REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 4

 

Please remember - I need to know the topics of your term papers today

 

Gender and Sexuality - Love in the Age of AIDS

 

During the 1970s, America experienced what can only be described as a social revolution in attitudes to gender and sexuality, as demonstrated by surging feminism, by massive liberalization of attitudes to homosexuality, and by changing concepts of masculinity. All these changes resonated through the political system, with radical legal changes in areas such as divorce, abortion, rape, pornography, and affirmative action; and a huge shift in the limits of what could be depicted in film and television. All these changes aroused a backlash, and a huge public debate ensued. In many ways, though, the social reaction during the 1980s was nothing like as severe as liberals feared. Women retained most or all of their social gains, and even made further advances. To take a leading issue of controversy, abortion remained legal under Reagan, and attempts to reverse gay rights repeatedly failed – an astonishing fact, given the catastrophic impact of AIDS. Studying the response to social change points to critical divisions within the Republican coalition, between economic and moral conservatives.

 

In this class, we will discuss questions such as:

 

What was the ERA campaign, and why was it so significant both for feminists and anti-feminists?

 

How did feminist issues develop following the achievement of most of their agenda in the early 1970s? What subsequent issues move to the forefront?

 

Why are campaigns against rape and child abuse so significant? Why does a sense of sexual danger become such a potent rhetorical weapon?

 

How do changes in the economy institutionalize the new social role achieved by women?

 

Can we speak of a “crisis of masculinity” in the 1970s and 1980s? How were concerns over this reflected in politics?

 

How did Ronald Reagan succeed in presenting himself as a reassertion of traditional male values?

 

How have debates over “true masculinity” played out in later elections, eg in how different candidates have tried to present themselves and their opponents? Which parties and candidates have benefited most systematically from these methods?

 

 How was gender rhetoric reflected in debates over foreign policy in the 1980s, in attitudes to external threats, to Communists and terrorists?

 

 How has gender rhetoric been reflected in debates over foreign policy in the past five years, especially during the war on terror and the response to 9/11?

 

How did the rhetoric of masculinity in the Reagan years draw on Western and Cowboy imagery?

 

How did the rhetoric of masculinity in the Reagan years play out in debates over economic policy, in issues of taxation and welfare?

 

What is the gender gap in American electoral politics?  Why does it exist, and how has it played out over the past decade or so?

 

How do gay issues develop following the achievement of most of the agenda in the early 1970s? What subsequent issues move to the forefront?

 

Why do both gays and feminists suffer such a political backlash in the late 1970s?

 

When and how abortion move to center stage in the political debate?

 

Can we see signs of a new sexual puritanism, or a retreat from hedonism, in the late 1970s, ie even before the onset of AIDS? How was this reflected in popular culture?

 

How did various political movements use AIDS as an issue?

 

Why is homosexuality such a touchstone issue in the 1970s/80s?

 

The gay rights movement goes through many changes in the 1970s and 1980s, and is anything but monolithic. What are some of the internal debates? How does the movement try to mainstream itself? How successful is it? What factions or causes get left behind in thee process?

 

How do conservatives under Reagan try and reverse the sexual revolution during the 1980s? Why do they win so few victories?

 

How does the pro-life movement emerge as a key political force? Why does it fail to make a greater legislative impact?

 

What role do the mass media play in institutionalizing feminist and gay causes? Do they serve as objective commentators, or as activists? On which side?

 

How do gender and sexuality issues become central to religious activism?

 

Where does Reagan himself stand on these various debates? Why is his influence not so decisive in these issues as it would be, for instance, in debates over rearmament or tax cuts?

 

Discussing Susan Jeffords’ Book Hard Bodies.

 

By this point, you know the general questions I am going to ask about any book we discuss, and we’ll be applying all of them to Hard Bodies.

 

So here are some specific issues arising from Hard Bodies

 

Does Jeffords demonstrate a particular political or cultural bias? Where would you place her on the political spectrum?

 

Jeffords uses Hollywood films as a means of examining shifting gender attitudes during the 1980s. What is her core argument? See especially the summary of her views on pp 191-93. How do you evaulate her argument?

 

How does she characterize the films of the 1970s? What examples best illustrate her case?

 

How does she characterize the films of the 1980s? What examples best illustrate her case?

 

What does she mean by “hard-body” films?

 

“The Reagan era was an era of bodies” (p.24). What does she mean by this? Is she right?

 

How does she characterize the “macho presidential style”?

 

According to Jeffords, what do Reagan-era films say about the appropriate roloe for men in the family, as fathers and sons?

 

What does she believe were the cultural trends represented by Reaganism? Was Reaganism a backlash against feminist advance?

 

According to Jeffords, how do the major films of the 1980s treat race and racial conflict? Did they distort it, ignore it, or what? Did they “clear white men of charges of racism and sexism”? Is her reading accurate?

 

What can historians gain by using such popular culture materials that we would not understand by using official records, or even the news media?

 

What are the perils of using such popular culture materials?

 

How does she establish that the films she is using were widely seen or influential? If they were not, is it misleading to cite them as representative?

 

Apply these questions to contemporary culture. How might a future historian use a film from 2006 to illustrate attitudes today? Would they be right or wrong in doing so?

 

Give me some examples of films she cites particularly effectively for her purposes, where her argument really convinces you.

 

Give me some examples of films she cites that work really badly for her purposes, where her argument really fails to convince you.

 

What was happening to the motion picture industry in the 1970s and 1980s that led the studios to make and release the kind of films we see in these years. Remember, the film industry is a commercial enterprise, which exists above all to make money. An ancient Hollywood saying teaches: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union”, ie, send a telegram, don’t put it in a picture. If in fact Hollywood was making such ideologically laden pictures, that suggests that the studios thought they would sell, ie, would appeal to a mass audience.  Were they right? How had the audience changed during the 1980s? Does Jeffords spend enough (any?) time discussing these changes?

 

Is there a way in which social scientists might test or evaluate her argument? How? Could we count or analyze the number of images presenting particular points of view?

 

Overall, did you find her book convincing? What does her work tell us about the kind of general questions listed above?

 

Jeffords was writing in the early 1990s – most of the book was written in 1992. How do her arguments look in retrospect? How well or badly has the book dated? Having seen the shape of US politics since 1994, how have her arguments played out?

 

If she was republishing the book today, what do you think she would have to say about contemporary US politics, in the age of George W Bush? And what would she make of the fact that The Terminator is now Governor of California? What films or books would suit her argument particularly well (or particularly badly?)

 

Next week, we’ll discuss Nadel’s Flatlining on the Field of Dreams, which also deals with media and popular culture, and the two studies make for a fascinating comparison/contrast.