Every decade has its regrettable trends. But the further we get from the '80s, the clearer it becomes that it was ... different. Sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees, and other times you can't see the forest for the clown mask you're wearing backward while masturbating in the woods at midnight. The '80s was one of those other times.
At a certain point, future generations are going to come to us wondering what the hell happened, so we'd better get our story straight. Fortunately, neurologists and sociologists have identified a number of rare and serious mental disorders that are going to come in handy when explaining just what the hell was wrong with everyone.
#5. 80s Fashion Was a Symptom of a Mental Disorder
Eighties fashion has become such a standard pop culture whipping post, it's easy to overlook how weird it really was. The 50s through the end of the 70s represented a gradual unpuckering of American assholes, and literally let its hair down. When rock stars suddenly started wearing their hair like they'd had it blown out and styled for the prom, it wasn't just weird. It undid decades of progress in the field of not giving a shit.
Black musicians also decided to take a 180-degree turn away from a decades-strong tradition of getting cooler.
Women took hair metal as a challenge, and entire species of low flying birds were never seen again.
And it wasn't just the hair. A Google image search for the phrase "80s makeup" reveals the decade's beauty secret: Don't let them see what your face looks like.
After decades of caring less, Americans were suddenly trying way too hard, and their goal appeared to be "look like we're all in the same terrible sci-fi movie."
The scientific explanation starts with the question posed by the Iraqi torturer in Three Kings: What is the problem with Michael Jackson? There are probably many answers to that question, but the one I've always found most interesting is that Michael Jackson had no idea what he looked like.
Michael Jackson, before and after the '80s.
This isn't as rare as you might think. In his new book Incognito, David Eaglemen explains that our eyes are mostly used to take in information about things that are unfamiliar or changing -- if you're driving, your eyes see the traffic light go from red to green, but you already knew that. What you may not realize is that the 95 percent of your visual field that is the street you drive down every day to work is being filled in by your brain from memory.
We do so much seeing with our memory that our visual cortex has 10 times as many nerves transmitting information from our brain as from our eyes. While this is useful when we're trying to drive without plowing through an intersection, it also means that what we see is actually a blend of what's actually out there, and whatever weird shit we have echoing around in our head.
"This one also looks like my ex-wife. How are you not seeing this?"
That's how insecurities about body parts or facial features can actually show up when you look in the mirror. While Jackson suffered from an extreme form of this called body dysmorphic disorder, the system that causes it might explain some of the havoc '80s fashions wreaked on family photo albums. As the body dysmorphic disorder Wikipedia page notes, there are plenty of other "types of body modification that do not include cosmetic surgery" such as "wearing extravagant clothing or excessive jewelry."
The three most common areas that BDD sufferers distort are the hair, skin and nose. This makes sense in the context of Jackson, but it also helps explain some of the inexplicable 80s hair and makeup trends. There are even corresponding iconic '80s fashion tragedies for Michael Jackson's string of unnecessary nose jobs. For instance, the BarberBase.com suggests that "a person with a very prominent nose might consider a medium to large-sized mustache."
Uh, my eyes are up here ladies.
What about those giant glasses that made everyone's face look like it was being swallowed by a Venn diagram? Eye-wear experts suggest people with large noses go with large, over-sized frames to compensate.
Plus, your face can now generate enough wind resistance to stop a car should the brakes fail.
It's surprising more people didn't just start hiding their face behind the Groucho nose and glasses, like Humpty.
Told he was funny looking, still got things cooking. Just saying, White Snake.
#4. Racism Anosognosia
People tend not to associate the '80s with racism. The '70s had Archie Bunker insulting every race on the planet on network TV, and the Jefferson's were still in the process of moving on up. But at least the '70s were willing to ask questions about racism. The only question the '80s asked about racism was, "Wait, you mean car racing? Because we've never heard of that other thing you asked about."
"Jim Crow? Is he the wacky neighbor on Mr. Belvedere?"
The '80s refused to show black people who weren't extraordinarily wealthy (the Huxtables, the kids from Diff'rent Strokes and Webster), or weren't actively overcoming their differences with white people (Crockett and Tubbs, Riggs and Murtaugh). Eddie Murphy became one of the decade's biggest movie stars by inventing the buddy cop movie in 48 Hours (in which his "buddy" calls him a "charcoal-colored loser," and the N-Word. Banter is fun!) and a cop from inner city Detroit whose childhood friends are all white people. It wasn't until he was fully established that he was able to show audiences what life is really like for a black man in America (who is secretly a wealthy African prince).
