How Redeeming '80s Bullies Became Hollywood's Favorite Trope
Within a few decades, Hollywood went from showing bullies as pretty much the worst people imaginable (Stand by Me, Back to the Future) to letting them steal the show (Cobra Kai, Stranger Things' Steve). We might be a few of years away from a Back to the Future remake or sequel where we find out attempted rapist/near vehicular manslaughter-er Biff Tannen was just misunderstood, is all. Who knows, perhaps there was a deep psychological trauma behind his dislike of being buried under tremendous amounts of poop -- we are the real bullies for laughing at him.
If you look at some of the most popular TV shows of the past decade, it's striking how so many of the heroes are characters who would have been villains in the '80s. We're not just talking about Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence (who literally was a villain in the '80s) but also guys like The Walking Dead's Daryl, who started out as a racist hillbilly/walking plot complication and ended up becoming the soul of the show. In a zombie movie, Daryl would have been the guy who hides a zombie bite and makes sure to hang around the minorities as he turns so he'll eat them first.
Peacemaker's Peacemaker is even coded as an '80s bully via his love of glam metal and childhood mullet. In an '80s action movie, he would have been the psychotic killer who makes jokes as he kicks the protagonist's son off the roof of a building. But today, he's ... well, still a psychotic killer, but way more sympathetic.
The Boys' Billy Butcher beats up random people in dark bars while listening to punk music (though you kinda sign up for that when you hang out in dark bars listening to punk music). If you showed the clip below to someone 25 years ago, they would 100% believe it was a villain introduction scene.
Half the characters in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon would have been cackling villains in an '80s fantasy movie. Jesse from Breaking Bad is an impulsive meth dealer who overuses the word "bitch" -- he would have ended up dead within 15 minutes of his single Miami Vice appearance. Every protagonist in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia could have been the baddie in a separate '80s teen movie. Once again, they're into glam metal, as all horrible people apparently are.
But Stranger Things is the most useful example if we want to understand this phenomenon because we got to witness the evolution of an '80s bully in real-time. In the first season, Steve Harrington is introduced as the leader of a pack of callous bullies and the rival for sensitive outcast Jonathan Byers. Not only does he wreck Jonathan's expensive camera ...
... but he also insults his mom and his missing, probably dead brother and earns a classic raging nerd whooping to rival the "Ralphie Rage" moment in A Christmas Story.
That was clearly all the writers intended to do with Steve, but it's hard to resist the allure of the sympathetic asshole character in the post-Sopranos era. So by the end of the first season, he has started helping the good guys by the second one, he's part of the gang. In order to fill the resulting bully vacuum, the writers introduced Billy, an even worse, totally irredeemable ruffian ... who ends up redeeming himself anyway at the end of the next season.
By the fourth season, the redemption arc was already baked into the new bully archetype character: metalhead Eddie Munson is introduced as an abrasive freak who would have been the antagonist in a satanic panic movie. In 1982, he totally would have been the guy who gets possessed by a demon and kills all the others. But in 2022, he heroically sacrifices himself while playing thrash metal (the music of the devil), no less.
It's ironic that this Stephen King pastiche show keeps redeeming its bullies, considering that King himself might be responsible for this trope in the first place. The prototypical '80s bully actually came from a '70s movie: Christine Hangersen from the original Carrie, a popular girl who torments her classmate so badly that the bullied girl develops psychic powers and kills her, plus John Travolta, plus everyone else.
Another King adaptation, Stand by Me (1986), gave us Kiefer Sutherland as a tough 20-year-old who pulls knives on little kids, but the archetype was well established by then. The previous year alone had Mick from Teen Wolf (an ACTUAL tough guy who isn't afraid to bully a werewolf) ...
... Biff from Back to the Future, Chet from Weird Science, Roy from Better Off Dead, Greg from Just One of the Guys (played by Karate Kid's William Zabka, who was a bully yet again the next year in Back to School) ...
... and probably others we're forgetting. Out of the 35,000 or so bully characters in 1985 movies, the only sympathetic one was John Bender from The Breakfast Club, but only because the entire point of that movie was that none of the characters were what they seemed. Back in 1985, saying that a bully had feelings was as much of a novelty as doing a movie where Freddy Krueger opens up about his fear of intimacy.
Today, pretty much every bully character gets the John Bender treatment sooner or later. It's not exactly that the writing in general has gotten less two-dimensional than before (Stranger Things still has bad guys whose motivation is that they're bad); maybe the key to this change lies not in the bullies themselves but in their opposites. You know, the dweebs.
In a world where playing video games can be a legitimate career and movies about comic book characters rule the box office, nerds are more and more perceived as having the upper hand. That turns the good ol' fashioned bully into the underdog, in a way, because whenever we see them in a movie, we know chances are they'll amount to nothing. Johnny Lawrence had a rich stepdad, and he still ended up living in what appears to be an unfurnished motel room.
The dweebs have inherited the Earth, which automatically puts their former tormentors lower on the social scale and thus in a perfect place for the start of a growth/redemption arc. That, or people just like assholes, who knows.
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