinsic merit; elaborate mating rituals and the restrictions they entailed collapsed before the collective acknowledgment of desire; the tight restraint of artistic form yielded to a torrent of expressivity; and fashion, with its primping and grooming, was only the most conspicuous of limitations to give way to “Hair”—to a Medusa-like tangle of shagginesses and shamblings.
Like I said, tight/loose, city/nature, man/woman. Sonnet/drug-influenced free verse. These are not original interpretations of that time.
But BAM! Here he comes with a more complex narrative of bodily control in our age of botox and Zumba.
But the tone has shifted yet again. … The age of Aquarius began to take its spiritual and religious (or quasi-religious) elements more seriously, and so the cult of the physical finds its strongest expression in the realm of the unnatural, by way of a metaphysical mortification that invokes both angels and devils and evokes pleasure by way of pain. And the refinements of style, for all their showiness and implicitly sexual flamboyance, are fundamentally matters of discipline, of an asceticism that comes with its own, purifyingly spiritual aesthetic.
Current body practices subjugate “natural” impulses (to eat, to relax, to stop lifting heavy things and running for your life, to let your hair grey) in favor of a human will that, while it wars against us, is also “natural.” And if we learned anything from intellectual life in the 60s, is that we can’t separate the “natural” from the ‘unnatural,” or the city from the wilderness, or the body from the mind.
Ideal bodies are back to being tight, like they were in the 50s, except now they’re tight because of the money and will we expend to constrict them. We cannot just lace ourselves into a girdle anymore.
So how far have we advanced? Really?
Where I see an unchanged injunction to control our bodies, Brody sees a more spiritual/intellectual control that has changed over time. The 60s emphasis on personal freedom and self-fulfillment has lasted, but we no longer believe it will ever happen.
In retrospect, the ideal of the late sixties proved to be a fiction—a validation of nature on the shoulders of technological progress—but it has left the enduring quest for authenticity and self-discovery, even as the essence of the self has shifted, iridescently, tantalizingly, out of reach. We are less duped than ever about the possibility of grasping the truth about ourselves, though we cultivate and employ ever more complex means and methods of self-revelation.
Now, the 60s didn’t invent authenticity and self-discovery. The brainiacs date that back to the early modern invention of the bourgeois individual. Money and technology afforded the merchant/middle classes the time and intellectual wherewithal to start thinking in terms of individual identity. Shakespeare etc.
But in the 60s, a more intensified desire for personal fulfillment was a side effect of all that other freedom-talk. Ending Jim Crow, decolonizing Africa, etc. made other (frankly, more privileged) people seek their own inner freedom.
And we still do.