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  • Writer's pictureC.M.Knopf

'Paper Girls' Delivers Critical Nostalgia for Reagan's America

| The Past, the Present, and the Future walked into the show. It was tense.|

illustration of a girl on a bicycle against a backdrop of stacked newspapers

The recent release (July 29, 2022) of season one of Paper Girls on Amazon Prime - the live-action adaptation of the Image comic book series by Brian K. Vaughn, Cliff Chiang, and Matt Wilson - is but the latest installment of media that pay homage to the 1980s.

It joins the ranks of Netflix's Stranger Things and GLOW, Deadly Class (both the Syfy show and the Image comic series), FX's American Horror Story: 1984, CW's Riverdale season 3, episode 5 of Disney+'s WandaVision, Oni Press's Morning in America comic series, Wonder Woman 1984, and two returns of the Ghostbusters franchise, to name but a few.

This current wave of 1980s fetishism is notable because it is nearly double the usual "nostalgia gap" for media products, which typically runs 15-25 years - as documented in an August 2022 Twitter thread.

This fascination with the 1980s nonetheless makes a kind of sense given that the years 2015-2022 have been punctuated by the slogan "Make America Great Again" - popularized by Donald Trump through his candidacy for and term as President of the United States, and first used as the campaign slogan by candidate and President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. So, with the ghost of Reagan echoing throughout 2010s and 2020s political discourse, it is not surprising to see shadows of his visage, his anti-Communist Americana, his war on drugs, and his ideas of morality peeking out through the era's DayGlo-tinted entertainment media.

But don't let the big hair, bustling shopping malls, parachute pants, and quaint references to phone booths and video tapes fool you about the nostalgia in any of these titles. Most are deceptively dark. Of Amazon's Paper Girls, Caroline Framke, in Variety, wrote,

Let’s get this out of the way now: The comparisons "Paper Girls" will get to "Stranger Things" are inevitable, but not especially fair.
Yes, "Paper Girls" also opens in the 1980s with four 12-year-olds on bikes who end up tackling otherworldly forces way bigger than themselves. But by the middle of the first episode, “Paper Girls” — which was a comic book series before "Stranger Things" was a TV show, anyway — turns itself inside out to become something else entirely. Suddenly, what at first looked like yet another throwback Amblin-esque series reveals a more bittersweet lens, and harder science fiction heart.

When the comic series premiered in 2015, it was heralded as capturing the hopes and fears of 1980's America - the Cold War, the Reagan-worship, the materialism, and the gun culture. The story focuses on four girls with newspaper delivery routes – Erin, Mac, KJ, and Tiffany – in the town of Stony Stream, a fictional suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. While delivering papers on "Hell Night" - the pre-dawn hours that follow Halloween, the main characters get caught in the middle of time-traversing inter-generational war.

The comic book was described in Slate as,

a nostalgia-rich story about coming of age in the 1980s. Except that instead of the boy heroes that typically dominate '80s adventures, Paper Girls is centrally concerned with the lives and relationships of adolescent girls.
Paper Girls evokes a similar thrill as many of the best kids’ films of the ’80s: Instead of looking at childhood through a rosy, sanitized lens, it makes being 12 feel exactly as dangerous and exciting as it truly is.

Laced with smoking, swearing, fighting, and an accidental shooting injury with a stolen handgun, the book captures the freedom and vulnerability of youth in the absence of parental supervision.

The comic, and less so the streaming series, is littered with 80s kitsch: Varsity letters and "jean" jackets; the then-new Apple logo; a visual of the Challenger explosion and a dream sequence with Christa McAuliffe; a poster for Monster Squad (1987); a Far Side desk calendar; Halloween costumes based on Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Terminator (1984); walkie-talkies purchased from Radio Shack; a mention of The Today Show with Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel; allusions to E.T. (1982), Mask (1982), TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes (1984-1998), and Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies (1986); t-shirts for Guns N' Roses and Public Enemy; screen views of the popular Breakout video game, first released in 1976; a flashback to television coverage of the assassination of John Lennon in 1980...

