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The Great Gatsby Backlash

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I’m looking forward to seeing Baz Luhrmann’s new film treatment of The Great Gatsby. The book, of course, is a seminal piece of American literature, and the new movie is yet another in a long line of interpretations. I like the director’s previous works, and I expect I’ll enjoy the new film.

I read The Great Gatsby only once, and it was a long time ago. The book was likely on my essential reading list in high school. It’s probably worth another look before I see the movie.

I remember the concept — the book is an indictment of materialistic culture. The story focuses on the life of a millionaire through the eyes of Midwestern salesman, new to upper-class Long Island. The narrative is not kind to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, nor to the enduring promise of the American Dream, which at the time had grown to be less about personal liberties and freedoms than about freedom to be wealthy and flaunt it.

For a book about resistance to societal change and adaptation, it’s interesting that little has changed in the way the American Dream is interpreted.

The release of the movie this year is timely. We’ve seen through the recession that if you have enough wealth and power, you can survive unscathed. The financial industry brought down the global economy, yet operations continue as normal, without meaningful protections for consumers. The recession was an opportunity for the rich, whose wealth increased, while the underclasses have been plagued with unemployment, foreclosures, and less access to credit.

We may certainly be in a new gilded age — at least, if it’s the same gilded age from a century ago, people are no longer afraid to admit it. As evidence, hotels are using the popularity of the movie and the familiarity with at least the title of the book to promote excess.

The Plaza Hotel in New York City, a brand that has never been shy, is offering a 700-foot “Fitzgerald Suite” starting at $2,795 a night. In Newport, Rhode Island, the Vanderbilt Grace is presenting the “Grace Gatsby package,” which includes lodging, food, and sailing for $1,100 per couple. NBC News has a collection of these Gatsby-themed deals.

The hospitality industry isn’t the only group taking cues from F. Scott Fitzgerald.

While you could argue that it may just be 1920s fashion and art deco making a comeback, fascination with similar times and the promotion of the new movie release have some effect among brides. The Huffington Post, which recently offered a slideshow of gilded age-inspired weddings, made this observation of current trends: “Despite the less-than-perfect romance at the center of the story, brides are turning to Fitzgerald’s heroine, Daisy Buchanan, for bridal attire inspiration, and dapper grooms are looking to Jay Gatsby for the perfect Big Day look.”

CBS instructs viewers how to throw a Great Gatsby party, focusing on cocktails that exude the essence of the Jazz Age. While the masses can’t live the full Roaring Twenties life as exemplified by Jay Gatsby, they can get a little closer by drinking the same drinks, wearing some of the same fashions, and even listening to the same music.

Brooks Brothers now offers a clothing line to help young men dress like Jay Gatsby, with a direct tie-in to the the movie. The costume designer based the wardrobe featured in the film off Brooks Brothers’ own catalog from the 1920s, and the store fabricated the costumers worn by the actors. Brooks Brothers had no problem with a promotional tie-in with a movie that is critical of the characters who wear the company’s clothing, because these characters continue to be revered for their style.

There are two reactions to this trend.

  • For some, these are good deals. Those who have the money to spend are more than welcome to spend money on whatever they like. In fact, these are the kind of experiences that can make someone happy, more than using the same money to buy things. Researchers prove that experiences lead to happiness more often than objects.
  • They’re missing the point. If The Great Gatsby is supposed to be an indictment on materialistic culture, are those buying into the latest trend that puts Gatsby’s materialism on a pedestal just unfamiliar with with purpose of the novel? Is it showing that, for the most part, people are unfamiliar with what is probably one of the most popular works of American literature?

    Does this new, open popularity of the culture of living rich ignore the fundamental premise that living in decadence be detrimental to society?

The answer to this question is that the people who set these trends — marketers, mostly — do not miss the irony at all. Living a life of fancy parties and flaunting wealth is so appealing is due to its destructive nature, not in spite of it. Glorifying the culture that is mocked in The Great Gatsby isn’t the result of ignorance of the book’s themes — although it doesn’t preclude ignorance — it’s an acceptance that even though materialism and holding fast to the “good old days” is a hero’s downfall, the showiness of wealth allows people to not care.

After all, The Great Gatsby is based on the middle-class perspective, something that those who live like Jay Gatsby can safely ignore. Celebrating this culture even when the world around you derides it amplifies the same instincts that drive those who celebrate it. If materialism and excess weren’t part such a critiqued lifestyle, its celebration wouldn’t have so much meaning for those who use it to glorify their sense of being among an elite.

What are your thoughts on the increased prevalence of Gilded Age culture, as the release of the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby helped uncover?

Photo: Flickr

Published or updated May 13, 2013.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

This movie has been done 3 or 4 times. I think there must be a shortage of original ideas in Hollywood. Rich people always ignore what other people may think of them. I think it is a necessary trait of rich people to go their own way. I think that is a lesson too!

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avatar 2 Anonymous

I agree with KC, that it shows the lack of originality coming out of Hollywood. That said, as on who does work in the marketing & advertising industry, it is interesting to see how this movie is being marketed to us. I think it’s also interesting that the movie is coming out now, in an era, where there is an even greater divide between the haves & have nots.

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avatar 3 Luke Landes

There’s originality out there in film, maybe not from Hollywood specifically, but it’s out there. It’s just not marketed as much… because it’s riskier. Hollywood as always been a low-risk industry… and these days, sequels and remakes (and “reboots”) seem to be what the industry thinks is safe.

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avatar 4 Anonymous

The Great Gatsby’s message isn’t that consumption is bad–it’s that the emptiness of the people was unable to be filled up by all the things in the world, all the trappings of success and pleasure leaving them displeased and dissastified. It’s not a direct indictment of materialism–it’s an indictment of the people and their shallowness and their inability to be happy despite having “everything”. Their material wealth is the source of the irony of the novel, not the point of it. So the “stuff” tie-ins are missing the point but aren’t directly opposed to the book.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Yeah, it’s ironic, but it’s also a chance to go back to a period in our history in which there were a lot of interesting trends – like a brief period of sexual liberation and experimentation between Victorian era and the 1950s, with attendant exploration of gender roles and identities, and an explosion of cutting-edge and oh-so-gorgeous fashion (clothes, architecture, design), and a heady era of innovation and inventions. What an exciting time! For those of us who are deeply in touch with our senses, a chance to explore such an intriguing bit of history is really great. While hopefully also learning some lessons… Great Depression looming and all.

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