Gilded, not gold

Media critics’ use of the “golden age” moniker is shortsighted and diminishes important work that is being done today.

by Matthew Hoy

While navigating my way through the early years in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the abundance of references to various media “golden ages” has made me quite uncomfortable.

The phrase itself is necessarily nostalgic; those who use it cheapen artwork that is made outside of that age. Ultimately, the golden ages that critics and academics so often reference are just the periods of time when those media were produced without the cluttered voices of minorities or women by rich white men.

Nostalgia fuels some of the most pervasive narratives in the media today and is the calling card of an entire political hemisphere’s message. Politicians and pundits on the right often describe an earlier, better time, unsullied by modern social problems.

For example, the recent firing of Mike Rice for his use of various homophobic pejoratives and physical violence toward his players ought to have been easily labeled the correct firing of a guy unfit to lead young people. But, as Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show, those at Fox News saw his firing as a symptom of the “wussification of America.”

This reference to a better, simpler time was the only apparent foundation for Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid, and it serves a similarly stunted purpose when used as media criticism.

Calling any period a golden age is less an attempt to elevate a single body of work and more an attempt to discredit all others. This is an important distinction because it highlights the tendency of most critics to favor work that was formative in their experiences. It is no coincidence that every golden age occurred before the majority of people reading this column were born.

I fall into this trap as well. I listen exclusively to oldies radio stations, desperately shielding my ears from the Top 40. I take Freddie Mercury over Bruno Mars every time.

“Rear Window” is a spectacular film, one that effortlessly set the benchmark for thrillers, but its release date does not make it a better film than “The Silence of the Lambs.”

That is the goal, though, of establishing a golden age — to make certain that all who know of it believe everything else is lesser. Bach might have had something to say about that — or Paul Thomas Anderson or Tina Fey, who provides a marked example, because the defining characteristic of these golden ages was not quality of content or even economic dominance. It was that creative control was exclusive to white men, while women and minorities were cogs in the machine.

Television gives perhaps the best example of how the golden age moniker fails so thoroughly. The golden age sitcoms remembered best are “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” The former was a show about a housewife’s follies when she left the household, and the latter about a marriage in which the husband repeatedly threatened his wife with domestic violence, to the laughter of millions.

Compare them to shows like “30 Rock” or “Parks and Recreation” and it quickly becomes apparent that culturally diverse representation has improved dramatically since the supposed golden age of television and that those who support golden ages effectively advocate art created by institutionalized oppression.