Why Retro ‘80s Nostalgia Rules Pop Culture

From 'Stranger Things' to 'Black Mirror,' the dungeon masters have inherited the Earth.

20th Century Fox

In a virtual reality afterlife, the brains of two deceased women live forever in an idealized version of the 1980s. It’s the premise of the 2016 Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” but it may as well describe a huge chunk of the contemporary pop culture landscape. From wildly popular TV series to blockbuster Hollywood movies, our entertainment is stuck in the ‘80s. How did this happen?

“The ‘80s are now a perennial fixture of retro culture, and there’s a lot of material, fads and micro-phases that people can draw on,” says Simon Reynolds, a longtime music critic and journalist, who wrote the exhaustive 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. He tells Inverse that even though nostalgia for other decades has happened before, the duration of ‘80s nostalgia feels unprecedented, historically speaking. “The ‘80s revival has gone on longer than the actual ‘80s did.”

The Real ‘80s vs. the Fake ‘80s

Of course, the “‘80s” of TV and film isn’t necessarily representative of the true 1980s. The zeitgeist nostalgia version of this decade is different than what really happened. In the Netflix series GLOW, this reality gap is overtly commented on. “Marc Maron’s character imagines the glam [idealized] wrestling appearing on screen,” Caseen Gaines tells Inverse. “And then, in contrast, you get the more realistic interpretation of what the ‘80s was really like. But, even that [realism] is, of course, filtered through our modern interpretation of the ‘real’ ‘80s.” As Gaines points out, our modern TV and film version of the ‘80s isn’t too different from Marty McFly hitting up the prescient “Cafe ‘80s” in the faux-future 2015 in Back to the Future II.

Kelly and Yorkie find that heaven is LITERALLY a place on earth in the simulacrum '80s of 'Black Mirror.'

Gaines knows the ‘80s. He’s written books about Pee-wee’s Playhouse, A Christmas Story, Back to the Future, and penned a forthcoming book this year about The Dark Crystal. His theory as to why ‘80s nostalgia is so undying is connected with what he calls “the excess” of the kind of movies from that decade. But Gaines also believes pop culture was more unruly and “off-kilter” in the ‘80s than it is in 2017. In other words, very popular shows and movies could be risky, bizarre, and mainstream at the same time.

“I think you see that in things like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s this fantasy version of what adulthood is like. And, somehow, that was Emmy award-winning television in the ‘80s. But I can’t imagine that being the case today.” Gaines extends this analogy to The Dark Crystal, another ‘80s film that is poised to become a new Netflix series in 2018. “It’s this complete passion project by Jim Henson that was expensive and it was a complicated shoot, and it was this fantasy by this filmmaker who had always longed to be an experimental filmmaker, but his career took a different direction. But in the ‘80s he had an ability to get funding for this project. I think there’s a certain realm of brazenness to a lot of the things that we really love about the ‘80s that I can’t really see existing in too many other decades.”

The kids of 'Stranger Things' play Dungeons & Dragons in 1983.

The Dungeons Masters Inherit the Earth

This brazenness may partially explain why contemporary shows and films pay so much homage to the ‘80s. But there might be another explanation: Dungeons & Dragons. “Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games encouraged creativity and taught people how to tell a story,” asserts David Ewalt, author of the 2014 book Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. And even though the famous role-playing game was first released in 1974, it was the simplified “basic set” version of the game, which was marketed to toy stores in 1981. Ewalt thinks this is when the game truly captured the imaginations of children, which, in turn, created the future we live in.

“If you’re playing Dungeon & Dragons, if you’re the Dungeon Master, the skill you’re learning is how to engage an audience, and how to form a narrative, and how to keep a story interesting,” Ewalt says. “And the players are learning some of the same skills here. Kids that were really into these role-playing games in the ‘80s learned all about story and structure and narrative, and then they grew up, and they kept telling stories. They went into writing, they became novelists, or they became filmmakers, they became directors, they became screenwriters.”

Ernest Cline's brand of geek chic is the poster child for the contemporary '80s craze.

Retro Dystopia

One novelist Ewalt might be alluding to is Ernest Cline, author of the 2011 novel Ready Player One. In that book — and soon to be film adaptation — another virtual reality world dominates the lives of its characters: the OASIS. And because the fictional designer of the OASIS grew up in the ‘80s, knowledge of the decade becomes fashionable again in the year 2041.

In the first chapter of the novel, the main character Wade Watts puts it like this: “Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games and fashions of the ‘80s were all the rage once again.” Slick readers will notice the obvious synecdoche: the 2041 future world of Ready Player One is exactly like the structure of the novel itself. But, Ready Player One takes ‘80s nostalgia one step further than the kids in Stranger Things being into Dungeons & Dragons or Brigsby Bear lovingly celebrating VHS tapes. In Ready Player One, the protagonists knowing trivia about the ‘80s becomes bizarrely compulsory.

Cline didn’t seem to craft this world with a touch of irony. Meanwhile, the feedback loop created by Steven Spielberg directing the film adaptation was met with either approving nods from ‘80s fanboys or resigned shrugs from everyone else. Ready Player One posits an economic and social dystopia, but the obsession with the ‘80s isn’t seen as a problem or a failure of imagination; instead, the nostalgia is the literal solution. If Wade can correctly navigate a complex virtual puzzle by discovering a bunch of ‘80s Easter eggs in the OASIS, he can quite literally rule the world. And it seems like plenty of contemporary screenwriters, directors, producers, and studios — for better or worse — feel exactly the same way.

Ready Player One will hit theaters on March 30, 2018. Stranger Things Season 2 debuts on October 27.

Related Tags