The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Together in Electric Dreams: Films Revisiting 1980s Youth
Lesley Speed, Journal of Popular Film and Television (Spring 2000)

[This is an abridgement]
Nostalgic depictions of youth are commonplace in Hollywood cinema, but films that retrospectively examine growing up in the 1980s are a recent phenomenon. This focus on 1980s suburban youth is evident in films such as Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage, 1997), Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997), and The Wedding Singer (Frank Coraci, 1998). In contrast to earlier films and television series that reflect the preoccupations of the baby boomer generation, these films present irreverent and at times cynical views of past youth. Contemporary films revisiting 1980s youth also invest in prolonging beyond teenage years behavior that is traditionally associated with adolescence.

Revivalism and Nostalgia

Films that reflect on growing up in the 1980s are in a tradition of screen representations of past youth that is dominated by previous generations. This dominance is evident in a proliferation in the 1970s and 1980s of nostalgic and revivalist texts that focus on teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s. Within this context, recent films that revisit the 1980s present youthful reflections on growing up in that decade. The significance of the 1980s in these films can be understood first in relation to earlier film and television depictions of youth....Generational difference is evident in films revisiting 1980s youth, both at the level of a narrational perspective and in the historical dominance of previous generations within screen traditions of representing past youth.

The history of youth films with which 1980s teenagers grew up is dominated by the baby boomer generation as producers and audiences. For instance, Tony Hendra, in his history of American postwar comedy or "boomer humor" in the 1960s and 1970s, sees 1980s teen films as having their origins in films such as Animal House (John Landis, 1978), a prime example of boomer humor. In contrast to the audience of adults and adolescents that Animal House received, Hendra asserts that 1980s teen films (such as those of John Hughes) are responsible for "the assumption that comedy is for teens, and [that] only teens will go to [see] comedies," a view that "became by the mid-eighties almost universal in Hollywood" (Hendra 421). In this way, 1980s teen films are seen as an aberration in a history of youth cinema, which is fundamentally linked to adult producers and audiences....

The retrospective narrative's appeal to audiences of more than one generation is evident in 1980s screen texts that can be seen to appeal to both nostalgic and revivalist tendencies. Nostalgia, a primarily philosophical phenomenon that may be a theme of narrative texts, can be distinguished from revivalism, a textual strategy validated by audience participation in revivalist activities. Nostalgia has in the past been associated with melancholy and is termed "the alienation of human beings in society as a consequence of their consciousness of their own limitations and finitude" (Stauth and Turner 512). By contrast, the revival entails audiences, texts, and culture industries (including music and screen industries) participating in a shared recognition and manipulation of signs with reference to a particular historical period. For instance, many nostalgic screen representations of youth that appeared in and around the 1980s and focused on the 1960s were embraced by audiences as revivalist texts. Films as diverse as My Girl (Howard Zieff, 1991), Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987), and Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) evince a general fascination with the 1960s and successfully appealed to audiences of teenagers and adults alike. In particular, the use on film soundtracks of songs of the 1960s such as "My Girl" and "I Heard It through the Grapevine" gained such prominence in this period that younger audience members were able to recognize and appreciate this music purely on the basis of its canonization in recent screen texts....

The role of films revisiting 1980s youth within contemporary revivalist tendencies forms only part of the revival phenomenon, aiding in making links between clothing, music, and other aspects of a past era. For instance, publicity campaigns for The Wedding Singer highlighted the soundtrack's inclusion of hit songs from the era such as "Pass the Dutchie" and "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" thus encouraging audiences to respond to the film on this level. In that some participants in this revival are adults who were teenagers in the 1980s, films revisiting this decade share with Animal House a focus on past youth that is not necessarily intended for teenage spectators. The tendency for a revival to focus on the most extreme or outdated elements of a past era's popular culture is evident in the film's largely gratuitous inclusion of iconic images from the 1980s, such as the singer Billy Idol and the hairstyle made famous by the singer of the pop group A Flock of Seagulls. Yet the aural and visual 1980s references in The Wedding Singer and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion cannot be solely credited with initiating a current revival of interest in 1980s popular culture. References to the 1980s in these films have merely contributed to an already flourishing pattern of musical re-releases and band re-formations.

