In Wanda Maximoff’s American small-town idyll based on TV-shows she watched as a kid in her post-communist homeland, I recognized my own childhood imaginary West. According to Jac Schaeffer, the head writer of WandaVision the latest installment of the sprawling Marvel cinematic universe on the Disney+ streaming service, “the show is a love-letter to the golden age of television”.
However, I was born on Wanda Maximoff’s side of the Iron Curtain and am old enough to have some memory of the turmoil of the political and economic transition in the wake of the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. For me, Wanda’s vision of small-town America takes on an additional meaning.
A hidden layer in Disney’s WandaVision
At first, the fact that the superhero Wanda Maximoff hails from the imaginary Sokovia, a kind of a universal post-communist, post-Soviet country does not seem to have any substantial meaning. Her ethnicity is nothing more than a story-telling accessory. As Agnes, the neighbor played by Kathryn Hahn cynically notes about Wanda’s Slavic accent, “that accent really comes and goes, doesn’t it?”.
However, in episode eight it turns out that she had been basing her safe-space alternative reality of Westview – an imaginary small town in New Jersey – on the vintage American TV-shows she watched with her family as a kid all along. As a film within the film, WandaVision – at times even breaking the fourth wall – has of course been reflecting on American pop culture through the changing TV shows and ads from the outset. But with the revelation about the importance of American TV shows Wanda watched as a kid growing up in the crisis ridden and war-torn Sokovia, WandaVision gets another layer of interpretation, an Eastern imagination of the West.
This might seem counter-intuitive, as the scene about Wanda’s and Pietro’s childhood rather reinforces a Western image of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. Wanda’s family lives in a run-down socialist-era apartment bloc. Although the family has a DVD-set, which would indicate the 2000s, everything else is reminiscent of the early 1990s, the immediate years after the collapse of communist regimes. The furniture, the TV-set, the clothes they are wearing, and the sharpest detail of them all: the gas pipe running mounted on the walls in the kitchen. There is probably a civil war going on in the country, we see irregular troops on the street, and sporadic machine gun fire can be heard. The scene implies a genuine collapse of the state apparatus. In truth, post-communist transitions were, in most countries, peaceful and the state stayed intact.
An Eastern imagination of the West
A more detailed analysis indicates that WandaVision is much more about an Eastern imagination of the West than the other way around. Wanda’s childhood safe space in her country’s post-apocalyptic environment is watching old American TV shows with her family cuddling on the couch. In the present she recreates the image of the American small-town idyll to the detail based entirely on how she, as a deprived Eastern European child, interpreted these shows.
The America she creates as an attempt to deal with the trauma of losing her beloved brother and husband is a goofy sitcom, a consumers’ heaven with a tight social network, harmony and security, and good old conservative family values. As the endless sitcom of WandaVision jumps from decade to decade, not only the style but also the themes change (the 2000s allows for some feminism, for example). But these changes have never any real connections to the societal complexity of the given decade’s United States. Rather, this “evolution” reflects whatever the feelgood trend of that era’s TV demanded to fill the time in-between ad blocks. Wanda contorts America to fit her childhood image of it based on the sitcoms she watched.
The fact that Wanda is a foreigner is of central importance. It is instructive to compare WandaVision with Pleasantville. The 1998 movie is about two contemporary teenagers – a brother and sister – who mysteriously find themselves inside a 1950s sitcom. In Pleasantville, the two American teenagers from the future eventually make the fake 1950s idyll to unravel. The siblings act as a catalyst for the citizens of Pleasantville to confront the lies and repressions their society is built on.
The perpetual TV show created by Wanda in contrast does not simply disregard any real social contradictions, it does not even seem to be aware of them. Wanda’s safe space is not built on the longing for some idealized past, present or future. It is not rooted in some American ideology, which would include the possibility of the existence of the very social reality it is trying to hide. WandaVision is entirely built on the image Wanda had of America (and the Western world as a whole) as a little girl watching TV somewhere on the Eastern edge of Europe.
Living through the 1990s transition
I find Wanda’s vision of the West very familiar. Her childhood imaginary America resembles my own imaginary West. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1982. The political and economic transition ended the scarcity of consumer goods and brought historically unprecedented freedom, however, social inequalities increased rapidly. The process of capital accumulation has never been pretty anywhere throughout history, and it certainly wasn’t pretty in post-communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe. As children amid this historic societal change with many of our parents experiencing loss of social status, unemployment or disillusionment, we also found some refuge in Western TV shows. The ubiquitous satellite-sets brought German and English TV channels to our homes. And even if we did not understand a word, we could still finds ways to follow the latest episodes of our favorite cartoons and sitcoms.
To be honest, my most vivid memories are of German TV ads selling cereal, milk rice, and chocolate, which I always wanted to eat but my single mother on a teacher’s meager salary had barely enough money for the Hungarian knockoffs, let alone the original Western brands. These shows and ads conveyed an image of abundance and harmony. Once in the early 1990s, one of our classmates got the floor in school to report on some little German town, where she and her family visited their relatives. Our teacher was as much hanging on her words as we were about swans in the lake in the town center, kind and well-dressed citizens, houses and streets in perfect condition, and huge supermarkets and shopping malls. I felt the same awe when I first visited my father, who lived in Sweden, a year later.
As an adult, and a social scientist, having been living in Switzerland and Germany for a decade, of course I now know better. I am well aware of the structural problems Western European societies are facing. For example, the neighborhood of Stockholm that I found so beautiful as a child was one of the scenes of the urban riots that broke out throughout Sweden in 2013, signaling the rifts that emerged since the late 1980s in the “Folkhemmet”. Just as millions of our fellow EU citizens from the Eastern member states we are participants of one of the biggest population shifts in the history of the continent.
During the 1990s the mainstream of the public discourse about the transition used analogies from school: our countries had their homework to do (economic and political transition, marketization, building democratic institutions), which, if we did it correctly was to be rewarded with an entry into higher classes, that is, EU membership and eventually Western standards of living. More than three decades since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and in spite of 17 years of EU membership, we are not there yet. Worse, the fatigue that set in with transition paradoxically helped dangerous populists rise to power in several of the most successful post-communist countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovenia or the Czech Republic.
WandaVision, a utopia within reach?
It was never as easy to move to Western Europe in pursuit of better career opportunities or for many to simply earn a living, and at the same time enjoy superior social services. However, leaving the East is not a success story for many. There are hundreds of thousands of Central and Eastern Europeans who are treated as an endless cheap labor reserve of Western agriculture, meat industry or elderly care services. And this migration has well-documented adverse effects on the member states from Central and Eastern Europe. Those who leave are disproportionately younger and more skilled than the population they leave behind, which strongly reduces the number of actors for social change, exacerbating the very problems that prompted their exit in the first place: rampant corruption, mismanagement, and increasing authoritarianism.
Even though neither the East we left behind nor the West we found fulfilled the hopes we once had, I think I understand where Wanda is coming from. Most of us, regardless of where we happened to grow up, feel a certain amount of nostalgia for the shows and films we watched and the books and magazines we read as children. Or rather, for the feeling of security and happiness that is attached to them. But in the case of Wanda there is more to this than longing for a time when her family was whole. As a member of maybe the last generation who still had this simplistically naive image of the West based on our hopes and Western TV-shows, I sympathize with what Wanda, as a small girl, saw as a utopia just within her reach.
By Rafael Labanino
Rafael was born in Budapest and earned his degrees in political science at the Eötvös Loránd University and the Central European University, Budapest. Currently he is a PhD candidate at the University of Bern, and a research fellow at the University of Konstanz and the Ludwigsburg University of Education, Germany.