“If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything”: Constructions of America across the space-time continuum. Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Back to the Future’ is a motion picture classic. The time traveling Delorean and the Marty McFly character are imprinted upon the minds of audiences all over the world. The American government recognized the movie’s significance to American culture by inducting it into the archives of the National Film Registry in 2007. This induction officially made the movie “a “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant work to be preserved for all time”, thus labeling it as an important non-traditional “cultural text” in the context of American society.
In his article “Reconfiguring Academic Disciplines” Paul Lautner presents the analysis of these kinds of non-traditional “cultural texts” as being a vital part of the American Studies discipline. He reasons they “help construct the frameworks, fashion the metaphors, create the very language by which people comprehend their experiences and think about their world”. Using Lautner’s approach, this essay will examine the significance of the first ‘Back to the Future’ movie for key aspects of American culture and society.
Topics that will be discussed are American exceptionalism, American identity, American myths, American political rhetoric of the 1980s and popular culture.
The movie starts off in the year 1985 and focuses on seventeen year old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who is part of a lower-middle-class family living in suburbia. His father, called George McFly, is afraid to stand up for himself and his mother, called Lorraine McFly, is an alcoholic. Marty’s friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has created a time machine which takes Marty across the space-time continuum back to the year 1955, the year that his parents fell in love. At the movie’s first turning point, he endangers his future existence by accidently preventing his parents meeting. Thus, Marty spends the rest of the movie solving this. He helps his future father stand up for himself and makes his parents fall in love at the high school dance while playing rock and roll music. In the end, Marty’s actions changed the future, because when he returns to 1985 he sees that his family has transformed into yuppies who live in upper-middle-class suburbia. This is the exact opposite of the family life Marty left at the beginning of the movie.
Having explained the movie’s plot, one can take a more in-depth look at the movie’s cultural significance. First of all, American exceptionalism, often defined as being the way in which America differs from other nations. The movie shows idealized versions of the typical American way of life in the 1950s and 1980s. These time periods show how ‘Americaness’ is also deeply rooted within American history itself as it provides a distinct American identity. The 1950s are pictured as being peaceful, conservative and family oriented. ‘Traditional’ values maintained the importance of community and family life. In 1955, Marty is warmly welcomed by Lorraine’s family who lives in quaint suburbia. Lorraine’s mother is a happy housewife, who cooks dinner and takes care of the children, while her father supports the family. As for the town, it looks clean and fresh during Marty’s exploration accompanied by the upbeat song ‘Mr. Sandman’. In contrast, the 1980s at the beginning of the movie look miserable. Marty’s family’ flaws and failures are expressed and there is no happy family life. The town square is filled with litter, almost to a point where it becomes cartoonish. Marty’s house stands in a run down neighborhood and its interior looks old and smudgy. However, at the end of the movie, Marty’s home and family have transformed into the 1980s version of idealized America. His home looks newly build and his family is all smiling faces wearing slick looking clothes and having a BMW standing in the driveway. These developments promote a celebration of Americanness, it is part of the 1980s version of the American Dream. The filmmakers’ commentary state that European reviews were very critical of this outcome. An internet search was unable to locate these reviews, but according to the filmmakers they did not agree with the fact that the movie equated happiness with material possessions. However, once again according to the filmmakers, not one American critic commented on this. Therefore, exemplifying how exceptional America is on a cross-cultural level.
Moreover, the movie also promotes America’s exceptionalism by focusing on individualism, an important element of ‘ Americanness’. Marty’s individual actions changed his future. Related to this is the notion that the movie sees the future as having unlimited possibilities. It treats the future as the new frontier, hence comparing it to Wild West. This frontier is the origin of the strong sense of freedom and individualism deemed essential in American life. Throughout the movie, Marty is constantly reminded of his individual freedom and liberty as demonstrated by the often recurring line “If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything”. Political rhetoric of the 1980s embraced this mindset. It is no secret that President Ronald Reagan loved this movie, because of this message and the fact that he was the subject of a joke. Reagan even quoted the movie in his 1986 State of Union address: “As they said in the film “Back to the Future”,”Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”. Once again promoting America’s access to unlimited possibilities and its exceptionalism in contrast to other nations.
However, the movie also expresses the double-edged characteristic of American exceptionalism, an idea put forward by Seymour Martin Lipset in “Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword”. Lipset explains that America is a country of contrasts. High morality is promoted in society, yet Marty’s morality is constantly being challenged. It starts off high by not willing to seduce his mother, but it declines rapidly when he finds out that it is an essential part in the scheme of making his parents fall in love. This also suggest that Marty is more concerned with the ‘ends’ rather than with the ‘means’. He is willing to seduce his mother if it helps secure his future. This focus on the ‘ends’ rather than on the ‘means’ is typical for American identity according to Lipset. He states that Americans put a lot of stress on success which often leads to a decline of morality.