Audience participation in the 1980s revival exceeds adult nostalgia. A considerable portion of the audience for films such as Romy and Michele's High School Reunion is visibly composed of teenagers who would have been children during the 1980s and who now embrace the pop music of their parents' era within their own lives....As with a cult following, many revivalist audience activities are relatively independent of commodified culture such as films. Examples of the primacy of audiences over texts in the revival are anecdotal reports of parties with 1980s themes, collections of second-hand vinyl records from the 1980s, and increased demand among vintage clothing stores for 1980s-style clothing such as boatneck T-shirts and tube skirts....

Revivalist texts tend to highlight the selective and often contrived aspect of narrativizing history by placing an emphasis on material objects associated with the past. For instance, The Wedding Singer shares with an earlier revivalist film, Grease, the derivation of humor from aspects of personal adornment that are associated with the past. Just as Grease draws attention to outmoded rituals of personal adornment such as greased hairstyles and hair rollers in the musical numbers "Greased Lightnin"' and "Beauty School Drop-out," The Wedding Singer characterizes the supporting character of Sammy in terms of his idolization of the singer Michael Jackson. Sammy, who dresses like Jackson to express admiration for him, is positioned as an object of humor in the film, particularly in light of the audience's familiarity with a more recent public backlash against Jackson. The revivalist film's tendency to accord consumer commodities a central place in the reconstitution of the past can be contrasted with the nostalgia film's tendency to glorify a subjective and naturalized relationship to the past. For instance, the scene in Stand by Me where the central characters encounter a gang of older boys would not be out of place in the 1950s timeframe of Grease and is only linked to the 1960s when the adult protagonist reflects upon the recent death of his friend Chris in light of rising rates of violent crime since the 1960s. In relation to the nostalgia text's privileging of individual subjectivity, the revivalist tendencies of films such as The Wedding Singer and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion highlight artifice and can be linked with the public and collective aspects of revivalist tendencies in audiences.

The relationship between consumer commodities and the past in films that revisit 1980s youth can be partly attributed to the role of television in contemporary childhood. In particular, many of the teenagers of the 1980s had grown up watching television programs such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, which were central to the 1950s revival that took place in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Grease and Happy Days had become canonized as sources of images both of historical periods and of the theme of adolescence. For instance, Sammy in The Wedding Singer confesses that he grew up idolizing Fonzie from Happy Days....Recent films that revisit 1980s youth emerge from traditions of revivalism in the context of the domestic and collective importance of television.

The association of revivalism with consumer commodities such as television and popular music is at the heart of the revivalist text's narrativization of history....The importance of TV and commodified culture in relation to recent generations of teenagers can only be fully understood through considering youth as a social and historical phenomenon.

The Suburban Homeland

Recent films that revisit 1980s youth manifest the fundamental influence of suburbia on this generation. In particular, the depiction of 1980s youth and popular culture can be examined in relation to changes in suburbia over recent decades. In Teenage Wasteland, a sociological study of teenagers in the late 1980s, Donna Gaines notes a relationship between the "free space" of suburbia and acts of teenage alienation such as suicide (52). She links this paradox of suburban freedom and destruction with changes that have taken place in the social functions of American suburbs since the 1970s, when leaving a suburban family home to move to the city was a ritual shared by many teenagers and young adults. By contrast, in the 1980s "the great promise of suburbia or the wild urban adventure moved well beyond the grasp of most people. The world out there seems less welcoming than it once was. It has less to offer, and the road is harder....Gaines sees this shift in suburbia's role for teenage aspirations as a loss of hope stemming from such factors as Reaganite "social intolerance" (134), diminished social resources for youth, and a lack of youth leisure activities and spaces that are not controlled by adults. In films that revisit 1980s youth, the theme of leaving the suburbs is evoked in the face of the possibility that the "wild urban adventure" (Gaines 54) is no longer viable.

