The eighties! They sure were great, weren’t they? We had classic video games, everything was neon including the clothing, kids rode bicycles, blockbuster films were still pretty new and magical, hair was sculptural. Hollywood has been indulging our nostalgia for the decade of yuppies and preppies at a ferocious pace lately—including, most recently, Wonder Woman 1984.
But the thing about nostalgia is, it lies. The “algia” in “nostalgia” refers to pain, or loss, stemming from some imagined innocence, or comparative utopia, that has gone away. And when nostalgia is packaged consciously as a product for mass consumption, it invariably becomes a marketing exercise more than a serious exploration of the past.
So I almost never see fictional portrayals of the 1980s that accurately depict that decade in all its complexity—and rottenness.* This matters for a couple reasons: because so many of the problems that are killing us started, or worsened drastically, in the decade of Reagan and Bush. And because the happy sheen of love for the 80s is based on cropping marginalized people out of the picture.
Here are just some of the things that candy-colored media depictions of the 80s fail to grapple with:
The most important pop-culture story in the 1980s was the rise of hip-hop. “Rapper’s Delight” and “King Tim III” both came out in 1979, and by 1989, hip hop was well on its way to defining pop music as we know it. But you wouldn’t know this from most 80s nostalgia media: too many 80s throwback movies and shows have a soundtrack of pure synth-pop and butt rock. I couldn’t help noticing that Wonder Woman 1984 threw in a moment of break-dancers, but also made sure we heard soaring orchestral classical-y music during that entire sequence. Celebrating pop culture of the 80s without celebrating hip hop feels like a huge oversight, to put it mildly. And really, any vision of the 80s that doesn’t center BIPOC people, and grapple with the overt racism of our leaders then feels tragically incomplete.
Not to mention, another musical cognitive dissonance is hard to forget: in the 80s, it was an article of faith that disco was dead—even though the most popular music of the era (like Madonna) was… disco.
To be a child in the 1980s was to know that our future was being cast into the toilet. I’ve written before about going to an urban public school that suffered huge budget cuts, with teachers losing their jobs and classes getting combined to unfeasible sizes. I used to see public employees standing in the park with picket signs, in a protest against the hollowing out of local government. My friend has an old button that says “If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance”—and we’ve all learned first-hand just how expensive ignorance is, since funding for education started getting slashed.
Likewise, the rich were getting richer and the poor, poorer. I grew up mostly in Connecticut, a state that was a poster child for wealth inequality. One of my teachers casually mentioned a statistic that burned itself into my brain: Connecticut was the #1 or #2 richest state in the U.S.A. at the time, but we had three of the ten poorest cities. I was living in the boonies, but my parents sent me to sing in a church choir in Hartford, a 45-minute drive away, and Hartford was a nightmare of class division. Until recently, Hartford was known as the “insurance capital” of America, because every big insurer was based there. But all these insurance workers lived in fancy suburbs full of Benneton and overpriced alligator shirts, while the actual residents of Hartford lived in total squalor. The choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford was evenly divided between suburbanites and city kids (with a few country mice like myself), and
We started the Frank Millerization of everything. At the start of the 1980s, superhero comics were still for kids. But by the early 1990s, Batman was having his spine shattered, Superman was getting beaten literally to death, and Green Lantern was turning evil and getting replaced by a guy whose girlfriend was cut up and refrigerated. I love a lot of the comics that “deconstructed” superheroes, but I also think comic-book superheroes lost something irreplaceable during this era. The 1980s was the moment when fans who had grown up consuming pop culture, in general, decided they wanted to keep ownership over it after they were adults, and that meant formerly kid-friendly properties had to become more cynical to please these jaded adults.
And the eighties saw the rise of toxic fandom—1980s Doctor Who fans went on television to talk about how much they hated the (admittedly lackuster) show, even as it pandered to them more and more. In the mid-80s, Doctor Who star Colin Baker lost his infant son to SIDS, and a group of fans printed a fanzine that joked that he’d caused his own son’s death in a desperate attempt to generate publicity for Doctor Who.
And then there was the HIV/AIDS crisis, which brought a combination of wholesale death and official neglect that underscored just how much the government didn’t care about the lives of LGBTQIA+ people. Which brings me to the one portrayal of the eighties that I love unreservedly—Pose season one, which is set in 1987 and seems to go out of its way to tell stories about the people and cultures and issues that usually never get mentioned in White Gen-X celebrations.
Am I saying that any portrayal of the eighties needs to be a total bummer? No, of course not. But I think it would be more interesting, and a breath of fresh air, to grapple with the realities of the era. Nobody ever makes a movie set in the late 60s or early 70s without at least nodding to the Vietnam War, for example. To me, the shitty things about the 80s were part and parcel of the good stuff—we needed all that wonderful escapist entertainment to distract us from the awfulness of trickle-down economics and all the ways people were getting fucked over. And part of what makes many of those movies so magical is that they were the last gasp of entertainments being pitched squarely at kids, instead of having to be “four quadrant” mush.
So sure, let’s celebrate the good parts of the 80s—but let’s not leave out most of the people who lived through that decade.
* Full disclosure: I have not gotten around to watching Stranger Things or reading/watching Ready Player One, though I’ve heard plenty about them.
I’m catching up on some YA books, and I just finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. And wow, this book was everything. It’s about two Black girls: Tavia, a Siren who’s forced to hide her power because of anti-Siren hate and paranoia; and her best friend Effie, who dresses as a mermaid for Ren Faire but suspects she may actually be some kind of supernatural being. Oh, and they have a gargoyle protector. This is the rare genre YA that really captures the awfulness of school politics and the feeling of being a teenager trying to make your way in a world where adults misunderstand and pressure you, plus its supernatural themes provide an intense and beautiful metaphor for the ways that Black girls are silenced and punished just for existing.
Once again, there’s nothing new to share, in particular. Except that we posted a new episode of Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast that Annalee Newitz and I do, and this one is about “disobedient bodies.” Featuring guest Meg Elison. It’s a wonderful conversation that made me think about all of the metaphors pop culture serves up for bodies that refuse to obey social norms. Please check it out if you want something to listen to on your commute or whatever.
I still have three books coming out in 2021, and I’m still terrified and anxious AF about them. This is going to be either a very good year or a very bad year for me. :)
If you feel like saving my bacon, please pre-order my young-adult space fantasy, Victories Greater Than Death, which is a book that’s incredibly close to my heart and features the best queer representation I’ve ever done. Plus there are some pretty neat aliens! Also, in the late summer/fall, I have a book about how to survive shitty times by making up stories, Never Say You Can’t Survive. And the first ever proper book-length collection of my short fiction, Even Greater Mistakes. Thanks in advance to everyone who supports these books in any way!