Politically, the comic also invokes a reference to the AIDS crisis, a newspaper headline about the Iran-Iraq peace talks, a connection to the Cold War and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a campaign sign for "George Bush for President '88," and dialogue connecting candidate Michael Dukakis to Armageddon. Also, like its live-action adaptation, it includes a hallucination-induced cameo by Ronald Reagan, who recalls his near-assassination in 1981.

In both versions of the series, Reagan is a quiet presence and a kind of mythical companion to one character - the Chinese-American Erin Tieng who dreams of being a politician someday. Also, like Reagan, she survives what should have been a fatal gunshot wound.

But don't let this nod to the American monomyth, the superheroic presidency, and Reagan's larger-than-life persona fool you. Paper Girls is not a tribute to the 1980s. It is a condemnation of it. Speaking about the show at the 2022 San Diego Comic Con-International, comic writer Brian K. Vaughn explained,

We watched a lot of fiction that views the '80s through rose-colored glasses. But [artist] Cliff [Chiang] and I lived through the '80s, and it wasn't always so awesome. So we wanted to do something that was anti-nostalgic, that was about recognizing we've actually made a lot of progress and it's worth pushing forward and looking ahead, not constantly dwelling in the past. So even though some of our show takes place in the '80s, it isn't so much a love letter as it is a death threat.

Paper Girls - and its comics compatriots Deadly Class (which also uses Reagan cameos) and Morning in America (which gets its title from Reagan's campaign) - are all critical of not only the 1980s but also of nostalgia for the era. These series focus less on the decade as a time of break dancing, Pac-Man, Members Only jackets, and Swatch watches, and more on the decade as a period of factory closings, nuclear fears, the Satanic Panic, and Stranger Danger. Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign are clearly ineffectual, as underage protagonists smoke and drink their way through their difficult lives.

According to historian Gil Troy, there are two competing stereotypes, narratives, or, perhaps, realities, of the 1980s. One is hopeful and features a rising economy, a falling Soviet Union, and a surge of American patriotism. The other is bleak, with with crime rising, schools failing, families crumbling, and the wealth gap increasing. The decade is frequently pointed to as a time of renewal, idealism, and unity - but the reality is that it was also a time hedonism and greed, in which rampant individualism undermined the illusion of a patriotic community.

Accordingly, Paper Girls is critical of a nostalgic yearning for the decade - the same nostalgic yearning that ushered in Trump's 2016 election. As Andrew O’Hehir noted in Salon,

the Trump electorate had half-consciously voted for an incoherent fantasy of an imaginary American past...

We see the harsh reality of the idealized 1980s within the parameters of the 2010s most clearly through Paper Girls' attention to race and immigration as Erin, a Chinese-American youth, dreams of the White House but is the focus for her economically depressed town's hatred of immigrants and foreigners who they perceive as stealing their jobs - the same issues that were pivotal for Trump's appeal.

Returning to Framke's assertion in Variety that comparisons of Paper Girls to Stranger Things are not especially fair, such comparisons are truly of apples to oranges. Stranger Things, despite its dark horror, mostly gives audiences the idealized 1980s of bright neon colors and assertive girl pop music. Racism, homophobia, sexism, and economic hardships exist, but are more of individual flaws and personal challenges than systemic problems. The Satanic Panic even seems somewhat reasonable in a reality with actual demonic entities on the rampage. Meanwhile, Paper Girls gives audiences a gritty 1980s of selfishness and xenophobia. With the main characters jumping from 1988 to 2016 to 1999, the series tells a story of a future being shaped by the past, of our todays being forged by our yesterdays.

This brings us back to Reagan and Trump and making America great again, because if we take off our hot-pink tinted Ray Ban Wayfarers, we might wonder what was so great about it back "then."

~Christina M. Knopf

20 August 2022

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