Back to the fifties: Pop nostalgia in the Reagan Era

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Steven Cohan


Nostalgia, Reagan Era, Fifties nostalgia, 1980s, Teen films, Memory

Subject Categories

Film and Media Studies


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Hollywood studios churned out film after film that sought to recapture, revise, and re-imagine the fifties, as evidenced by films like American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1977), The Outsiders (1983), Reckless (1983), Footloose (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Blue Velvet (1986), Stand By Me (1986), and Hairspray (1988). Academic and popular critics alike have noted the peculiar fascination Hollywood had for the fifties, comparing the politics of its fifties nostalgia to the rise of the neoconservative movement that took Ronald Reagan as its avatar.

However, it is important to recognize that representations of the fifties in Reagan Era films and popular culture were far from homogenous. Rather than a concept with discrete political or social import, "the fifties" functioned in the Reagan Era as a set of unstable signifiers, the meanings of which were the subject of intense negotiation and struggle.

Nostalgia (and fifties nostalgia in particular) has drawn almost universal disdain from academics and critics over the last thirty years, with many identifying nostalgia as fundamentally regressive gesture. In Back to the Fifties I seek to complicate those too-simple equivalencies. Fifties nostalgia in the Reagan Era, I argue, must be understood not as a reduction or denial of history but rather as a productive practice. Additionally, the nostalgia in pop nostalgia texts must be understood not as a quality inherent to specific texts, but rather as a quality of the relation between the text, the adjacent texts that surround it, and audiences.

Making fifties nostalgia in the Reagan Era the object of serious analysis will not only aid in understanding American historical consciousness in the period between the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also re-cast the contemporary political trope of "the fifties" as a deeply historical construct embedded in the political and social conditions of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, this study addresses crucial emerging concerns in the fields of film and media studies in an era of increasing access to, and manipulation of, films and cultural texts from the past.


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