How Stranger Things (and other 1980s nostalgia) Affects The Way We View The Past

January 17, 2018


It’s undeniable that we’re living in an era of 1980s nostalgia. The runaway success of Stranger Things, It, Guardians of the Galaxy and other properties that heavily utilize eighties paraphernalia proves this. Plus, audiences are getting bombarded with all these reboots and remakes of ‘80s movies, like Star Wars and Jurassic Park. The upcoming movie Ready Player One takes place in a futuristic society that is absolutely obsessed with the ‘80s.


These blasts of nostalgia are not a new thing. The social theory of the “Thirty Year Cycle” dictates that at any given time, media will romanticize the time period thirty years prior. This is because the people who were children thirty years ago are now grown up and at the helm of the entertainment industry, making new art that reflects their childhoods and interests. (Look at the surge of 1950s nostalgia that took place in the 1980s.)


But then, why does it feel like this 1980s nostalgia is so much more potent right now? Well, the ‘80s was a time filled with revolutionary shifts in entertainment. It marks the birth of the modern concept of “nerd culture.” Comics were getting good again, science fiction movies were getting cool again, and Dungeons & Dragons was, well, created. Those nerds, like the Duffer Brothers who created Stranger Things, are front and center of the media landscape right now, and they want you to remember how much the cultural phenomena of the 1980s changed their lives.


And that’s fair. The 1980s did spawn some incredible movies and franchises that changed the way people viewed media as a whole.


But there’s a problem with this rose-tinted view of the 1980s that’s being perpetuated and idolized by the mainstream media: it isn’t accurate.


While these young nerds may have viewed that decade as the pinnacle of culture and entertainment, that wasn’t the case for everyone who wasn’t living in a Stranger Things-esque, suburban, upper-middle class dreamscape. The 1980s was a decade of turmoil for much of the United States and the rest of the world.


By the 1980s, the Cold War and the Red Scare was reaching its climax. The threat of nuclear attack from the collapsing Soviet Union was a legitimate, every day possibility. Suspicion and fear allowed politicians like President Reagan to take power and, using “Reaganomics,” aid the growth of corporations and billionaires at the expense of working class people (an uncomfortable reflection of today’s political climate). Many of the people most harmed by Reagan’s economic policies were members of the black community and other people of color, still struggling to break the social barriers entrenched in society by segregation and the Jim Crow era. A time of deep racial prejudices and unrest, worsened by political policies, the 1980s offered no room in its idyllic American Suburbia for people of color.


Also under President Reagan, the AIDS crisis ravaged the American population. Reagan actively blocked the Center for Disease Control from researching cures and solutions for the epidemic because he believed it was a moral disease that could root out the homosexual transgressors. Hundreds of thousands of Americans – rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight – died of AIDS due to the federal government’s negligence. For many Americans, the 1980s marked a time rife with nothing but needless death and suffering.


None of these issues are explored in any of the ‘80s nostalgia media that you’ll see now. It would break the fantasy world of childhood that these creators (often straight, white men from an upper-middle class background) remember. The movie that perhaps comes closest to understanding that this era was far from perfect is It, but even that fails to explore much of the racism and prejudices that even the original book was able to tackle.


And here’s the thing: that’s okay. Because the settings of these movies are fantasies. They’re fantastical views of this historical period that erase all the discomfort and flaws so as to give people an escape into a different world. It doesn’t matter that the basis for that escape is a time period that is perhaps worse than our own.


It’s just important to remember that when we’re watching this kind of media: this setting is a fantasy. Nostalgia tends to massage out the bumps and roll over the rough patches. It’s understandable and expected. So remember when you’re watching the supernatural escapades of young children: they’re living in an idealistic world that never existed in the past – but, perhaps, eventually could in the future.

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