Back in Time Yet of His Time

Marty McFly as a 1980s Teenage Boy Role Model

in Boyhood Studies


In a world of overprotected, overscheduled children, parents look to the past, and even to Hollywood, for insight about how children were raised before minimal risk equated to serious hazard. The most recent corpus of films to feature minors who grew up without our current preoccupation with child safety was the somewhat well-established canon of 1980s teen films, but this canon tends to exclude the original Back to the Future film. While Back to the Future is hardly a neglected text, extant studies have elided its exploration and indeed exploitation of adolescent themes as well as its affinity with contemporary films about teenagerhood. I contend that when we look back for recent cues on coping through boyhood without so-called helicopter parents, and we consider the likes of Jeff Spicoli, Lloyd Dobler, and Ferris Bueller, we can find further valuable lessons by including Marty McFly.

Recent years have seen the relative sheltering—some say coddling, some say helicopter-parenting—of twenty-first century American boys when compared with the boyhoods of their fathers, as recounted in a surfeit of articles like “The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin (2014). Rosin writes that a majority of third-graders were indeed once permitted to walk themselves to school and play with friends unsupervised, but the last such majority was born in the early 1970s. This fact adds extra poignancy to films about teenage boys that were set and made in the 1980s, because, however incidentally, they offer role models for those of us who hope to raise slightly less overscheduled boys. (I confess to personal interest; I have two small sons.)

When we hear the phrase 1980s teen film, we tend to think of John Hughes productions like Sixteen Candles (1984) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), and images like Tom Cruise lip-synching “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” in his underwear (in Risky Business (1983)) and Phoebe Cates stepping out of a swimming pool in slow motion (in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)). Such associations are abetted by TV cable network programming, by Amazon and Netflix recommendation software, and scholarly studies of cinema about adolescence, particularly Timothy Shary’s groundbreaking Generation Multiplex (2002), which established commonalities and themes of 1980s films about teens, including teenage boys. During the next decade or so, a plurality of the generation of Americans who were teenage boys in the 1980s will guide their own boys through adolescence, and may promote 1980s marathons during which they introduce their children to celluloid figures of boyhood like Jeff Spicoli (Fast Times (1982)), Daniel LaRusso (The Karate Kid (1984)), John Bender (The Breakfast Club (1985)), Joel Goodsen (Risky Business (1983)), Lloyd Dobler (Say Anything… (1989)), and Ferris Bueller. Despite their rebellious streaks, these boys demonstrate relatively healthy American values even though they were not raised during a time of close monitoring or busy extracurricular scheduling. Yet conspicuously missing from this sort of canonization is Marty McFly from Back to the Future (1985).

In this brief article I argue that Back to the Future is under-contextualized as a film about a 1980s teenage boy. If, as Catherine Driscoll argues (2011), every teen film is about becoming a citizen and a subject, and if we look to 1980s films to see how the post-boomer, pre-millennial generation navigated such tensions without recourse to helicopter parents, we should not deny Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future a place in the discussion. Back to the Future is, as one might expect, hardly a neglected text, but the concerns of average high school boys—like bullying, courting, and driving—are not the concerns of Andrew Shail and Robin Stoate’s book Back to the Future (2010) or the first and only edited collection of academic essays on the film, The Worlds of Back to the Future: Critical Essays on the Films (Ni Fhlainn, 2007). Yet Marty McFly was not simply a teenage boy thrown into a blockbuster, as we might describe Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) in the first Transformers film (2007). In many ways, Marty McFly represented the archetypal 1980s teenage boy as much as any John Hughes character.

Perhaps the main reason that Back to the Future is excluded from conversations about 1980s teen films is genre: it is arguably too science fictional. Perhaps it was Marty’s association with science fiction that keeps him out of the more canonized teenage boys’ club of the 1980s that was built by Porky’s (1981), The Outsiders (1983), and The Breakfast Club (1985); we rarely see, alongside such films, the leading teen boys from science fiction and fantasy films such as WarGames (1983), Gremlins (1984), Weird Science (1985), Explorers (1985), My Science Project (1985), Real Genius (1985), Flight of the Navigator (1986), The Manhattan Project (1986), Solarbabies (1986), SpaceCamp (1986), or The Wraith (1986).

