Reminder For 'Stranger Things' Fans: The Eighties Sucked
The most unrealistic part of Stranger Things is that at no point does a character say, "Guys, I'm just going to let the monster eat me so that I don't have to live in the eighties anymore."
Statistically, most fans of that show aren't themselves old enough to remember the Reagan era, and most of the people reading this aren't either. Neither are those who enjoyed Ready Player One, or It, or any of the other recent love letters to the decade.
Well, I was there. I remember those years vividly, in the way that you vividly remember a bird pooping into your open mouth. The eigthies sucked shit, and the decade's resurgence is more proof that nostalgia is a cancer. Why? Well ...
The Food Was A Disaster
In the 1980s, everyone ate these frozen TV dinners that were like the food they serve to prisoners to punish them for rioting. Look at this photo:
Note that it is the result of corporate food stylists trying to make the dish look as appetizing as possible. "But they still have sad frozen dinners today!" Not like this, they don't. Take the most tragic frozen lump you've ever microwaved at a gas station, and it still represents a few decades of scientific advancements in frozen food technology. Also, this was before we had a microwave, so that thing still took like a goddamned hour to heat.
When actual home-cooked meals were made, it was endless casseroles and other dishes designed to be assembled quickly and easily in households in which both parents were suddenly working and neither were happy about it. Even the pizzas were sad:
All across the country, chagrined parents set these dishes in front of their children and said, "I'm so sorry. You have to understand that it's the eighties, and we just don't know any better."
You Were Always Breathing Cigarette Smoke
Every meal was eaten with smoke in your eyes. I don't care where you were. You could be in a freaking hospital cafeteria, and you'd still be chewing your food amidst an acrid cloud of cancer. There were two kinds of restaurants back then: those that allowed smoking at every table, and those that would let you to sit in a non-smoking section which was close enough that the smoke drifted over anyway.
The indoor smoking bans that are common now were decades away. People smoked in cars, in movie theaters, and on airlines. Your dentist smoked while he worked on your teeth, smashing butts into an ashtray he'd sat on your forehead.
Related: The 4 Weirdest Lessons '80s Movies Really Wanted To Teach Us
The Cold War Paranoia Was Insane
You ever see a weird sign at a business, like "OUR BURGERS CONTAIN NO BABOON MEAT," and immediately realize you're clearly missing mountains of crucial context? Well, growing up in the 1980s was like that. You'd walk down the sidewalk, sneeze, and immediately an adult would spin on you and say, "Excuse me, did you just say that America isn't the best country in the world?"
I was born right when Vietnam ended, and so had no frame of reference for the weird vibe that came after, the bizarre defensiveness of a humiliated nation that had just lost its very first war, its social fabric suddenly ripped to shreds. The action movies were all corny, hamfisted pro-war propaganda, stories about oily muscular men going back to Vietnam and winning this time, damn it.
I know that kids born right after 9/11 have to have felt something similar, but having lived through both, I'm telling you that the Cold War was worse. Where the War on Terror only claimed to be a war to save civilization, the Russians actually did have enough nuclear warheads to kill every American several times over -- all they had to do was push a button. The constant terror of that happening was palpable, like walking around 24 hours a day with a masked stranger pressing a gun to your head. It hung over every interaction, every single day. It made it hard to breathe.
There Was Nothing To Do -- NOTHING
My town didn't have a movie theater -- most towns didn't. Most towns didn't have music venues, or video arcades, or bookstores. "What about shopping malls, like the Starcourt Mall in this last season of Stranger Things?" No town that size had a mall like that back then, or anything remotely like it -- those were reserved for cities and rich suburbs (they shot those scenes in a dead mall on the outskirts of Atlanta). I lived at least two-and-a-half hours away from anything that looked like the Starcourt, and back then the entire state of Indiana probably only had one.
"But what did teenagers do back then?" They went "cruising" -- driving around the block in an older friend's car, over and over, while sipping on a single beer that someone stole. "But didn't you go off and have adventures on your bicycles, like in Stranger Things?" Yeah, you'd ride to the junkyard and try to find something made of glass you could break, or you'd go off to the woods to look at the porn magazines some older kid had hid under a tree trunk.
