If you were born in the year 1980, you would turn 41 this year. If you were born in 1985 or 1975, you would be 36 or 46 respectively. People who had a significant portion of their childhood in the 1980s are rapidly approaching middle age, and with that, becoming the dominant cultural tastemakers. The filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, and even the studio executives of many Hollywood productions grew up and presumably have fond memories of the era of neon purple and MTV. Now, we are seeing the effect of that with so much of our content being regurgitated from the mouth of the 1980s.
It’s not a scientific theory, but the general idea is that the culture starts getting nostalgic for certain decades 20 years after their onset. Think of more content starting to reflect the 1950’s in the 1970’s like American Graffiti (dir. George Lucas, 1973), Happy Days (crtd. Garry Marshall, 1974-1984), and Grease (dir. Randal Kleiser, 1978) or how some of the content of the 1990’s reflected the 1970’s like Dazed and Confused (dir. Richard Linklater, 1993), That ‘70s Show (crtd. Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner, & Mark Brazill, 1998-2006), and Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997). This would happen in the 2000s with the 1980’s with things like Wet Hot American Summer (dir. David Wain, 2000), Freaks and Geeks (crtd. Paul Feig, 1999-200), and Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola, 2009). The difference is that reverence not only never stopped, but only increased with massive projects like Stranger Things (crtd. Matt & Ross Duffer, 2016-present), It (dir. Andy Muschietti, 2017), and Wonder Woman 1984 (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2020). Why have the societal and cultural tastemakers refused to abandon the 1980s?
First, just to stick with the idea of our cultural tastemakers primarily being a product of a different time, we are only at the beginning of younger generations getting the chance to develop their own projects. Long gone are the days where a 25 year old Steven Spielberg could make his studio feature length directorial debut or a 27 year old George Lucas. Filmmakers are expected to have done work in independent film or television before jumping to studio jobs, but even those positions are harder to get with so many established directors jumping back and forth between television and larger film projects. This has been a boon for the television industry, but has created a vacuum for “entry level” directing jobs.
There is some merit to this besides an entire generation refusing to let go of childhood nostalgia. The 1980s were the last decade to have a decidedly mainstream cultural aesthetic (the 1990s had grunge, but that not only was more niche but it also was not an aesthetic that invaded film as much as it did fashion and music). It is the most recent era to have a demarcated style that is easily recognizable. The 80s have synthwave and the materialist revolution like the 60s had the counterculture with its reliance on psychedelic imagery. There is something to be said about WHY the following decades had little to no identifiable aesthetic, but that is something better discussed on a different platform and by someone more knowledgeable than myself in the matters of historical American culture.
The more serious aspect of why people want to transport themselves back to the 80’s through the culture that they consume has to do with the socio-political status of the time. Over the course of the 1980s, the Reagan administration was considered a rousing success by a majority of the American population. In the 1984 election leading into his second term, Ronald Reagan won 525 of 538 electoral votes and almost 60% of the popular vote, completing one of the biggest presidential election landslides in the history of the country. For better or for worse (and if you have read some of my other blog posts, you probably know how I personally feel about this), it was a time where Americans were so content with their political landscape that they chose to not challenge the status quo.
And with no plans to change the status quo, this fostered a society that is more politically aligned then they have been for decades. With the political polarization that has been happening for the last 30 years or so, the urge to want to go back to a time where most Americans agreed and could pay less attention to politics is understandable, if also misguided. It is an inane fantasy to think that things were better for everyone just because politics were not at the forefront of every conversation, but it is a fantasy that people crave.
If financial success and cultural cache are anything to go by, it does not seem like the 80s are going to disappear anytime soon. Stranger Things is arguably the biggest show in the world, new nostalgia-heavy Ghostbusters (dir. Jason Reitman, 2021) and Top Gun (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2021) films are scheduled to come out this year, and reboots of Robocop, Dungeons and Dragons, and Indiana Jones films are coming in the near future. At least until younger filmmakers become more prominent in the studio system and nostalgic fantasy becomes less of a driving force in culture, we will be living in the 80s over forty years after the fact.
The 80s are never ending and are streaming everywhere.