Perhaps our canonization of less science-fiction-oriented teen films is related to nostalgia for the 1980s, an era when fantasy and magic were less regularly insinuated into our most prestigious dramas. Many scholars have identified Steven Spielberg as the key catalyst and progenitor of a more childlike, magical-thinking, even regressive type of moviemaking that came to dominate Hollywood by the 1990s and may well have played a role in over-beatifying and coddling our children. Spielberg was executive producer of Back to the Future, and it certainly bears traces of his style and themes. But we should not necessarily group all of the 1980s’ teenpics as howls of messiness against Spielbergian filmmaking; as Shary (2005) makes clear, 1980s films about teenagers were not consistent in their formal and thematic choices. And perhaps Spielberg’s name recurs too often in conversations about Back to the Future.

According to Emma Pett, “Previous academic discussions of Back to the Future have formed three distinct areas of analysis” (2013: 177–178), one being historical context, one relating to authorship (negotiating between Spielberg and Zemeckis), and one exploring Marty’s Oedipal relationship with his mother. (Pett herself focuses on nostalgia, cult status, and performance.) Ilsa Bick quite successfully explores the latter, leaving me to remind the reader only that in the classical tale Oedipus had tried to repair relations between his mother and father, and that is one reason why Andrew Gordon (1987), and others following him, found Back to the Future’s function essentially recuperative, a sort of suturing of cultural wounds, a closing of the so-called generation gap that was so publicly torn asunder in the years between 1955 and 1985. This is not wrong, but it elides the extent to which Marty left open, or at least laid bare, other wounds associated with what was then not yet called Generation X, particularly related to his status as that generation’s apparently first named slacker.

Back to the Future writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis confirmed to Caseen Gaines (2015) that the Marty McFly-Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) relationship was somewhat based on Beaver and adult Gus’s relationship on the “Leave it to Beaver” TV show (1957–1963)—a relationship that would be almost unimaginable for a real-life boy and an older man today. Unlike, say, in the heyday of Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney, these days Hollywood does not present non-related older people profoundly affecting the lives of children. Yet this is not Zemeckis’s point in his 2015 interview with The Telegraph that was headlined “Robert Zemeckis: ‘Back to the Future Wouldn’t Get Made Today’” (Collinn 2015). Considering the franchise’s insistence on the malleability of the past, let me do Zemeckis one better and suggest that what we know as Back to the Future would not have been made in 1982, despite the best intentions of Zemeckis and his producing partner, Gale, who began shopping the script unsuccessfully in 1981. (Only after Zemeckis’s Romancing the Stone (1984) became a hit did Universal Pictures commit to Back to the Future.) Had Back to the Future been set in 1952 and 1982, what we consider the 1950s and 1980s would barely have been recognizable. (America in 1952 was far more like the staid environs and starched shirts of A Place in the Sun (1951) than the sock-hops, jeans, and leather jackets of Blackboard Jungle (1955)).

Even if Gale and Zemeckis in 1982 had set their story in 1955 and 1985, anything made in 1982 would almost certainly have reflected Hollywood’s 1970s hangover, and featured shaggy teens, deep alienation, and overt liberal bias, as seen in Porky’s (1981) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Hollywood’s most Reaganite movies were made and released after Reagan was re-elected in 1984—like Top Gun (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Wall Street (1987). Consider the obvious differences between the John Rambo character in the existentially conflicted First Blood (1982) and the take-no-prisoners Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), or between the underdog palooka starring in Rocky III (1982) and the damn-the-Commies patriot starring in Rocky IV (1985). (Those two sequels starring Sylvester Stallone were the #2 and #3 films of 1985 respectively; Back to the Future was the #1 film of 1985 and the #8 film of the 1980s, and certainly the highest-grossing so-called teen film of the 1980s, by my definition).