The TV had three channels, and VCRs and premium cable were both still too expensive for most families (in 1986 only the richest 25% had home video). If you watched a movie, you saw the censored version they showed at night on network TV, with the cursing badly overdubbed and entire scenes cut to make room for commercials. If you had to get up to answer the phone and missed a key scene, that part of the movie was just lost to the sands of time. No recording, no pausing, no replays. And if you wanted something indie or niche, too bad.
The Video Games Were Bullshit
"Hold up," says some old person in the audience, "I grew up in the eighties, and we had everything! Nightclubs, cool restaurants, comic book shops ..." Yeah, congratulations on living in a city and/or a wealthy suburb. Statistically, most of us didn't. The rest of us were watching The Breakfast Club on a small blurry wood panel TV and thinking, "Dude, their school library is a palace."
What was I talking about? Oh, right, video games. Retro gaming is also a thing now, and it's good to preserve the 4% of games released back then that were actually fun. But in the 1980s, the odds were you didn't live anywhere near an actual video game store. So if you were rich enough to own an NES or a Sega Master System, you were buying whatever games turned up at Sears or K-Mart or whatever garbage-ass department store was in driving distance.
The only available game reviews were in magazines that went to press months before the games were playable, and I swear to god, they just blindly guessed their scores. Not that it really mattered; I once went more than a year between buying games purely because literally nothing new hit shelves during that time. The nearest store had like two games in a scuffed glass case, and if you asked the cashier if more were on the way, they'd say, "Child, what decade do you think this is? Wait ... are you from the future? Bobby, get over here, this boy is a time traveler! But be careful, he's probably radioactive."
In Fact, It Was A Cultural Low Point In General
Hey, you know how everybody makes fun of the Transformers movies like they're some kind of symbol of the decline of cinema? Well, in the eigthies we had the original cartoon, which existed purely because Ronald Reagan repealed a law limiting how many ads could be crammed into children's TV programming. This encouraged toy manufacturers to slap together shows that were nothing but 30-minute ads for action figures. The animation spared every possible expense:
"But what about music? Michael Jackson? Prince?" No, you're succumbing to the filtering fallacy, remembering only the stuff that stuck around because it was good. My introduction to rap music was this rapping John Wayne song that charted in 1984:
And here's a metal song that charted in 1988:
"But there were tens of thousands of pieces of art across different media you could be talking about! There's no way that's a representative sample of the entire decade!" No, it was pretty much all some version of the above. I'm sorry you can't accept that. The only good movie was RoboCop, and that's because it was specifically about how we absolutely cannot allow the future to be like the eighties.
Bullying Was On A Whole Other Level
You know how in Stranger Things -- and most shows from or about the era -- bullies will come along and just straight up try to murder a protagonist?
Yeah, that was a thing. The bullies had knives. There was no one to complain to. The high school principal had gone to school during the Great Depression and figured that trauma was just part of the curriculum.
This was all long before Columbine, when schools across the country would finally decide bullying was a Bad Thing that needed an response beyond "No one likes a tattletale" or "Boys will be boys." Teachers told homophobic jokes in class. Your gym coach was a Vietnam vet with one arm who told you to play dodgeball and then passed out on the bleachers.
Around here is where someone even older than I will point out that this was even worse in the sixties, whereupon someone older than them will speak of how in the thirties the nuns were legally allowed to use a red-hot branding iron on your genitals if you failed to shine your shoes before class. I don't doubt it's true, and you're free to go write your own article about it. But this is about the eighties, old-timer.
Everyone Lived In An Information Desert
Books were expensive and could only be found on a circular wire rack at the grocery store. Sure, you could get them from the library, if by some miracle they happened to have a copy of the thing you wanted, but you most likely owed several dollars in late fees for a book you checked out when you were six, and were terrified of even walking past the place.
Magazines were also expensive, and good luck finding anything dedicated to whatever hobby you were into. The local drug store had Sports Illustrated, Field & Stream, and Guns & Ammo. The local newspaper's front page was always about somebody's barn that burned down. The local radio station was a guy slowly reading notices about upcoming church raffles and lost pets.
