Top Gun in the 1980s
When I first started teaching about the 1980s, I felt alone and afraid. I put on the self-confident, know-it-all style that Tom Cruise embodied in Top Gun
, but deep down I worried because I knew that I was flying solo. There was no mother “goose” to protect or guide me. I had never heard a professor get into that decade, and although I had lived through the decade, I did so playing with lego toys, watching G.I. Joe
cartoons, and believing that Hulk Hogan was a real “American hero”. But now, the decade has a rich literature, especially to explain the rise and dominance of Ronald Reagan’s new conservatism. If I were to attend graduate school now, I imagine that works by Gil Troy
, Darren Dochuk
, and Kim-Phillips-Fein
would be part of my comprehensive examinations.
and Major Problems
focus on the rise of the “new right” in the 1980s. Hist
even titles the chapter “Reagan’s America.” In 1980, he won the presidency with 50% of the vote (Carter only received 41%) but 90% of the Electoral College. In 1984, Reagan won with almost 59% of the popular vote. And it is true, Reagan put his stamp on the United States during those years. His new deregulated conservatism stood against the New Deal-Great Society liberalism created by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But as one whose first political button was for Michael Dukakis (I think I would refer to him as “Dewey” when stumping on his behalf to my middle school classmates in 1988), I’ve been in search of a way to fold Reagan’s conservatism into broader themes, rather than see it as the central theme. So here goes.
To teach the 80s this time, I’m going to focus on the concept of “top gun” – from the top grossing movie of 1986 (by the way, Crocodile Dundee
was second and Platoon
was third). Top Gun
, the film, shows so many aspects of historical change. It showcases Vietnam Syndrome (as the fighters are training to overcome the poor American performance in Vietnam and Tom Cruise struggles with the demons of his dead father from the war), a war movie where there is little warfare (typical of the “Cold War” notion that it was more a battle of ideology than armies, although there was plenty of hot and dirty war in the decades), and workplace relations in a nation transformed by feminism (as Kelly McGillis struggles as Maverick’s supervisor with how to be sexual with him without compromising her authority).
|Carl Lewis … really fast
But there’s another aspect of “top gun” that applies to the 1980s. This was a decade when the United States actively set its sights to become the world’s top gun. Reagan’s White House built up the arms race so effectively that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep pace. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Americans marveled at their medal count as they cheered Mary Lou Retton, Michael Jordan, and Carl Lewis. The United States finished with 174 total medals, while West Germany finished a distance second with 59. The top gun mentality and experience hit its high-water mark when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States easily pushed Iraq out of Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War. As of 1991, the United States was the lone superpower, Reagan’s former vice-President George H. W. Bush was on top of the political world, and historians prophesied an “end of history.”
Television highlighted the rise to the top of many Americans. The Cobsy Show
became the most famous sitcom about African Americans – replacing Good Times
from the 1970s. And the distinction couldn’t be more telling. On The Cosby Show
, Claire Huxtable was an attorney; Heathcliff was a physician, and this firmly upper class probably voted Democrat (the family enjoyed its civil rights heritage with regular references to historically black colleges and universities) but also savored its interactions with Nancy Reagan (as the time when she brought her “just say no” anti-drug message to the program).
|Joe Montana … not fast, but accurate
Within the “top gun” universe, California seemed to be at the summit. Reagan’s conservatism was forged on the western frontier and came out of the 1960s and 1970s conservative backlash in California. In football, the San Francisco 49ers and their “West Coast” offense was not just winning Superbowls, but redefining the sport for television as it rose to prominence. In basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers and their up-tempo basketball style known as “Show Time” was outpacing the “tough” Boston Celtics and “nasty” Detroit Pistons. The state’s economy outperformed the rest of the nation’s with personal incomes and wages growing at a robust rate throughout the 1980s. As of 1991, California’s economy constituted about 1/8 of the entire nation’s economy and its gross product was 60% greater than the second state in the nation, New York. As of 1990, it had almost 30 million people with New York a distance second at 18 million.
Another theme, which I stress as well, is the rise of material prosperity during the decade. Nothing seems as emblematic as the contrast between the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” (where the high-pitched vocalists stand in front of empty, smashed up inner-city homes) with Madonna’s “Material Girl”
(where she dances through an abundance so full that even her name is the commodification and sexualization of a sacred, poor, sorrowful virgin).
So what themes do you stress??? Next time, I’ll post about our conversation from Major Problems
on the new right and Clinton’s “third way.”