Escapism is one of the more pleasant traditions that set sail post-World War II: with the Western world finally at rest after many years of bloody conflict, and an entire generation wary of strife and battles, everyone was looking to take an extended vacation. Strictly speaking only from an American perspective, after the war, Americans reaped the rewards of finally being the superpower in the world. With our infrastructure left intact and money shooting out of everyone’s ears, The Greatest Generation (as they would one day be called) decided to let the good times roll. Capitalism was working for The People, and The People used this material wealth to live luxuriously.
At the same time, the rapid advancement of technology (in large part due to the necessities of war) also made everyone’s lives not only easier, but much more enjoyable. There were two cars in every garage, a chicken in every pot, and a television in every living room. What a grand time it was to be alive in America. Well, not if you were a minority (especially not if you were black), and your options were also rather limited if you were a woman (get married and have kids, or…be independent [if you could find the work, which you couldn’t]). And even if you did find independence, you would be regarded in society as an old spinster or that there was something “wrong” with you. Considering that it took until the 2000s for the LGBTQ community to find open acceptance in American society, you were doomed to remain in the closet (and, nightmarishly/most likely, get married and have kids with somebody you had no attraction to). Also, if you were any religion other than Christian (or Jewish, but only if you lived in the right geography), you were viewed with suspicion, if not outright banned from many sectors of society. So maybe it wasn’t a Golden Age for everybody.
But if you were a straight, white man, the world was yours. Every sought-after position in business, government, and industry was held by a white man; every possible relationship (especially romantic) was heavily tipped in your favor; and patriarchal heteronormativity was the only standard available. You would make all the money, all of the decisions, and rest easy knowing that everything would work out exactly as you wanted it to in the end (for everybody else, not so much, but an arrogant confidence in your rightness in all matters was heavily reaffirmed by the world around you). For these members of society, it was a Golden Age, indeed.
Cut to the early 21st century (2016, to be exact): most of that aforementioned Greatest Generation have now passed on, and their children (the Baby Boomers, my parents’ generation) have turned that straight, white, heteronormative patriarchal society and turned it inside-out over the course of 40 years. I don’t mean this to be read as a complaint: all of those people that were repressed, oppressed, persecuted, or otherwise voiceless in 20th century mainstream American society have now been afforded the same rights, abilities, and access to the good life as any straight, white male exclusively had. And this is a great thing! It took nearly half a century, but in 2016, we’re finally an equal opportunity country—or at least as equal as we can be, at this moment.
HOWEVER, being a straight, white male, I can’t say that I’m not a little envious of what my life could have been like in the 20th century as an adult. I came of age in 2000 (which now makes me….look, don’t do the math, OK?), and up to that point lived through the go-go money-mad 1980’s and “like the 1960’s, only with less internal strife and more being afraid of dying from sex” 1990’s. While I also reaped the material rewards as the child of successful Baby Boomer parents during these decades, the sands of society were quickly shifting from the paradigm that automatically placed men like me at the top. While in 2016 it’s still a great benefit to be a straight, white man in America, it isn’t the free-for-all bonanza of opportunity, social status, and advantage over everybody else like it was in the mid-20th century in America.
Again, not complaining. And I’m not delusional: I realize the kind of hierarchy that benefits only one specific group of people means that everybody else gets that privileged group’s boot in their face on that climb to the top. But sometimes, for me, it’s nice to escape into that past, where being a straight, white man was like being given an automatic ticket into heaven–or at least an express pass at Disneyworld.
That’s where escapism comes back into play: the 20th century was a place of obvious material wealth; there was simply so much darn money available that everything was a quality product. Sometimes, in antique stores, I come across little ephemeral junk–like old lunch boxes or mass-produced glasses from McDonald’s–and I marvel at the quality and effort that was put into producing these things. This was never more evident than in the high-quality level of the entertainment that was produced back then, particularly movies. Even stupid garbage looked great (just watch any low-brow comedy movie produced in the 1980’s, for example: even if it was a pointless commercial product, untold tens of millions of dollars would be spent on its production). There was simply enough money, time, and such a strong economy that every avenue for escapist film would be explored. Do you like comedies? Than the film industry would produce a hundred comedies a year. Do you like action? Than pick one out of the dozens that were put out every season. Or maybe drama is more your bag: Some of the finest American films ever made were produced between 1965 and 2000, with money poured into a genre not known for its ability to make that money back. And every week, the multiplex would fill up with more and more films, all created just for you to plunk your five bucks down and escape into any world of your choosing for a few hours. In a strong economy, like the one America enjoyed in the latter half of the 20th century, the general quality of art improves; a rising tide lifts all ships.
But to escape into that specific world I was describing earlier—where the de facto dominant demographic was straight, white men—there’s no better world to escape into than the films of the James Bond franchise. If I could pick one figure that represents what the world could offer a SWM in the 20th century, it would be James Bond. Why? Because those films were the escapist fantasies for the straight, white men of that time period. It was a constructed fantasy where, if you were a SWM, there was literally no obstacle you couldn’t surmount, no problem you couldn’t solve, no restrictions of what you could do, where you could go, or how you could behave. James Bond was a rich, smart, good-looking, important person who would save the world at eight and be enjoying a drink at a baccarat table with a beautiful woman at his side by ten. James Bond had no equal; he was (sometimes literally) the savior of the world and all of the good things in it. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy that life?
Of course, I don’t want to be James Bond. For starters, he’s a pretty awful person. He’s sexist, racist, violent, a murderer, probably an alcoholic, and seems like he’s a pretty lonely guy at the end of the day. But he’s not my idol: he’s an entertaining construct of the wide berth that society gave if you were straight, white, and male. And these movies were considered as wild escapism even in the time period they were made. I’m not under any delusion that these are documentaries. They’re fantasy. And sometimes it’s fun to escape into fantasy.
Besides my heteronormative, Caucasian, male orientation, these films also reveal another world that I’m envious of: where there was great material wealth, and the environment hadn’t yet degraded into the chunky soup that it is today: the skies were azure blue, the water was crystal-clear, and the forests and jungles were lush and fertile. Just watch Dr. No (as I will be very soon) and look at how incredibly clean and beautiful the tropics were in 1962. I used to get sad watching these movies and seeing the world when it was all bright, shiny, and new: the cars were gigantic and gorgeous, the clothes were top-notch, and nature was unspoiled. Sometimes it looks like these films were shot on another planet.
And maybe it was another planet. I’ve had conversations with my father, who lived as close a life to James Bond in the 20th century as reality would allow, and after describing some of his adventures, he would just shake his head sadly and say, “And nobody will ever believe that things were actually like that.” And it’s true: the world has changed so radically since 1962 (where we’re starting our adventure through this series) that if you brought somebody from then to the modern day and showed them the internet, the environmental havoc we’ve wrought, and the very liberal society we now live in, they wouldn’t believe it.
Progress—especially social progress—has been fantastic (a rising tide, after all) and has opened the door that was previously marked “Straight, White Men Only.” But if you had heard that just before you arrived on the scene, that whatever demographic you happen to fall into in your country were once the unquestioned Masters of the Universe, you’d probably feel just a tinge of envy that you had missed it by just that much. I don’t want us to go back to that; time’s arrow flies in only one direction, and forward into that unknown future we must go. Besides that, I’m a pretty socially liberal guy, and an egalitarian society is the only one I want to be a part of. But I can certainly enjoy that age through the escapism of film without much guilt.
This is all to say: I’m going to watch the entire James Bond film series, from beginning to present day, during the month of November, and then write silly recaps of each one on this blog. Join us, won’t you? Everyone’s allowed.