Criticism on the movie’s showing of American exceptionalism is centered on the argument that it mostly focuses on white heterosexual middle class America. The filmmakers included a small subplot on an African-American male, who starts off being a cleaner and ends up being the major of the town, but this storyline feels very forced. Thus, the movie mainly addresses the experience of one specific group in explaining America, at the expense of other groups. This kind of criticism relates to Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean’ perspectives on the subject matter. They explain that subordinate groups are not completely ignored, but they are given a certain position within the dominant group. Thus, ‘ Back to the Future’ gives the African-American male an identity within white society. An issue related to this idea is Marty’s redefinition of the racial history of rock and roll music. Marty plays the song Johnny B Goode at the school dance. Chuck Berry’s cousin hears this and calls Chuck Berry to tell him that they found their much needed new sound. It is possible to overanalyze this segment as being part of a white supremacy narrative, but it is better to accept it as a joke made by the filmmakers. The plot is temporarily stopped to demonstrate Michael J. Fox’s comedic guitar playing skills. Nevertheless, white hegemony remains the consensus in the movie and this consensus is incorporated into the prevalent power structure with the help of ideologies and cultural myths. These ideologies and myths help construct an American identity.
There are three prevalent American myths present in ‘Back to the Future’. They are incorporated into the overarching ideology of the American Dream. First, the myth of small town America. Small town life is pictured as being the perfect definition of American society. The localized life excludes Big Corporations and the Big Government which fulfills Americans’ desire to be free. The second myth deals with the suburban dream. This myth is embodied by the McFly family at the end of the movie. Their happiness sends across the message that every American should pursue such a life, because it is within everyone’s reach. The third myth concerns the idea of the scientist who in his own garage invents something which can change the world. I.e. Doc Brown’s DeLorean. Thus, the ideal of living happily without needing any help from big corporations or the government is once again promoted. This also refers back to America’s strong sense of individualism. These three myths are used as discourse for the construction of Marty’s America and they serve as ideologies. They convey and reinforce an image of both 1950s and 1980s America.
In addition, the movie touches upon America’s fascination with the past and its attempt to reconciliate between the past and present. The time traveling aspect addresses this attempt of reconciliation, while the 1950s outlook shows a nostalgia for the past. This nostalgia is much in line with Reagan’s 1980s political rhetoric. He had a 1950s conservative outlook, as he promoted traditional values and gender roles. However, 1950s Lorraine challenges these values and roles by drinking, smoking and being assertive. The filmmakers specifically state that they rebelled against Reaganite politics by addressing parts of the rebelliousness of 1980s teen movies. Consequently presenting a vision of American youth challenging power and authority. Moreover, youth practices are used as a “junction point for various discourses ” within the story. For example, the school dance being the crucial place where Marty’s parents fall in love. Overall, the movie prefers to connect to youngness and newness. Two notions which America prefers to associate itself with. Teen culture is put into the spotlight, thus demonstrating America as a place of renewal.
Lastly, by being part of popular culture, ‘Back to the Future’ helps American society understand itself better as M. Thomas Inge reasons in his introduction to American popular culture. The movie analyses American society by giving a sketch of American culture in the 1950s and 1980s. However, the 1950s and 1980s that the movie shows are specifically developed for the story. I.e. ‘Back to the Future’ provides interpretations of those time periods. Thus, the 1950s images are constructions and fabrications in themselves. The portrayed 1950s cannot be considered to be more ‘real’ for an audience who experienced the 1950s firsthand than for the 1980s teen target audience. Hence the movie fits within a postmodern perspective, because it creates one cultural memory narrative. This particular approach to filmmaking is probably what made the sequels so successful. The interpretations of the past, present and future make the movies fascinating.
To conclude, Marty’s adventure enabled him to take a step back from his culture to understand his own 1980s reality, consequently learning to see events in their particular form and context. This essay attempted to follow in Marty’s footsteps. By critically analyzing ‘Back to the Future’ audiences are able to reconstruct and renegotiate American identity and exceptionalism both from a 1980s and 1950s perspective, even though they are Hollywood fabricated. These perspectives can then be incorporated into a broad overview of American culture which helps form answers to the question: what is America?. This essay cannot provide definite answers to this question, but Marty McFly himself seems to have found his answer to it. He negotiates his identity and constructs his reality through a discourse centered around the motto “If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything”. This encompasses his America, it is a variable within the grand narrative of American identity construction.