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Reconstructing the 1980s on contemporary American television

Varadi, A. J. (2021) Reconstructing the 1980s on contemporary American television. PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00101660


This thesis examines the reconstruction of the 1980s in nine American television programmes produced during the 2010s. It argues that recurring preoccupations with intimacy, identity politics, and performativity across vastly different programmes highlight continuities and tensions between past and present social issues in the USA. To do this, it asks how the formal and stylistic conventions of television contribute to contemporary depictions of the 1980s’ cultural heritage in America. By using an interdisciplinary approach, the thesis synthesises the close textual analysis of a wide range of recent programmes (The Americans, Red Oaks, Deutschland 83, The Carrie Diaries, Glow, Halt and Catch Fire, the Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’, The Goldbergs, and Stranger Things) with the analysis of 1980s and 2010s political contexts. The thesis begins by exploring the rising popularity of the 1980s in American television during the 2010s, highlighting key areas of comparison between the two decades, such as escalating racial and gender divides and similarities between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns. Chapter 1 situates the thesis within scholarship on media representations of the past, specifically regarding the parallels between the British heritage debate and scholarship on screening the American past. Chapter 2 analyses the performative construction of an American national community through shared historical myths pertaining to Reagan’s image, the English language, national symbols, and whiteness. Chapter 3 examines shifts and debates in feminist thought since the 1980s to explore why two programmes produced just five years apart use their 1980s setting in contrasting ways to explore white and black women’s experiences of privilege and prejudice, respectively. Chapter 4 reflects on historical developments in representations of sex and sexuality in American media to suggest that the 1980s becomes emotionally resonant for contemporary viewers through haptic images, immersive soundtracks, and references to the style of MTV. Lastly, Chapter 5 engages with Cold War-era anxiety about nuclear war in relation to television’s role in creating culturally significant images, the dissolution of the nuclear family, and a nostalgic return to 1980s childhood. The thesis concludes that the popularity of the 1980s in the 2010s is prompted by socio-political parallels that go beyond surface-level references to reveal the ways in which we negotiate social issues today. By using cultural and aesthetic codes of the 1980s, contemporary television engages with turbulent shifts in American society throughout the 2010s, making a case for reading the case studies as exponents of the lasting impact of the 1980s.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Knox, S. and Williams, M.
Thesis/Report Department:Department of Film, Theatre & Television
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:101660
Date on Title Page:September 2020


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