If you have tuned into popular culture lately, you’ll know that ladies from the eighties are back in a big way, and they’re here for your nukes. Stranger Things’ Eleven navigates a rip in the space-time continuum that a National Lab causes in small-town America. The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings cultivates sources to smuggle American missile plans to Russia and joins her spy kid Paige at anti-nuclear protests. More obliquely, Dark’s Charlotte is on the case when troubling abnormalities occur in relation to a nuclear power plant in Winden, Germany. Maybe some thoughtful attention to these fictions set at the height of the Cold War can bring us back to the future better able confront our own nuclear dangers.
Shows like The Americans, Stranger Things, and Dark reflect the experience of living in an unstable, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered era. Their articulated parallels between the 1980s and the present, especially threads of nuclear fear, make this trend different from the return to fashion of other decades. Wood paneled station wagons, big hair, and puffy shoulder pads feel dated, but the atomic anxiety of the era these popular shows evoke and re-narrate seems to meet us where we are today. Renewed and worsening tensions between Washington and Moscow give the impression that the brief moment of warmer relations at the end of the Cold War was just a blip on the radar, and that history is beginning to repeat itself. Plotlines of popular television shows reflect rising atomic anxieties that we can all understand, but barriers–ranging from classification by government agencies to exclusionary attitudes–limit access to information about nuclear weapons, and they limit who is entitled to question how, why, and at what cost these weapons are funded and used.
Contemporary fictional retellings of the 1980s come with welcome updates. Women are not sidelined in political and military matters, but play active roles in shaping the course of history. Characters like Elizabeth, Paige, Eleven, and Charlotte are voraciously curious and are in positions to make key decisions. No longer do Russian accents and cartoonish Soviet symbols mark the villain, and no longer are the apple pie-loving Americans the unquestioned heroes. The Soviet spies of The Americans commit some truly deceptive and violent acts, but shaped by past tragedies, they are filled with conviction and dedication to their country much like their suburban American neighbors. In another context the director of a National Lab may have been cast as a hero for developing a super weapon that would keep the Russians on their toes, but in Stranger Things the imprisonment of and tortuous experimentation on Eleven is a clear transgression. Mirroring real-life conflict, “good” and “bad” are murky concepts that lack clear boundaries. Moral and narrative complexity pair with onscreen secrecy that maintains fidelity to authentic practices and attitudes in the national security apparatus.
But demogorgons and dramatized espionage should not only heighten our senses from the safety of our couches and computer screens. Even as we watch, real-time headlines, false alarms, and tweets about big buttons generate a particularly paralyzing disquiet. This is partly due to the unconventional nature of this bombastic president’s administration, but it is also attributable to the restricted access to information about nuclear weapons. While anxiety around nuclear destruction is nearly universal, information is not. Seemingly simple facts like the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, who is authorized to launch nuclear weapons and when, and the other countries that belong to the “nuclear club” are mysteries to many Americans. Technical diagrams and war plans are under the government’s lock and key, but the answers to these questions are just a Google search away.
Protecting some information about the nuclear deterrent and the strategies underpinning its use may be defensible, but it is not just official classification that partitions the nuclear enterprise from individuals not mired in the world of defense intellectuals. Complex acronyms, explicitly violent and gendered jargon and exclusive attitudes about who is entitled to talk about nuclear weapons and other hard security issues box out people with diverse perspectives and form an invisible barrier to the information about nuclear weapons issues that is publicly available. How can voters and taxpayers determine and communicate to elected representatives what is necessary and forgivable when national security is at stake when some of the most basic information needed to answer that question is so guarded?
Given the myriad nuclear challenges facing us today, we need new and diverse perspectives to extract us from this Cold War time loop. In the low light of Netflix and Hulu, we luxuriate in the knowledge that the 1980s are over and they did not end with a big bang. It is critical that we remember how we emerged from the 1980s; an engaged public created political space for the creative problem solving that helped reduce tensions with a key adversary. Today popular culture can help change nuclear culture by making complex nuclear weapons issues more accessible to broad audiences. By depicting the complicated motivations of characters and representing individuals whose voices are often neglected from foreign policy debates, energized narrations of the 1980s have the potential to empower viewers.
While I have discussed some examples of this being done, and done well, there is so much room for more representation on- and off-screen. Characters in ‘80s-inspired pop culture are more varied than characters represented during that decade, but the majority are still white and male, just like their real-life counterparts. Writers and directors, and policy makers and researchers, should take advantage of the abundant opportunities available to write and cast character s and hire employees from diverse backgrounds in roles that are traditionally reserved for white men.
Abigail Stowe-Thurston is a research assistant for the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Previously, she was a fellow at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, where she lobbied on nuclear weapons policy and Pentagon spending.