....Gaines writes in the early 1990s that "[t]wenty years ago [ldots] any rebel kid [in the suburbs] would have just split, walked, and not looked back" (54). Gaines, herself a baby boomer, goes on to note that teenagers of the 1980s have "grown up in the shadow of the baby boom. [ldots] By the 1980s, the United States had suffered severe economic setbacks and high [un]employment. Divorce rates rose, and the patriarchal structure of the American nuclear family eroded. The eighties kids feel cheated" (237). In films revisiting 1980s youth, characters' adult occupations do not measure up to their adolescent aspirations: Romy is a receptionist, and Michele is unemployed; Robbie's occupation of wedding singer is a central source of humor in The Wedding Singer. The title sequence of Grosse Pointe Blank maps a relationship between today's young adulthood, commonly dubbed "Generation X," and the baby boomer generation across a black comic depiction of rival hitmen.

Here, the protagonist, Martin Blank, performs an assassination that is immediately undermined when his rival, Grocer, eliminates the parties remaining at the scene. The generational tension between Martin and Grocer is underscored through the respective casting of John Cusack, a graduate of 1980s teen films, opposite Dan Aykroyd, a central purveyor of boomer humor since the 1970s. Yet Grocer's authority is undermined when Martin refuses to join his "union" for hitmen and when his young rival ends up killing him. Nevertheless, the title sequence seems to affirm the continued presence of the older generation through the use of the 1972 hit song "I Can See Clearly Now" to accompany images of violence, a juxtaposition that evokes a fashionable cynicism that is characteristic of Generation X (Hicks 72)....

The tendency for retrospective depictions of youth to focus upon a time before a loss of innocence is key to the significance of the high school in The Wedding Singer, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and Grosse Pointe Blank. Where films about growing up in the 1950s or 1960s commonly foreshadow traumatic events such as the Vietnam War, comedies revisiting 1980s youth focus on the high school years as a period of innocence that precedes entering the outside world. Far from constituting a trivial or purely individual source of nostalgia, the high school years in these films are historically significant because they are situated at a turning point between the confidence of the baby boomers and the adolescent alienation that has been linked to accelerating violence in 1990s high schools. Returning to the high school peer group in a quest to resolve the problems of the present is a theme of Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, where each of the two protagonists seeks to revive a former infatuation. In Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin's attempts to rekindle his relationship with Debi can be read as an attempt to compensate for the losses of his family home and his mother's recognition. In The Wedding Singer, Robbie's teenage years are idealized as the source of his earlier success as a rock singer and of his relationship with Linda. In these films, the focus on high school in the 1980s reveals a displacement of unfulfilled aspirations in the face of a collective loss of confidence....

The significance of social and historical space in films revisiting 1980s youth can be understood in terms of changes in American society, with the result that the tradition of teenagers' leaving the suburbs to find success is less viable. In addition, the reflection on youth from a perspective of young adulthood reflects a problematic relationship to traditions of nostalgia established by previous generations. In this context, the increased difficulty of achieving traditional definitions of success can seem to lend confirmation to a desire to retain links to adolescence even as an adult.

Extended Youth

The depiction of the past in these films evokes extended youth as an alternative to the nostalgia that can accompany encroaching age. In particular, the return to relationships and aspirations of the high school years reflects a continued attachment to cultural forms and tastes associated with adolescence. For instance, the protagonists in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion never tire of dressing up, going to dance clubs, and eating junk food. The theme of extended youth can be considered in the context of contemporary analyses of youth films and youth audiences.

The blurring of generational differences between adulthood and youth is evident in contemporary audiences and consumption practices for screen entertainment. For example, the contemporary American cinema tends to position teenagers at the center of audiences for blockbuster films....Contemporary Hollywood's propensity for making blockbuster films targeted at more than one generation is central to understanding the blurring of generational difference in screen texts.

Although there has been little analysis of the blurring of the divide between adolescence and adulthood in relation to television and film, studies of changes in children's social roles are relevant here. For instance, Joshua Meyrowitz argues that in recent decades there has been a blurring of former social distinctions between adults and children: He cites as examples the adoption by adults of clothing and behavior traditionally identified with children, such as jeans, T-shirts bearing pictures of cartoon characters, and certain types of language....