And a hypothetical Back to the Future in 1982 would not have starred Michael J. Fox, who was unknown before the TV show “Family Ties,” which debuted on NBC in Fall 1982. Considering the somewhat legendary recasting of Fox in the Marty McFly role after five weeks of (jettisoned) filming of Eric Stoltz as Marty, Fox’s persona warrants a bit of attention here. It is a well-established truism of star studies that stars carry associations from their previous roles, and this is particularly true of performers on longstanding sitcoms who are generally asked to “play themselves” for extended stretches of airtime. Although Michael J. Fox is not known to be a conservative Republican, as Alex Keaton, he provided crucial support in selling the show’s premise by jostling over politics and culture with his liberal, former-hippie parents. This was effective—by the standards of sitcoms, evidenced by Fox’s Emmy nominations and wins—in large measure because Fox’s style is essentially reactive. One reason that Fox did not become a star on the level of fellow 1980s-teen film alumni Tom Cruise and Sean Penn is that roles like Light of Day (1987), The Secret of My Success (1987), and Bright Lights, Big City (1988) required Fox to project an insecure pathos and a desperate, proactive audacity that does not really suit his performative nature. Fox is not exactly Andy Hardy-ish, but he is non-threatening, and thus he is quite watchable when he is reacting to others with sarcasm, whether it is Alex’s sister Mallory (Justine Bateman) or Marty’s mentor Doc Brown. From what we know of Eric Stoltz in other performances, it is hard to imagine him bringing Fox’s reactive, bemused cadences to plot-crucial, humorous lines like “Are you telling me you built a time machine … out of a DeLorean?” or “He’s a Peeping Tom!” or “You ever have something you had to do, but you didn’t know if you could do it?”

Playing reactive is a crucial aspect of any teenage representation; filmic teens are beset upon by an unfair world, and must salvage some kind of identity and pride of place. But when we think of 1980s teenage boys onscreen, we tend to think of kids who proactively stirred the pot, from the teens looking for girls’ underwear in Sixteen Candles (1984) to the boy planning a big party in Risky Business (1983) to, well, Ferris Bueller. Marty McFly, by contrast, is reactive to a fault, which is another way of saying that nothing in Back to the Future is really his own doing. It is true that he pushes his father out of the way of a moving car, establishing a paradox of his parentage that he must resolve, but Marty is not a hero with grand designs, nor one who requires a major comeuppance. If Fox’s character has a problem, it is that Marty “can’t handle” potential rejection and is a “slacker.” The leads of John Hughes films were many things (most famously “a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse”), but not slackers.

Marty’s reactive slacker-ness makes him something of a good boy becoming a good man. We tend not to think of Back to the Future as a bildungsroman, as we do other teen films from this period, but in fact Marty is coming to painful terms with the similarities he shares with his father. In a sense unavailable to characters without a time machine, Marty very literally closes the generation gap between his parents and himself, and in this way points to our period, when Nickelodeon, working with the Harris Interactive research group, has declared the generation gap to be closed (PR Newswire 2009).

Fox/McFly’s fundamentally reactive nature is also closely related to the film’s essential conservatism, a term that signifies reacting with frustration to perceived societal changes. This is probably another reason that Back to the Future typically does not get placed in the 1980s teen canon, which tends to favor more libidinous, liberal boys. Back to the Future, unlike most such films, inserts egregious product placements throughout, and makes light fun of President Ronald Reagan (in a way that the then-President loved). And Gordon (1987) is right that McFly’s function is restorative: he restores the father to his rightful place and arguably the 1950s to its rightful place as the 1980s’ prologue and influencer. (The film seems to be a bridge between the “ribald” teen films Shary [2002: 8-9] discusses, like Risky Business (1983) and Private School (1983), and later parent-reconciliation films like 18 Again! (1988) and Big (1988).) The act of driving a car, so crucial to teenage identity, is engaged in only once in the first half of the film by Marty—and so poorly that he has to spend the rest of the film making up for it, a markedly conservative narrative imperative. While many 1980s films featuring teenage boys were about nerds standing up to bullies, the bullies, nerds, and nerd-helpers had predictable character arcs, and were generally all improved because the nerd gained a spine by the third act. Marty is certainly a nerd-helper, but only out of life-saving necessity (in the film’s first third, Marty does not advise his father to stand up to Biff), and thus the film achieves a sort of displacement, letting us feel righteous about defeated bullies without feeling that Marty had to change. The film hence reifies conservatism even as it broadens our perspectives about Generation X boys in their teen years.

