Aziz Ansari in his nonfiction book Modern Romance mentions how that he would have liked to date in the 1950s. He doesn’t mean this literally; an Indian teenager with Muslim parents wouldn’t get good press in that time period. With that said, he likes to think of the potential fantasy: hang out with a girl there, dance to jukebox music, and only having to worry about your curfew. Still, he seemed to touch a nerve that I have felt: that the 1950s felt more romantic. Why does this idyllic image exist? What books and pop culture makes us feel like we have this image?
1950s soda shops
Soda shops of the early 1900s, also called malt shops or even drugstores occasionally, were like the modern ice cream parlors. You could grab a soda or some food, sit down and socialize. At least, that was the theory; a few people who grew up in the era maintain that this belief is a Hollywood construct.
Despite the fiction, this view appears romantic. Archie Comics has helped with Pop’s Chok’lit Shoppe, an ice cream parlor and teen hangout. Unlike the formal dinners of today’s dates, or the random bar cocktail and meetups, the fictional malt shop offered a safe space for teens to hang out without anything dramatic happening. You could dance with your date without the worries of alcohol, roofies, or dressing up in a knockout gown. The malt shops also were not corporate franchises; often families owned them. They represented American values of individualism, hard work, and earned leisure.
In the film version of Grease, Sandy and Danny have a date at such a place, to make peace with each other’s differences. Sandy tries to fit in by matching Danny’s huge food order, while Danny tries to hide their presence from his judgmental friends. In the meantime, Frenchie meets her guardian angel, who convinces her to return to high school after beauty school is a disaster. The safe space allows for Sandy and Danny to work out their relationship kinks, for Danny’s friends to accept Sandy while stealing their food, and for Frencie to get some needed guidance.
Malt shop romances
In the novel Harriet the Spy, the titular character goes to such a place to drink a chocolate egg cream and eavesdrop on other customers. Being eleven years old, precocious and uninterested in boys, Harriet doesn’t find such a setting romantic. She just likes to learn about people. To her shock, Harriet’s nanny Ole Golly later invites her to the former’s movie date. Harriet doesn’t like Mr. Waldenstein, but Ole Golly certainly does. They spend a lot of time riding Mr. Waldenstein’s bike between the movies and a drugstore. While Harriet has fun, she doesn’t understand why her nanny becomes smitten. She sips two egg creams and drifts to sleep, shortly after Mr. Waldenstein pops the question. The romance completely eludes her.
Then you get to Archie Comics. At Pop’s ice cream parlor, which was inspired by the 1930s malt shops, the Riverdale teens hang out. They talk, date or grab some burgers. Pop witnesses Archie’s multiple dates with Betty and Veronica, while keeping tabs for the teens and maintaining an old-fashioned jukebox. He couldn’t modernize the place if he tried, which contributes to its idyllic atmosphere. Archie in the meantime feels free to pursue both girls, as Jughead eats away and avoids dating. This safe space allows for ample comedy, and character development for one-shot comics.
These works show us that we crave for a simple, safe space to explore romance and relationships. Even when we don’t understand love, we want to nurture it in the right atmosphere. It could be that modern dating has become more complicated. Ansari in his book mentions the pitfalls of trying online dating, or traditional arranged marriages from Indian culture.
This Valentine’s, I hope that you have a good day. I hope that you find the safe space that allows for love, singlehood, or simple happiness. If not, I hope you are able to create one.