Are we approaching ’80s nostalgia fatigue?
The ’80s are back, baby – and they’ve been back for what feels like forever in terms of the pop cultural zeitgeist’s notoriously short attention span. While the decade might have once been branded as a tacky, one-note punchline filled with aerobics videos and unfortunate shoulder pads, it’s now considered worthy of genuine artistic examination. Take, for instance, the critical success of recent television shows like The Americans, Halt and Catch Fire, and GLOW, all of which examine different facets of distinctly ’80s cultural phenomena, from Cold War intrigue to the birth of computing and women’s wrestling respectively. It would be impossible for their central narratives to take place during any other decade.
Yet the ’80s craze isn’t just limited to a desire to realistically document the era. Smash-hit genre properties like Stranger Things and the 2017 IT remake both place clearly supernatural horrors into imaginary towns that are nevertheless situated within that historical milieu. They draw on the period’s broader cultural context, such as its widespread panic over child abduction, in order to deepen their drama and terror. Stranger Things strives to pay homage to the decade’s character even in its non-diegetic elements, such as its shimmery, faintly sinister John Carpenter-esque score.
In addition, ’80s nostalgia gets taken further by stories that aren’t even set during the period at all. Rather than attempting to literally recreate the decade, they merely invoke its spirit – that is, our broad, culturally-ingrained association of the ’80s with impossible escapism or the earnest thrills of childhood. Sci-fi is particularly fond of this technique, though it employs it with varying degrees of depth. The synth-backed, neon-blitzed nightclub setting of the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” serves to highlight its themes of simulated reality and the power of romantic fantasy, while the upcoming Ready Player One is being marketed primarily as “I Understood That Reference: The Movie.”
As video essayist Lindsay Ellis points out, nostalgia is by no means an unprecedented pop cultural phenomenon – some of the 80s’ most iconic films, like 1985’s Back to the Future and 1987’s Dirty Dancing, took place within idealized versions of the 1950s and ’60s respectively. It’s an example of what Ellis refers to as the “30-year cycle,” though others theorize that the cycle actually takes anywhere from 25 to 40 years – whatever the number is, it’s however long it takes for people who were consumers of culture as children to become creators of culture as adults. They usually retain a sense of emotional connection to the media of their childhood and, in turn, will create art that is either consciously or unconsciously informed by what resonated with them when they were growing up. In addition, the marketing of nostalgic media often seeks to capitalize on adult audiences’ fondness for something that was popular during their youth – whether it’s a superhero comic or a slasher film – and can conveniently target a group of people who, after 30 years, will likely have the financial solvency to indulge in consuming the films, TV, music, toys, etc. that replicate that sense of connection.
However, Ellis also acknowledges that these concepts of “restorative” or “reflective” nostalgia, which portray the past as a source of past greatness or escapism (as opposed to the mundane reality of the present) isn’t the only model we have to understand the ’80s boom. She proposes a third category of “deconstructive” nostalgia that’s more characterized by its criticism of the past rather than its unconditional affirmation of it, listing 1999’s The Iron Giant as an example that, while set in the 50s, mines the era’s Cold War paranoia and nuclear anxiety as a source of conflict.
Stranger Things, in comparison, is a series that often tries to have it both ways – while its reverence of ’80s culture is apparent in everything from its coming-of-age narrative to the He-Man cartoons Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) watches to the gang’s Ghostbusters Halloween costumes, it also presents a largely sanitized version of the period. The kids face generic bullying, but there’s little casual sexism, racism, or homophobia even when it might be considered more in line with ’80s small-town cultural mores. The character of sensitive, gentle Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is vaguely coded as gay and might well have faced homophobic abuse in the original scripts, but the word “faggot” is only used by the abusive father of a bully – someone framed as an unequivocally villainous character. In season two, jerk jock boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) gets redeemed into a lovable surrogate dad for the kids, developing his origins as an ’80s teen-movie stereotype into something much more crowd-pleasing.
IT doesn’t shy away from the 80s’ proverbial dark underbelly – there’s a thematic fixation on disappeared children and adults’ complicity in the town’s dysfunction. The Derry of IT is decidedly not framed as a place where it would be fun to live. Stranger Things obviously doesn’t paint a wholly rose-tinted portrait of the period either – government conspiracies and mean classmates abound – but its tone also feels more hopeful. It is, after all, a series where a grizzled police chief is framed as a sympathetic, friendly authority figure, and one where a vulnerable girl has telekinetic abilities that allow her to take on any kind of bully (whether it’s a middle schooler on a power trip or a murderous extradimensional creature). Given the immense popularity of Stranger Things and IT, it’s clear that both stories have deeply resonated with audiences. It’s still worth considering which parts of the past that modern filmmakers and showrunners are obsessed with remembering – and which ones they seem happy to forget.
Watch the video below for a complex breakdown of what nostalgia looks like onscreen.