Related: 5 Dark Realities Of Living Through The 1980s AIDS Crisis
How Did People Even Have Friends Back Then, Seriously
You think it's hard getting friends together now because people are slow to reply to texts? In the eighties, most didn't have any kind of voicemail (answering machines, back in those days), and probably 10% of my friends didn't have a phone in the house at all. Communication with those guys worked exactly as it would have a thousand years earlier. Over summer vacation, kids would vanish from your life for three months. They could be dead, for all you knew.
If your friend moved to another state, they may as well have been on the moon. Long-distance phone charges came with exorbitant costs, and calls had to be kept short. You could maybe write them a letter, but they'd never, ever write back, and you'd just assume they'd found new friends. Or died.
Yes, The Economy Was Worse
All of the movies were about people driving Ferraris and doing lines of coke next to a swimming pool. Meanwhile, our toilet was leaking under the floor, and we couldn't afford to fix it. Only one of my friends owned a computer (majority PC ownership was still two decades away), and it seemed like everyone's car just barely worked.
I won't bury you under boring numbers, but yes, the unemployment rate was much higher, and the jobs paid less back then, no matter how you adjust for era. It was extremely common for homes to have no air conditioning, and the houses were smaller. Reagan had crushed labor unions, manufacturing jobs were flowing out to Japan, and the idea of an American-made television or stereo became a running joke. Partly as a result of this ...
Related: 5 Modern Events That Actually Already Happened In The '80s
Politics Were Even More Toxic
Everything you hate about Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan did more, and worse.
In an era when we came within seconds of species-wide annihilation on multiple occasions, Reagan glibly joked about it in public, knowing that he and the other elites would be whisked away to well-equipped bomb shelters. He was frequently disoriented and confused in public, and there was frequent speculation about dementia (he'd be officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's only six years after leaving office). People constantly "joked" about him getting confused and accidentally launching nukes.
First Lady Nancy Reagan invited an astrologer into the White House to advise them. The national debt tripled. The societal outrage and backlash was identical to now, if not worse. Reagan was just as unpopular as Trump at the same point of his presidency. Only now imagine if Trump won reelection despite all that and became so overwhelmingly popular that his VP took over after he was done, effectively extending his reign to 2028.
The Overall Cultural Anxiety Was Indescribable
This isn't a contest. I'm not saying your fears about the future aren't valid. (The last time we saw suicide rates this high was, yep, 1986.) I'm saying that the only reason today seems worse is that you have knowledge that eighties America didn't have: You know how things turned out for us.
In 1984, it was actually seen as almost certain that if humanity survived to see the 21st century at all, we'd be competing with rats for food. We waited for the nukes to come, waited for the Soviets to take over the Earth, for the Japanese to collapse our economy, for the cities to descend into crime and chaos. I swear that every movie, show, or song was either worshiping the cocaine-and-Jacuzzi lifestyle or warning about the end times, like we were all having one final party until the real world looked like Escape From New York, The Day After, or the Mad Max movies.
And it wasn't like we had any healthy coping mechanisms. This was square in the dark ages of mental healthcare, when people made jokes about those weirdos in Hollywood needing "therapists." There was no social media through which we could connect to each other, no easy way to debunk propaganda, no way to reach out across physical and cultural boundaries, no one to let you know that you weren't alone.
So now imagine that a few decades from now, people are making cool action shows set against the backdrop of the Trump years, all of your current anxieties turned into an aesthetic. The characters will pass by a protest at a migrant detention center wearing Logan Paul T-shirts and talking about how their iPhone just reminded them that they're late for their Uber shift as they conspicuously lift up a can of Monster Energy Drink. Only it's all clean and fun and cool, and makes the viewers kind of wish they were living back in 2019, when things were simpler, more innocent, more authentic.
I mean, you'd still watch if the show was good, I guess. But you'd spend the whole time kind of wishing there was a way you could punch an entire decade in the balls.
You can follow Jason "David Wong" Pargin on Twitter, his Instagram, or Facebook, or Goodreads, or any of the many accounts he's forgotten about.
For more, check out Why Every '80s Sitcom Decided To Kill Off The Mom - After Hours: