Were the ’60s Really as Cool as They Look from Here?

Goodness, the ’60s are looking awfully alluring these days. The TV world has fallen hard for them, thanks to Mad Men: And while neither of that show’s biggest new imitators, Pan-Am and the now-cancelled Playboy Club, come close in quality drama, Pan-Am is still a technicolor world of fun and intrigue. Meanwhile, Anna David’s delightfully breezy new memoir, Falling for Me, chronicles her efforts to get out of the singleton doldrums by following the advice of the ’60s blockbuster advice book Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown. David was so enamored of Gurley Brown’s throwback advice that she ignited a little blog controversy by positing that “women had it better in the ’60s” in on online post.

While I’m not about to rehash that — she explained herself quite nicely in our very pages — I’m here to tell you she’s not the only one who’s mused of late that the ’60s look sort-of fun from here. In fact, when I interviewed Pan-Am‘s Christina Ricci not that long ago for Details.com, I asked her if any part of her wishes she’d been around to soak up the glamor of the decade that her show portrays. She, wisely, said, “I think any era can look like fun in retrospect.”

She’s right — I doubt anyone of any particular era stops to think, for instance, “Wow, it’s so awesome that we’re living in the ’90s and get to be grungy and get stupid Friends haircuts.” You just live your life in whatever time period you’re plopped down in. And yet certain past decades eventually ripen and become trendy fixations in future decades — we had our ’80s obsession not too long ago, with the return of leggings, and we’ve got a bit of a ’90s thing happening now, too. But what could our ’60s nostalgia mean to us today? Particularly among women, who, well, should probably be the last people pining for a time before Roe v. Wade and Ms. magazine?

Mad Men has done a beautiful job of reminding us how hard women had to work to get ahead in those days, and yet we all idolize Joan and Peggy. Why? Because they work so hard. Because we want to have as much guts as they do, while enjoying being far curvier than we’re supposed to be these days. It’s not so much that we wish we were those exact women as much as we hope we’d be half the women they are in the same circumstances.

In the case of Pan-Am, we have a lot more glitz and not as much angst, though the show still nods at the rampant sexism of the age with constantly leering and groping male passengers harassing the stewardesses. Here, we see women in a still-constrained world, wriggling out from under the strict boundaries as best they can — and metaphorically, too, by tending to international flights. They run away from weddings and become spies; they flirt with pilots and party in foreign countries. It all looks extra-fun to us now because they’re fighting for us, for future women. If they’re doing it pretty darn glamorously, too, so be it.

Glamor, of course, is at the heart of all of these situations. Many women experience a primal draw to these stories — and to Gurley Brown’s tome — because of the “feminine” pleasures at their cores. It is, decade-specificness aside, the same reason so many of us responded to Sex and the City. The message here: You can be independent and beautiful. Glopping on face cream and reveling in makeup doesn’t make you any less of a woman. Somehow, the ’60s can now play as a perfect nexus in women’s history when women were celebrating their womanhood and coming into their own as a force for change. They were making the personal political, and if they wanted to do it in body-hugging dresses and false eyelashes, so be it.

Of course, it wasn’t really like that. It was a time when a woman in any position of power seemed laughable, when women could be groped or ogled or worse without repercussions, when women were treated as mere baby machines and maids. Abortion wasn’t legal, and birth control wasn’t, either, in some states.

And still, like David, Gurley Brown, and the ladies of Pan-Am, I can’t help wanting to tap into a little of the feminist-upswing feeling behind our lingering idea of the ’60s. It was a time to celebrate and fight for women’s independence, their right to be single and free and equal. We can make that the legacy of the Joans and Peggys of the past — as long as we don’t forget how hard it was in real life for them to make the world better for us.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded SexyFeminist.com, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong

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