Extended youth in recent films is often manifested as a disavowal of aging and is reinforced through the cinema's central positioning of young audiences and young protagonists. For instance, Sammy in The Wedding Singer takes inspiration from the character of Fonzie in Happy Days in his efforts to lead a lifestyle of freedom from romantic commitment. However, Sammy admits late in the film that his accomplishment of this lifestyle has been inhibited by his failure to attract many women. In this respect, Sammy's lifestyle is based on an adherence to aspirations formed in adolescence, which equate masculinity with autonomy, composure, and sartorial flair. In Grosse Pointe Blank, too, the protagonist continues to indulge in impulsive and reckless behavior as an adult. Romy and Michele's High School Reunion affirms the value of extending adolescent behavior beyond youth by aligning the protagonists' ultimate success with skills from their high school years. The film's flashbacks demonstrate that Romy and Michele's interests in clothing and personal adornment derive from their teenage years when they both attended the senior prom dressed as the singer Madonna. At the reunion, the Vogue editor's praise for the "fun, frisky use of color" in their designs affirms the value of attributes that Romy and Michele have sustained since adolescence, such as energy, imagination, resourcefulness, perseverance, and loyalty to one another. As well as being linked to the modification of aspirations, the theme of extended youth entails a privileging of adolescence over adulthood in films revisiting 1980s youth....

Boomer humor's investment in behavior associated with youth is implied in Sarah Harwood's analysis of a profitable Hollywood film of the 1980s, Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984). Harwood argues that in Ghostbusters the characters played by boomer humorists Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis are "ambivalently positioned . . . , approved by the adult world, but not of it, in a position . . . to complete oedipalization by heterosexual romance and union, yet either oblivious to, or ambiguous about it" (146). This ambivalent relationship to adult institutions is shared by Martin and Grocer in Grosse Pointe Blank. In a decade of cinema replete with images of children as redeemers of the nuclear family (such as in Look Who's Talking [Amy Heckerling, 1989] and The Golden Child [Michael Ritchie, 1986]), Ghostbusters' positioning of adults as children caters primarily to a young audience: "[I]t is . . . children who are privileged through the representation of adults who have assumed their characteristics an d consciousness and who win against the adult, symbolic world" (Harwood 146). An association between baby boomers and the desire for extended youth, even childhood, forms the context for the delaying of adult responsibility in films revisiting 1980s adolescence.

The depiction of an extended youth as the solution to adult problems in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, Grosse Pointe Blank, and The Wedding Singer can be contrasted with the conservatism of redemptive childhood in 1980s films. In particular, Harwood explains that the positioning of children as "standard-bearers for the future" in films such as Look Who's Talking is "retrogressive" in that these children "bear the imprint of a patriarchal impulse to fix the nuclear family in its public representation of private power relations as permanent and immutable" (137). By contrast, recent films revisiting 1980s youth commonly eschew or undermine traditional or stable images of the nuclear family. Just as the wedding party spectacles in The Wedding Singer foreground the refusal of the effeminate keyboardist, George, to conform to heterosexual behavior by emphasizing his propensity to burst into tears or a rendition of a Culture Club song, traditional families and relationships are undermined in Grosse Pointe Blank and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, respectively....

Recent comedy films that reflect on growing up in the 1980s can be seen within a tradition of screen representations of past youth. Although the teenagers of the 1980s are considered to have grown up in the shadow of the baby boomers, recent films revisiting 1980s youth highlight ways in which this generation differs from its predecessors. The Wedding Singer, Grosse Pointe Blank, and Romy and Michele 's High School Reunion can be seen to depict a recent generation of youth in relation to suburban settings and rituals, as well as catering to revivalist tendencies in film and television. In the face of diminished optimism toward employment, there emerges an affirmation of adolescent ideals and the privileging of contemporary adolescent audiences in relation to today's cinema.

[Refer to the original source for acknowledgements and bibliography]


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