That’s a quote from Back to the Future…a movie from the 80s I’ve actually seen.
We’ve been in an 80s pop-culture nostalgia moment for a while now, amplified by Stranger Things (a show I mostly enjoy, though not for that reason), endless remakes and reboots and sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s soundtrack, and other 80-set properties like the new It, The Americans, and Pose (a show I deeply love). But the 80s also fascinate me, because as I get older, I’m noticing a split between the nostalgia pop culture side of the 80s/my parents’ own praises of the decade (not to mention its role in current politics–“Make America Great Again” often seems to mean “back to the Reagan era,” and Trump himself gained prominence in the decade) and what I’ve learned about the history myself. I studied the Cold War extensively in high school, I’ve done some deep dives into the economic effects and the War on Drugs through books and documentaries, and being queer and a theater geek I’ve researched and immersed in alternative 80s stories about the queer community and the AIDS crisis where there could be joy and love, but ultimately not a great time to live (Rent, Angels in America, Falsettos, The Normal Heart, and of course Pose).
The catch: I haven’t seen MOST of these movies. The ones on my tentative list–curated from Internet lists, box office charts, and lasting cultural impact through references in other movies, etc–that I have seen are: Back to the Future, Footloose, both Star Wars films, Airplane!, Die Hard, The Princess Bride, Dead Poet’s Society, The Black Cauldron, Clue, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. A weird assortment? Yes, absolutely. But the only one properly of my childhood and rewatched aplenty was Back to the Future, and in my defense I had seen the stage versions of The Little Mermaid and Little Shop of Horrors, as well as Star Trek Into Darkness which was basically a Wrath of Khan remake.
There are some acceptable reasons for this:
- My parents are a little older than most parents my age (their childhood and teen years lie mostly before the 80s…getting a PhD is a pretty good birth control method).
- My family and I tend to gravitate more to TV rather than movies. We talked about how we should get around to watching Indiana Jones or E.T. for a family movie night, but never followed up.
- I tend to avoid teen movies, romcoms, and action movies, which are overrepresented in the “stand-out” films from the decade.
I can make excuses all day, but look: fact is once I became more aware of what movies are out there and which ones I like to watch, I’d been pretty turned off of the decade. Perhaps it’s the Stranger Things or Ready Player One effect, but…it seemed like the pop culture nostalgia came from a lot of touchstones focusing on white boys and heterosexual romances, and meanwhile I knew there was so much more going on that just wasn’t represented.
Apparently I was (and am) an adolescent and young adult of the 80s nostalgia period, and that nostalgia seemed mostly focused on family-oriented and teen movies. Kids my age experienced the 80s through these films and their parents’ anecdotes. But what do these films actually say about the culture of the time, and how does that relate to its actual history? That’s what I want to explore with this. And, hopefully, how we can practice critical literacy (with or without nostalgia), learn from the past, and find a way to move artistically forward into creating new stories that build on the foundations and celebrate the margins.
Is this something I hope will be research and rough drafts for a bigger nonfiction project in the future? Yes. But since these movies are so popular and people are so amazed I haven’t seen most of them, it seemed like a fun idea to invite you all along on the ride.