February 7, 2006


Media and Popular Culture


There are two readings for this class, namely Alan Nadel, Flatlining on the Field of Dreams; and chapter seven, “Into the Reagan Era,” from my own (new) book Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America.


Discussing Alan Nadel, Flatlining on the Field of Dreams


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 Flatlining (if you need reminding, check out the “Suggestions For Reading Gil Troy’s Morning In America at: ).


So here are some specific issues arising from Alan Nadel’s book:


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


What is Nadel’s core argument? (see especially his summary in pp 202-210 – actually, I recommend that you read this section first, and then reread it after you have covered the rest of the book, when it will make more sense).


Nadel claims that Americans are deeply schooled in the techniques of film, and that this shapes their perceptions of reality. According to him, how does that affect their political and cultural responses?


In what sense was Ronald Reagan in the 1980s a film-maker as much as a president?


Nadel says “The Reagan presidency can be viewed as a cinematic effect – a product of cinematic conventions as much as a source of film themes” (p.8). What does he mean by this? Do you buy his argument?


To return to a theme that we raised last week with Susan Jeffords: 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 Nadel establish that the films he is using were widely seen or influential? If they were not, is it misleading to cite them as representative?


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


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


Advertising materials for the book claim that “Linking the way Hollywood films work to the stories they tell, [Nadel] explains how the ideas and values of Reaganism became the symbolic food of a hyper-consumptive society. The book provides hard-to-ignore demonstrations of the extensive synergy between politics, history, and popular culture.” What do you think?


At times, he seems to be stretching his argument: cultural narratives in the Little Mermaid? Seriously? The Little Mermaid? And Back to the Future? Could one not find similar narratives in films of any era? Does he justify choosing the kind of films he does use?


What exactly does he claim about the Little Mermaid? Does he convince?


By the way, lots of people working on the Reagan era use Back to the Future for the kind of interpretation they wish to advance. Why is it so fertile in cultural messages?


Just as Jeffords makes gender and masculinity central to her interpretation of Reagan era popular culture, so Nadel focuses absolutely on class. Why? Is he right to argue that 1980s films exercised a kind of mass deception about class society?


How does Nadel interpret the wave of ghost/supernatural films of the late 80s/early 90s? Is his explanation convincing?


Pay particular attention to Nadel’s discussions of homes, houses and homelessness in chapter five, pp 142ff. What is his argument here? Is it convincing? Does it provide a valuable additional perspective to more mainstream social history perspectives, eg of poverty?


In chapter six, Nadel tries to draw extensive lessons about the media’s response to AIDS. What does he argue? And at the risk of repeating myself, is he convincing?


Nadel, like Jeffords, focuses heavily on Reagan the person, as the core fact of Reaganism. Is this misleading? Was the conservative drift of the 1980s not based on much more extensive fears and concerns, not to mention a complex interplay of interest groups. Would Reaganism have been any different if a leader other than Reagan had been in the White House? Did Reaganism exist, except in the minds of anti-Reagan activists?


A related question running through this and other readings: based on what academic write about Reagan, it is incredible that he should have been elected to anything, leave along have become one of the most popular presidents in American history. Academics also consistently regard the 1980s as a time of failure and betrayal, rather the reverse of the ordinary person’s attitude (see especially Nadel’s opening chapter). What does this clash of perspectives suggest about the political views of academics in the humanities, about universities as institutions, and thus the problems of any kind of scholarly approach to the Reagan era?


Looking at Nadel and Jeffords, do they grant any legitimacy whatever to any aspect of Reagan’s views or program, or suggest that it might have had any redeeming features? Read especially the paragraph on p.160 beginning “In this way…”. What do you think of that?


To return to a question that I raised last week, and that I discuss at some length in my chapter: 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. If in fact Hollywood was making such ideologically charged pictures in the 1980s, 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 Nadel spend enough (any?) time discussing these changes?


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


Overall, did you find this book convincing? What does Nadel’s work tell us about the major themes of the course?


Incidentally, you can find a review of Flatlining at


For some background on Nadel himself, see



Some other broader questions


What happens to news and newsgathering during the 1980s?

How does this affect standards of credibility, and just what news is “fit to print”?