Recently, the Netflix series Stranger Things has a lot of viewers talking about the 1980s again, and it's understandable; the show is great, and goes a long way toward capturing the look and feel of that decade without overdoing it. The show got me thinking though...I grew up during the '80s, transitioning from child to adult during that time. There was a lot going on, just as there is during any era of American history, but before we collectively glaze over all the rough spots and romanticize the 1980s, let's take a look at some of the things that weren't cool at all.
I don't think there's anything that I can say about this terrible disease that hasn't been said better by others already, but suffice it to say, AIDS sucks, and it was almost always a death sentence in the '80s. Add to that that Ronald Reagan's administration considered it to be a "gay disease," and didn't rush to respond to the health crises adequately. Things were looking extremely grim for anyone coming of age or contemplating having sex back then.
6. Moral Panics.
There have been killjoy creeps looking to stop anything young people considered fun throughout the 20th century, but a bunch of them really ramped up their efforts in the '80s. During the decade, groups formed to protest arcade games, the PMRC tried to gut music that it found offensive, and there were attempts to crack down on pornography, just to name a few efforts.
Perhaps the craziest moral panic unleashed during the '80s was the "Satanic panic" — in which religious wackos, law enforcement groups, tabloid media and certain "experts" tried to convince everyone else that large numbers of people were involved in organized Satanic criminal activities — sacrificing babies, molesting children and other horrific stuff straight out of a bad movie. Anything vaguely "occult" was suspect, whether it was music with darker themes, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or the activities of harmless magical groups such as Wiccans. Even though no compelling evidence ever surfaced to prove the fantasies those modern-day witch hunters were selling (and that's exactly what most of them were doing), many completely innocent people were harassed or jailed because too many people believed in that bullshit.
5. Casual Racism and Other Insensitive Stuff.
Today, if people call someone else a "tranny" or a "fag," there's a good chance they would get criticized for it, but that kind of terminology was used relatively often and without much consequence back in the 1980s. Calling someone a "retard" might draw scorn these days, but that term was commonly used during the decade of my youth.
And how likely is it that a mainstream teen comedy made today would feature a foreign exchange student character with a name like "Long Duk Dong," played as the worst Asian stereotyped character possible for comedic effect? A gong is sounded in the background when he appears, he pronounces Rs as Ls, and he's a caricature of Asian males who seems to be interested only in sex. He's one cruel Asian joke after another, and nestled in a coming-of-age movie that's considered a classic by many people. Sixteen Candles is still entertaining, but "The Donger" is a seriously awful character, and that kind of insensitive attempt at humor was way more mainstream 30 years ago than it is now.
4. The Cold War.
Of course it might've been harder for Americans to care about others back then because there was still a chance we might be instantly evaporated by a rolling wall of fire when a Russian ICBM landed in our backyard. The Cold War kinda looks quaint now, but paranoia over a nuclear war with our global enemies was still running high in the '80s. To quote an old hardcore punk song: "If AIDS don't get ya, then the warheads will." Those underlying fears seemed likely to come true back then.
3. Bad Fashion.
Okay, on to the lighter stuff. Nostalgia over most decades tends to focus on things like music and the fashions of the time, and that's understandable. Stranger Things has done an admirable job of nailing the look of 1984. The tendency to focus on the coolest clothes a few people wore in any given decade usually overrides the reality of the time, but one look at most high school yearbooks from the '80s will dispel any idea that average young people were running around with cool haircuts and "awesome" clothes. Parachute pants look like shit on almost anyone, and the tiny percentage of people who look good in them would look good in anything. Jackets and shirts often had inexplicably huge shoulder pads built into them — I used to have to cut them out. Almost no one looks great with a mullet, yet that haircut was one of the most common of the decade. Pants were usually high-waisted, the preppy look was terrible and eyeglasses often came in huge, ugly frames. Some '80s fashions look "fun" in retrospect, but most people tended to wear clothes that most of us wouldn't love now. Acid-washed jeans weren't anything to get excited about.
2. Ugly American Cars.
Another disappointing aspect of the decade was the cars. As with fashion, it's a subjective call, but a lot of '80s vehicles were boxy, ugly things. Very few car aficionados look back and wish they still had a 1985 Chrysler LeBaron or an '86 Capri in their driveway. Instead, our nostalgia focuses on vehicles like the iconic DeLoreans, which seem somehow more plentiful today than they were in the decade of their origin. Again, there were a few cool cars built in the '80s, but most weren't amazing.
1. Archaic Technology.
I know a lot of people who have a weird nostalgia for videotapes...the clunky VHS and rarer Betamax cassettes that are so closely associated with the 1980s. Here's the thing: That technology was great because it allowed us all to own movies, tape shows and enjoy media in ways that were impossible previously, but the actual technology kinda sucked. Ever use a ballpoint pen to spool a half-eaten videotape back into working order? Have you ever watched a slightly worn VHS tape on an old-school tube television set?
Most people who have would come to the obvious realization: That stuff sucked compared to what we have today. Now it's true that independent video stores were cool back then, and the few remaining ones still are, but even that was a mixed bag. There was nothing quite like the defeat of heading to the video store to rent a movie, only to find it had already been rented, and being stuck getting something else.
But it wasn't just old-fashioned televisions and videotapes that had issues. Music on cassettes had the same sorts of drawbacks that VHS tapes did, and most people around back then remember the experience of their car tape deck "eating a tape."
It's also an understatement to say that computers weren't nearly as sophisticated as they are today, nor were they as accessible or in as widespread use as they are now. There weren't any cell phones, calling someone in another city usually involved a long-distance charge, and there was no Internet as we would think of it today. There are people who would argue that it was nice not being constantly tethered to a phone or other communications technologies, and I would probably agree with them at times, but almost all of us enjoy modern technology now. I sure don't miss rewinding videotapes or relying on land line phone calls to make plans with friends.