No American president was as tightly linked to the cinema of their era as Ronald Reagan. A man who began his career as an actor, Reagan’s rhetoric and his worldview both drew on and fed into the logic of Hollywood cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The blithe positivity that dominated post-New Hollywood filmmaking is reflected in Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ optimism: the manichean spirit of Star Wars (his ‘Evil Empire’ speech), the American exceptionalism of Rocky and Top Gun (his belief in the power of the individual).
Perhaps the definitive film of the Reagan era is Back to the Future, a film that the man himself quoted in his 1986 State of the Union address. It combines everything that marked the films mentioned above and ties them to a central idea: one man returning to an idealised past to save the present from weakness and moral decrepitude. Like Back to the Future and countless other nostalgia films of the time, Reaganism found a utopia in a hyperreal vision of 1950s America, a Norman Rockwell land of patriarchal values that drowned out the hum of McCarthyism and Jim Crow with the opening riff of ‘Johnny B Goode’
It is conspicuous that in a year where Democrats openly fought to claim Reagan’s legacy, Netflix’s has found a hit in Stranger Things, a nostalgia-hued monument to the blockbuster films of the 1980s. As Reagan has become a revered figure in mainstream American politics, cultural memory of the postwar era has placed increasing emphasis on its stifling social conservatism (Carol, Mad Men) and its paranoid politics (Trumbo, Hail, Caesar!). It would seem the 80s are coming to replace the 50s as what Fredric Jameson called ‘America’s privileged lost object of desire’.
While many films and TV shows have wistfully made use of the cultural signifiers of 80s Hollywood, Stranger Things is remarkable for being almost entirely composed of these signifiers. The show uses the extended format of the TV series to stitch several films together, making the cast of Stand By Me team up with E.T., the characters in a John Hughes film destroy the Alien and a ‘loose cannon cop’ save the kid from Poltergeist. Stranger Things dissolves the line between a range of tropes and archetypes to create a 1980s meta-genre, cohering these disparate elements around a shared aesthetic, a setting in time and place, and a common ideology.
That common ideology is one shared with many 1980s blockbusters: Reaganite social conservatism. In Stranger Things this can be seen in the show’s treatment of women. Much scrutiny already has been placed on the way the show reduces Barb, the show’s most independent female character, to a plot device. While the fact of her mostly unremarked upon disappearance is conspicuous in itself, more problematic is the intended effect of that disappearance. Barb is taken when she is left alone at the party by Nancy, who is too distracted by Steve to notice. The prologue of the subsequent episode crosscuts between Barb being terrorised by the monster and Nancy having sex, forcefully implying a correlation between the two. Nancy belongs to an 80s slasher film tradition of killing sexually active women but because she is deemed essential to the narrative, Barb is taken in her place. With Barb goes the only major female character in the series not defined by her interest in boys (Nancy), obsessed with the markings of traditional femininity (Eleven) or single-mindedly devoted to her children (Joyce).
Stranger Things also reflects an essentialist idea of human nature, in which qualities of good and evil are fixed and clearly demarcated. The child protagonist, a common fixture of 80s films, often represents this perspective. In Stranger Things, children exist in a microcosm of the Hobbesian ‘real world’, a zero-sum game where bullies are resolutely sadistic and Good Guys have licence to do whatever they can to stop them. In such a world, it is plausible for a boy to be evil enough to openly mock a child’s friends at his memorial service and it is in turn appropriate for that boy to have his arm broken. This vision of childhood derives from earlier boy’s adventure series like the Frank Merriwell books, a character that an adult Ronald Reagan spoke of as a role model. Stranger Things rounds out its grab bag of conservative tropes with the rogue cop (the avatar for masculinist individualism) and the corrupt, unaccountable government (the imagined nemesis of all conservative ideology).
The genius of Stranger Things is that taking these elements out of their typical generic context and organising them under a broader schema makes them feel new again, in the same way remixing a song can make it sound fresh. The downside of this is that genre provides a space for tropes and ideas to be perpetually subverted, and dissolving genre lines undermines this possibility.
The vague, warm sense of familiarity this melange of signifiers evokes speaks to the malleable nature of cultural memory. Though Stranger Things draws on blockbusters of the period and not the decade as such, the way that film versions of the 1950s, as depicted in 1980s movies, enshrined a particular vision of that period shows this is not a distinction we can trust ourselves to make. Our memory of an era is constructed by its popular representations as much as by historical evidence. When Vietnam Veteran William Adams was asked what the war was ‘really like’, he was unable to answer them because according to him ‘what “really” happened is now so thoroughly mixed up with what has been said about what happened’.
If the 80s are supplanting the 50s as politics’ ‘lost object of desire’, we should pay careful attention to the way this object is being presented. In its blank recanting of old ideas, Stranger Things is a pure example of what Fredric Jameson calls pastiche, a ‘neutral act of mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives or satiric impulses’.
In a time when Reaganism is becoming the new middle in American politics, we must be wary (in the words of Foucault) of fiction that shows us ‘not for what we were but for what we must remember having been’.
Image: still from Bedtime for Bonzo.