"Stranger Things" and the frustrations of Gen X's '80s nostalgia habit

The escapism of nostalgia can feel especially necessary these days. But it's not always honest

Published May 27, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

Finn Wolfhard as Mike WHeeler, Noah Schnapp as Will Byers and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)
Finn Wolfhard as Mike WHeeler, Noah Schnapp as Will Byers and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in "Stranger Things" (Courtesy of Netflix)

I love "Stranger Things" as much as any other pop-culture-obsessed Gen Xer, but it frustrates me. It hits all the nostalgia buttons, but the 1980s as represented on TV and in movies are often foreign to me. That goes for retrospective works as well as media contemporary to the decade.

When I started working on my novel, "Sinkhole," I knew I wanted to set it in the 1980s, but not for the nostalgia factor. I wanted to talk about the social and cultural isolation teens experienced in the 1980s. I wanted to address the routine threat of violence gay teens faced at school. I wanted to show that the 1980s were not all flashy clothes and conspicuous consumption, that poverty existed in between episodes of "Dallas" and "Dynasty." I also wanted to set it in the 1980s because my plot relied on a lack of cell phones and social media. I never thought of it as being nostalgic, but it turns out that nostalgia is a tricky thing. It creeps in at the edges when you aren't looking.

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How we remember places and people is often tied to scents and food. I mean, JELL-O Pudding Pops had a disgusting mouthfeel, but my brain can remember that more clearly than why I walked into the kitchen 10 minutes ago. Songs can drag us back in time like the Tardis. I remember the smell of the tea roses outside of my first grade elementary school more clearly than where we lived. Those memories are often free of the larger cultural and social issues of the time and can provide a moment's respite.

That's the appeal of nostalgia. It doesn't have to be learned or understood, it simply has to be felt. It's a lot easier to look back and, possibly falsely, remember how good something was than it is to constantly keep pace at work and with younger generations. The fact of the matter is, Gen X is tired. We're now a sandwich generation, which sounds a lot better than it actually is, caught between being the parents of teenagers and the children of older adults. It makes sense that we want to remember, or even just imagine, a past that involves carefree June nights and baseball cards in bike spokes. Nostalgia has become a necessary form of escapism.

It is any wonder Gen X is the way it is?

Yet, for all the bright colors and safe cul-de-sacs filled with unsupervised kids, the 1980s saw Reagan cut funding for mental healthcare, creating an ongoing epidemic of homelessness. The erosion of the middle class started in earnest. The war on Black people, marketed under a false flag as a war on drugs, destroyed families. We watched as the gay men in our lives became sad and scared, many fading out of existence from AIDS. Coming of age in the 1980s meant sex was no longer a moral, cultural or interpersonal issue — it was something that could kill you. Millions of kids around the world watched as astronauts were blown to smithereens. If you grew up in South Florida, the horror of what happened to Adam Walsh engendered an early mistrust of adults. 

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How many kids in the 1980s watched "The Day After" and spent their junior high years waiting for bombs to drop? It is any wonder Gen X is the way it is? A few months ago, I tried to get my son to watch "The Twilight Zone" reboot from the mid-'80s. He loves "The Walking Dead" and the "Halloween" franchise, but couldn't deal with the bleakness in these episodes. In particular, "A Little Peace and Quiet," directed by Wes Craven, which ends with a woman having to choose between isolation and annihilating the whole planet, was too depressing. It was jarring to think that was what we grew up with, and now his generation is growing up with terrors all their own.

People say they long for "better, simpler times." They weren't simpler; we were. We were too young to fully understand what was going on, and that's the case for every generation. Also, the idea that the era one grew up in is the "right" one is egocentric. In some ways, we can't help it. Our brains are wired to remember adolescence stronger than other periods in our lives.

Hollywood is cashing in, as it does with each generation, and just as "Happy Days" was meant to appeal to those nostalgic for the 1950s, "Ghostbusters," "MacGyver," "Full House," "The Karate Kid," "Mad Max" and "21 Jump Street" have all had reboots to capture the hearts and wallets of those longing for their '80s childhoods. It's an endless summer of pop culture consumption. In some ways, I think "Cobra Kai" succeeds best in feeding the nostalgia beast, while still recognizing that the 1980s weren't all that great. The original "Karate Kid" was a simplistic movie that positioned Daniel as the hero. "Cobra Kai" revisits the same characters over 30 years later and we're forced to reconsider that Daniel was a bit of an asshole and that Johnny was going through some shit. To the show's credit, they don't just rehash the source material and there are some surprisingly deep moments.

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At the start of the pandemic, people began re-watching and -reading comfort shows and books. An article in National Geographic noted that "many are turning to nostalgia, even if they do not consciously realize it, as a stabilizing force and a way to keep in mind what they cherish most." We want to remember the good things, and nostalgic memories are often social memories. For the last two years, we've been isolated and often the only faces we regularly see are in a rectangle on our computer monitor. Is it any wonder we're drawn to nostalgia, especially now?

People say they long for "better, simpler times." They weren't simpler; we were.

Still, time marches on. The end of the 1980s brought a few good things. The Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended at the beginning of the 1990s. More importantly, caller ID was invented in 1988. For all of my curmudgeonliness and desire to avoid mythologizing a time period with its share of flaws, I appreciate where my own nostalgia slipped into my novel. I miss the old underground feel of gay bars while simultaneously appreciating that cultural shifts mean those isolated safe spaces aren't quite as necessary. I forced my characters to listen to songs I enjoyed. I even reminisced fondly about my old, unreliable cars while being grateful that my current car actually starts. One thing I don't miss is manipulating a crappy TV antenna and forgetting to program the VCR. I'm relieved to know that "Stranger Things" will available at the press of a button when I need to escape to a past that never existed.

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By Davida G. Breier

Davida G. Breier is the author of the novel "Sinkhole," out now from University of New Orleans Press. Davida discovered the world of zines and independent publishing in 1994 and Baltimore’s City Paper awarded her with “Best Local Zinester” in 2000 and “Best Zine” in 2003. She won the Literary Death Match Baltimore 3.0 event in 2011. She’s spent the last two decades in various roles within the book industry and currently works for Johns Hopkins University Press as Director of HFS and the Co-Director of Marketing and Sales for the books division.

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1980s Commentary Gen X Nostalgia Stranger Things