In 1980, I turned eleven. In 1987, I graduated from high school. In 1988, I voted in my first presidential election. In 1990, I could order a cocktail with my birthday dinner. It’s safe to say I did much of my growing up in the ’80s. Yet do I miss the decade, with all its pop culture furniture? Do I find myself wishing today’s books, movies, and TV could be more like what we had in the ’80s? Do I want to go back and relive the decade?
The only area of pop culture where I honestly prefer the 1980s is music. ’80s music, I’ll admit, has my heart, from Hall & Oates and Duran Duran to Luther Vandross and Al Jarreau. It’s said you never quite lose your love for the music you listened to when you were a teen, and I believe it. But the rest of ’80s pop culture, particularly the movies? Some I did and still do love, but in general, you can keep ’em.
This is not, I hasten to say, a dig at Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, which my husband and I recently saw. Ernest Cline’s novel, along with Cline himself, is polarizing, but I really liked the movie and its female lead, Art3mis. The move from the page to the screen might have helped, since in the movie we don’t see Art3mis solely through Wade’s eyes, which gives her a chance to become more of a person than simply an object of desire or prize to be won; I have it on authority that Wade, too, is more likable in the movie. I may see it again before it leaves theaters, though Black Panther is still my favorite movie of 2018 so far.
Yet in general, all this nostalgia for the ’80s, and the attempts like Netflix’s Stranger Things to recreate that certain ’80s magic, only serve to remind me of how much I was missing back then, particularly where SFF and action-adventure movies were concerned. Then, far more than now, I was the Target Audience That Didn’t Exist, and while I may not have been able to articulate it at the time, I know I felt it.
Consider some of the movies that we geeks remember fondly, year by year. Most of these I have seen; an asterisk indicates those I’ve seen only partially.
1980: The Empire Strikes Back, Airplane!, The Blues Brothers*, The Shining, Caddyshack, Flash Gordon.
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Time Bandits, Superman II, Stripes, An American Werewolf in London*, Clash of the Titans, Excalibur.
1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Tron, 48 Hours, Blade Runner, The Thing*. (Haven’t seen: First Blood, Conan the Barbarian.)
1983: Return of the Jedi, WarGames, A Christmas Story*, The Outsiders*. (Haven’t seen: National Lampoon’s Vacation.)
1984: Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Karate Kid, Footloose, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Splash, The Last Starfighter, Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, Dune*, The Terminator*. (Haven’t seen: Beverly Hills Cop, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.)
1985: Back to the Future, The Goonies*, Clue, Cocoon, Fright Night, Ladyhawke, Legend*, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome*, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure*, The Breakfast Club. (Haven’t seen: Brazil. Could not be paid enough money to sit through: Weird Science.)
1986: Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II*, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Highlander*, Stand By Me. (Haven’t seen: Crocodile Dundee, Flight of the Navigator.)
1987: Fatal Attraction*, Dirty Dancing, Good Morning Vietnam, The Lost Boys*, The Princess Bride, Spaceballs. (Haven’t seen: Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables, Monster Squad.)
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun*, Big, Scrooged, Willow*. (Haven’t seen: Die Hard, Earth Girls are Easy.)
1989: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade*, Heathers*, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. (Haven’t seen: Back to the Future II, Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters 2, Say Anything, Look Who’s Talking, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.)
That’s quite a few titles. Many I adored at the time. Some I could watch at the drop of a hat even today (Empire and Jedi, Airplane!, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, Good Morning Vietnam, E.T.) But how many of my year-by-year titles still hold up under my inescapably feminist perspective? The answer, sadly, is darned few. Not that the ’80s were a total loss for women: we did get Coal Miner’s Daughter, Terms of Endearment, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, and Broadcast News, all good female-centered movies that were nominated for Academy Awards. But of the treasured ’80s geek culture movies I’ve listed, only three — Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing, and Heathers — have female leads, and how interesting or empowering are these characters? (Samantha of Sixteen Candles, in particular, is average and bland because she’s deliberately written that way, and she’s surrounded by some highly questionable messaging.)
The vast majority of them serve up the wish-fulfillment fantasies of boys everywhere, hence their enduring popularity. What boy, after all, wouldn’t dream of defeating a bully (the Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid films), besting both Nazis and Indian blood cultists and finding the Holy Grail (the first three Indiana Jones films), saving the galaxy (the Star Wars and Star Trek films, The Last Starfighter), befriending an alien and breaking him out of a government facility (E.T.), or humbling an evil prince and rescuing his true love (The Princess Bride)? If you’re a boy, you can do all this and more. Of course geek guys love ’80s movies. If I were a guy, so would I.
But what do girls get to do?
They can be damsels in need of rescue (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Lost Boys, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raiders of the Lost Ark — and the last example is especially frustrating, since Karen Allen endows Marion Ravenwood with such toughness it’s easy to overlook that she never actually does anything). They can be villains who need to be thwarted (Excalibur, Blade Runner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). They can be nonentity love interests (the Karate Kid films, the Back to the Future films, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). They can be tag-alongs who never get much chance to do anything important (E.T.). And, of course they can be sexual conquests. Princess Leia does get her chances to battle evil and comes close to getting her own development arc in the Star Wars films, and even in the cheesy Flash Gordon Dale Arden kicks more butt than her 1930s serial counterpart ever got to do (admittedly not a high bar to clear). But on the whole, female characters’ possibilities seem distressingly limited. Hero, in particular, doesn’t seem to be an option.
Things have changed a lot in our pop culture since then, and mostly for the better, as more filmmakers have started to acknowledge that 1) yes, female geeks exist, and 2) yes, we too have big dreams, a whole variety of them. Yet today’s Hollywood also struggles to find fresh ideas, and filmmakers keep returning to the well of the ’80s, with reboots and even sequels (Indiana Jones 5??). When these reboots and sequels try to engage with the dreams of the female audience, ’80s purists bridle. Most obviously, the female-led Ghostbusters remake was drowning in Internet hate before it was even released, with purists protesting that it “killed their childhood.” A remake of The Last Starfighter (a movie I liked a lot, largely because of Robert Preston’s performance as an inter-galactic con man) is now in the works. If the screenplay expands the girlfriend’s character beyond the passive, mopey, unambitious bore we met in the original, will keepers of the ’80s flame cry “foul”?
Of course, creators should acknowledge their debt to the past, and today’s cinema owes a great deal to the films of the 1980s. Among other things, the ’80s saw a huge revival of the energetic, optimistic adventure and science fiction/fantasy stories that had largely been in hibernation for most of the 1970s, and movies like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Wonder Woman carry that spirit in the present and into the future. Yet when it comes to mining for source material, I can’t help thinking Hollywood would be better off letting the ’80s go. They happened, they were great in many ways, and we learned from them. Time to move on.
(If anyone notices important titles left off my year-by-year list, that’s on purpose. They’ll be covered in my next post: “The Exceptions — Girl-Positive Movies of the 1980s.”)