When black characters weren't making white people feel good about how well everyone was playing together, they had a tendency to mysteriously disappear. In Ghostbusters II, when the team have to face charges in court Winston takes an unexplained leave of absence. Showing a black guy in court was apparently too edgy, even if he was with three white guys, and the court in question was being attacked by the ghosts of mobsters.
As usual, The Man gives the black guy a pass, and sticks it to the middle-aged white guys.
The only analogy we have weird enough to explain what happened to the issue of race in the '80s is a clinical condition called anosognosia that prevents people from believing they've suffered an injury or disability despite clear physical symptoms. These people aren't lying when they claim their plainly paralyzed leg isn't paralyzed. They literally can't believe it. For instance, after Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body, he refused to retire, and launched an embarrassing media campaign claiming he could kick field goals with his paralyzed leg.
American pop culture couldn't ignore the racial divide any more than Justice Douglas could stop being paralyzed, movies just ended up acknowledging racism accidentally. For instance, in Teen Wolf, Scott (Michael J. Fox) finds out that he's a werewolf, and we find out that werewolves happen to embody nearly every single white stereotype of black people. After Scott turns into the wolf, he's not just good at basketball, he plays like a Harlem Globe Trotter, dribbling the ball between his legs, spinning it on his finger and pointlessly looping the ball behind his back before dunking. Traditional werewolf traits like grave robbing and howling at full moons are replaced with traits like spontaneous break dancing, calling classmates "my man" and starting a dance craze called "The Wolf" that can best be described as "what white people look like when trying to do the dance from 'Thriller.'
The only downside to his new "wolf" powers appears to be that women don't love him so much as they love his doggy style -- the girl of his dreams makes him transform into the wolf before they have sex for the first time. Hey, you know what they say about wolf penises.
They're barbed and terrifying?
Eventually, the school turns on the wolf when he rips a guy's shirt open for saying he murdered Scott's mom. Scott decides he has to forfeit his "wolf" powers, and play the big game as himself. Objectively speaking, this is a terrible decision, since Scott is the worst anyone has ever been at basketball in the history of movies about basketball. And that's why Teen Wolf accidentally nailed race in the '80s more than any other film. Mainstream culture was cool with "the wolf" as long as he was dunking or dancing or making them laugh. But at the first whiff of totally justified unpleasantness, they made him disappear.
#3. Alien Gay Syndrome
The '80s gave us some of the most misogynistic music ever, performed by men who didn't seem to realize they were dressed in drag. The guy giving you pouty lips in this photo ...
... is also the guy who sang the line, "Immigrants and faggots, they make no sense to me."
Psychoanalysts usually call this sort of thing sublimation -- the funneling of unacceptable urges into more acceptable formats that end up revealing the stuff you were trying to suppress. For instance, the people who designed the Washington Monument didn't know they were building a monument to boners.
It was only because they thought they were building a monument to George Washington that their unconscious was able to take over, and give our nation's capital a 558-foot-tall erection. But sublimation has been around as long as sexually frustrated men have been making art. If you spend enough time looking at anything that came out of someone's brain, you can find the hidden penises.
What separates pop culture in the '80s, beyond the standard lack of subtlety, was how frequently people trying to send the same general message ("I am a heterosexual man") ended up sending a message that I'm assuming they would perceive as the exact opposite of their intended message ("I am interested in having sex with dudes. All of them, if they're available.")
That picture of Axl Rose wasn't taken after he dozed off first at a heavy metal sleep over party. If you hear an '80s rock song about being a sex maniac who loves boobs, there's a pretty good chance it was being sung by a band that dressed like they were trying to trick men into masturbating to their album covers. And they weren't being ironic, since irony wasn't invented until later generations needed to explain the beach celebration in Rocky III, and why their older brother was calling them a fag while body slamming them in a bright yellow Speedo.
In action movies, Dirty Harry gave way to '80s action flicks that used filmmaking techniques from the world of fetish pornography to bring us montages of Sylvester Stallone's muscles.
One of the most popular toys of the '80s was named He-Man, which most scientists agree is the manliest possible combination of two syllables (assuming Ox-Dick is off the table). In the '60s, a toy named He-Man would have been a soldier or a cowboy. In the '80s, it looked like it was designed by a gay Mason whose only experience with male anatomy was a Mr. Universe competition.
It wasn't like the subtext was just slipping out here and there. It was as though there were two opposing forces of manliness and militant homosexuality waging a carefully thought out war in the brains of toy manufacturers and rock musicians. That's why mainstream pop culture's relationship with homosexuality feels more like rare impulse control disorders like Tourette and Alien Hand Syndromes, which cause patients to say or do the exact opposite of what they want to in a given situation (use the C word while reciting wedding vows, choke yourself while reciting wedding vows, or doing anything at all really).