Cultural obsession with the ‘80s needs to be overthrown 

Photo by: Charlie Martin

Today’s nostalgia for the 1980s is largely a result of it being the last time there was a major cultural shift. If our current moment’s infatuation with ‘80’s aesthetic revivals is a symptom, it’s one that arises from a powerless awareness of that decade’s failures and it’s time to think the new again. 

For those that have been paying attention to what’s made waves in mainstream entertainment in the past three or so years, one might be left with the impression that the Yamaha DX7 synth was released in 2020 instead of 1983 with mainstream artists like The Weeknd going full ‘80s revival as of late. When you think about it, it’s staggering that there’s a nostalgia for a time when the mall was a vibrant watering hole for suburbanite adolescents and when the part-time fast food job was a kind of subtly enforced cultural puberty for understanding labour’s baseline importance in neoliberal markets. I mean, it’s more than telling that Gen Z opting out of work they find meaningless is seen as a gesture of privilege by Gen X. 

Though the recent portrayals of the decade where society stopped existing is often soberly portrayed — even the title of The Weeknd’s smash hit “Blinding Lights” says a lot about the hidden imperialism of ‘80s flash — when it comes to the decade’s  detrimental societal effects, it’s often to keep the idea that the ‘80s still had this thing called Culture and so there may still be superstructural things to save from that decade or at least be nostalgic about. 

I recently saw Cocaine Bear in the theatre, a film that follows the murderspree of a coked-out black bear in the ‘80s, and it struck me how this film continues a trend that appears essential to the current popular renditions of an ‘80s ontology. Namely, it’s treated a priori that the social background of the ‘80s is one of private domestic sadnesses, failed drug wars with ineffectual cops, strained city-budgets involving massive racial implications and children who casually cuss and have no qualms about the existence of deviant forms of sex. An ‘80s where Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign is a pre-established infinite hypocrisy and big hair is a utilitarian contrasting mechanism for the standard of facial boredom. 

Everything just mentioned can be found in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things in one form or another. 

Notably, all of these backgrounded elements are never central dilemmas, not in Stranger Things or Cocaine Bear, nor are they early red herrings that cement the rising action of a plot that is capturing issues around how devastating the ‘80s was for the poor. It’s as if this preformulated obviousness of the moral decay of Reaganite political economy performs our activism in advance so we can vicariously enjoy the nostalgia fest. In other words, cynicism is not and has never stood on the side of political subversion. 

Cocaine Bear is interesting for other, not entirely unrelated, reasons too. Already, it’s such an absurd premise that to read it as a political text is to invite mockery from the get-go, in the same way that reading a Quintin Tarantino film as political does. The cool-guy philosophical perspectivism embedded in a Pulp Fiction makes analysis of such a cultural object a tacit admission of authoritarian tendencies. 

Interestingly enough, Cocaine Bear takes clear influence from Tarantino in that different groups from seismically separated milieus are all interwoven into a narrative fabric quilted down by one stupid meaningfully empty surplus object that paradoxically creates the grounds for any shared significance amongst the varying sub-plots (Pulp Fiction’s briefcase/the Cocaine Bear). This central object being self-consciously stupid and point(less) is why so much significance is ascribed to mistakes, mishap, pointless semantic arguments, detours and digressions in postmodern films. The political corollary is that in the wake of the Reagan/Thatcher era all lofty alternatives to neoliberalism are impossible to imagine. One can get lost in the rich microcosm of different lifestyles and social positions a la Tarantino, so long as they aren’t woven together in a pursuit for finding solidarity in their particular contexts to use as scaffolding for a universal project of political change or deciding what issue is paramount. 

Contrast this to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite where the surplus object — which in film theory is called the MacGuffin — was a rock meant to give material wealth to its owner. This rock is given to the poor family by the family’s son’s upper-class university friend. The rock pops up during all the worst moments for the poor family, yet the son cleaves to it throughout the film. It shows that the surplus tie of meaning can be fortuitous for one group of people (the rich) and be the object cause of oppression for another. This parallax view of the MacGuffin, depending on social standing, can be addressed by the film, and when it is it often demonstrates its politics. For example, by the end Parasite the rock is literally used by a man more poor and destitute than the poor family to smash their son’s head in. 

The reason Pulp Fiction is so apolitical was because it self-consciously understood and played with its surplus object being empty much in the same way another giant postmodern work of the ‘90s, D.F.W’s Infinite Jest, treated its titular filmic object as this empty point of desire, though Wallace’s story politicizes this playfulness through the politics of addiction. Cocaine Bear’s apolitical moments are certainly there as well, but it personalizes its surplus object in a way that protects parts of the ‘80s conservativeness, especially around womanhood. 

First, it does the bare minimum background activism of that kind of “soberized” ‘80s analysis I mentioned earlier, exemplified in a scene where the kids ingest cocaine nonchalantly as well as in the overall premise that the drug smuggler who dropped the cocaine duffel bags in the Tennessee forest, Andrew C. Thornton II, was a narcotics officer— a surrogate of the security state’s direct involvement in fueling the drug war in the ‘80s. 

The mom, Sari (Keri Russell), becomes a metaphor for a mother’s ferocious natural inclination to protect her children and restore order in the domestic sphere at all costs when the bear’s children are threatened by Syd (Ray Liotta) and it becomes a direct analogue to Sari’s situation: protect the kids at all costs. Sari’s cause becomes something that all the characters coalesce around despite their narrative differences by the film’s end when they turn on Syd, the drug dealer looking to recover his organization’s lost cocaine bags and who threatens the bear cubs and Sari’s children to do so. 

At the beginning of the film Sari is aloof and interested in dating guys, this ends up having consequences as that leads to her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) to wander into the national park where the cokedup bear is beginning her rampage in order to get her mother’s attention back. 

All the character’s personal dilemmas magically disappear when they make the shift to protecting Sari and her children and the cubs. It’s worth mentioning that Nancy Reagan was against the feminist movements of the ‘80s, feeling that women should be the domestic servants of the house. 

All of this is to say that ‘80s depictions that concede a bunch of terrible aspects about the ‘80s ultimately reify aspects of today’s political landscape. At the same time these cultural texts can be read as desperate cries for help considering that we’ve lost a cultural specificity that could be intuited in the movements from ‘50s to ‘60s and the ‘70s. 

The end of history, as per Francis Fukayama, was declared in 1993, in the decade where it became clear that culture had begun to cannibalize itself in forms of pastiche, kitsch and relativism. 

And here we are, reviving the last decade that seemed to have the vestiges of change, just any change at all. 

The question that needs to be answered now is if the hegemonic attitude of mimicry, nostalgia and revival in entertainment can be overthrown. 

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