Good Times, Bad Times: The Problem With Nostalgia

While re-doing our living room floor last weekend, my wife and I indulged our 80s nostalgia with a couple of "classic" films from 1989, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and a lesser known Corey Feldman/Corey Haim joint, Dream A Little Dream. We were just kids when these movies hit the video store, and having not seen them in many, many years, we naively cued them up for a fun trip down Memory Lane. The ensuing four hours reminded us of two things.

1) Our childhood selves had almost no critical acumen. The plot of Bill and Ted makes about as much sense as a joke you wrote down when you were high on whippets. (For those who don't remember, George Carlin comes back from the future to save rock-and-roll by helping two complete idiots kidnap historical figures with a phone booth time machine.) And the plot of Dream A Little Dream is so incoherent that Bill and Ted seems like the most rational thing in the world by comparison. I think when I was in seventh grade, Corey Feldman swapping bodies with a senior citizen after a mystical, tai chi, dream experiment goes awry seemed kind of out there, but Feldman was so cool that I really didn't care. I just wanted to be him--the dude rockin' ripped jeans and bandannas who could do dance like Michael Jackson, quote Yeats, conquer bullies with kung fu and a razor wit, and ultimately win over the most popular girl in school. 

2) Wow, times have changed. Both Bill and Ted and Dream A Little Dream include scenes where the word "fag" is thrown out as a defensive punchline to neutralize a moment of too-earnest affection between close male friends. Adult-me cringed, but as a straight kid growing up in the 80s, the rampant homophobia that saturated our culture back then wasn't something I had to think much about. How nice for me, right? 

Both films are also dated by the total non-development of their female characters. With two exceptions, all the women put together have about as much agency as a wounded jellyfish. The exception in Bill and Ted is Joan of Arc, who takes the opportunity to learn aerobics in her brief trip to the future. In Dream A Little Dream, the exception is the wicked mother of Corey Feldman's love interest, Lainie. She actively colludes with Lainie's controlling, sociopath boyfriend, who will stop at nothing to get in Lainie's pants.

More than anything, watching these movies gave me an opportunity to think about how our current cultural moment of nostalgia for the 80s is reinventing the past. Retro-fantasy Stranger Things blew up when it hit Netflix last year, quickly becoming the platform's third most popular original series to date. Fans are clamoring for season two to drop next month. But perhaps the strangest thing about Stranger Things is the fact that you never hear one of the kids insult one of the other kids with an anti-gay slur. My bet is that you never will.  

Not that I'm complaining. This is what makes today's nostalgia entertainment so appealing: it lets us enjoy everything that was fun about the 80s without having to deal with the oppressive baggage. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Do historical fantasies rehabilitate our history or merely suppress it?

What a striking coincidence that nostalgia for 80s culture seems to be flourishing right alongside a more disturbing nostalgia for 80s political realities. Of course, some of us just want to have warm fuzzies about a world where Cyndi Lauper was on the radio and phones couldn't follow us out of the house and we'd never heard of GMOs or climate change. Sure, we had a president who was ignorant, negligent, suffering the early stages of dementia, and might have accidentally started a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, but at least he wasn't a vindictive, ego-maniacal, narcissist who might intentionally start a nuclear war with North Korea.

There's a lot to love about 80s culture, and to the extent that we've made any progress toward a more equitable society in the last thirty years, it's because of people who lived through the dark(er) ages and fought to change things, culturally and politically. Yet, when supporters of the current administration say they want to "make America great again," maybe it behooves those of us with fond memories of 80s culture to revisit the source material with our eyes wide open. Maybe they weren't fully open at the time--especially if we spent most of that time watching MTV and trying to be cool.

For those of us looking to mine 80s nostalgia for our own creative work, we ought to think about how we can get beyond mere set dressing--how we can shine a light on what was actually pretty ugly about those years, and maybe what was genuinely heroic. Now that would be cool.