US pop culture, 1990–2020, a theory

The retro-postmodern 1990s

In David Lynch’s early 1990s series Twin Peaks, we find ourselves in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a world of leather clad teen bikers, of sentimental parents, a world far from cell phones and Pizza Hut and Nintendo and Yuppies. We also find ourselves in a world of child abuse and drug smuggling and sleazy strip clubs, all accompanied by an other worldly jazz soundtrack.

A Clue: Postmodernism

Postmodernism is of course a very contentious term, with as many meanings as theorists (I describe some of the meanings here). It’s worth noting that each of the above creators/artworks are not ill-described as postmodernist (Lynch is a marginal case). And one theorist of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, proposes a helpful gloss of the notion that, I think, sheds light on their work.

Much 1990s art looks back to a mythical 50s (public domain image, info here)

The 1970s

Let me say in a sentence my theory, before presenting some data to back it up. In the 1970s, the position of women advanced while most of the rest of the world went to shit. Women began to get freedom at work and in their private lives, while the economy started going downhill and political institutions became objects of suspicion. By contrast, in the 50s/60s, the economy was doing well while women were comparatively disadvantaged.

Back to retro-postmodernism, and forward to today

Now my theory is easy to state. The reason the creators of the 90s are ‘unable to focus on the present’, in Jameson’s words, is because the (then) present wasn’t comfortable to them. As children or young adults of the 70s, Groening, Tarantino, and Lynch grew up in a world that was changing rapidly and seemingly for the worse for them, and so in their art they sought to retreat to an earlier era when the economy was okay and women’s role was traditional. The postmodernism of the best 90s art is the reflex of (to repeat, perhaps unconscious) sexism. That’s my first theory.



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