There is a field of scholarship about why, after barriers to their education were removed in the 1960s and 1970s, girls began doing much better than boys in school (and continue apace), explored in works like Christina Hoff Sommers’s The War Against Boys (2015), Leonard Sax’s Why Gender Matters (2006), and Peg Tyre’s The Trouble With Boys (2009). Their accounts differ, yet they make it clear that the trend is real; without siding with any of them, I aver that the 1980s teen canon, in which boys getting away from school generally succeeded and found their greatest happiness, is a reflection on and perhaps minor influencer of this trend. (After all, no network that I know includes the more pro-school Stand and Deliver (1988) in any 1980s teen retrospectives.) Marty McFly is part of this, yet stands alone, partly through his conservative nature, and partly through the film’s (too) obvious message that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.

Yet it is not enough to say, as many scholars do almost offhandedly, that Back to the Future appeals to 1950s nostalgia, because that statement suggests that the film’s approach is something like American Graffiti (1973) or Grease (1978), or “Happy Days” (1974–1984) on television. Marty McFly, for all his surface good-boy, parent-loving tendencies, is never comfortable in the 1950s (not quite as uncomfortable as Alex Keaton would have been in the 1960s, but not as far from that as some books and articles would have you believe). Marty’s and, in turn, Back to the Future’s perspective on the 1950s is entirely postmodern; it is less an Eden of innocence and more a quirky hothouse of repression that Marty can take or leave. Certainly the Hill Valley of the 1950s is sanitized beyond, say, the messy California town of The Wild One (1953); but then, the film sanitizes the 1980s as well. Marty is much cooler in the first film than we may remember him from the sequels; he plays guitar in a too-loud band, he is often late to school, and while skateboarding there he waves at a bevy of attractive aerobicists who wave back. Marty is not sent to the 1950s as some sort of fitting punishment because he had always wanted to go there (as in films like Tron (1982)); nor is the resolution based on a comeuppance for Marty, where he, say, learns to appreciate what he has (as in the superficially comparable It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)).

In other words, despite the photo that shows his existence to be threatened, Marty is not invested in the 1950s in the way that the word nostalgia suggests. In this way, he has more in common with other 1980s onscreen teen boys than is often understood. Like many of them, Marty is prototypical of what I might call Generation Sample, using bits and pieces of every decade as he sees fit, as in one of his few moments of proactivity: “I am Darth Vader, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan.” One key difference between Marty and some of his 1980s teenpic peers is that throughout all the slammed lockers, missed love connections, and encounters with bullies, there is nothing mean-spirited about his game. The title of the film says it all: we can use the past, use the future, use the present. David Wittenberg called this “futurism in the guise of bland nostalgia, or nostalgia expressed as bland futurism” (2006: 51), but it is also possible to see the film as disrupting the naïve faith that America is always inevitably improving, or that Martin Luther King’s arc is melioristically bending toward that better day. There is a conservatism to onscreen 1980s teenagers’ postmodernism, and Marty symbolizes it as well as anyone.

Today’s over-protective parents ask themselves how they grew up without constant monitoring and scheduling, and one easy (if necessarily incomplete and unreliable) way to glimpse the past is by viewing kid-centered movies set and made before America evolved toward its current preoccupation with child safety. Typing “1980s teen film” into Internet search engines will take them to a certain set of ribald films as well as some John Hughes classics, but their research/binge-party would do well to not exclude Back to the Future. Marty McFly is a teen boy not only for all times, but very much of his own time.


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Contributor Notes

Daniel Smith-Rowsey is a lecturer at Sacramento State University. In 2017, Palgrave Macmillan will publish his book Blockbuster Performances. In 2016, Bloomsbury will publish a collection he co-edited with Kevin McDonald which is the first academic book about Netflix, The Netflix Effect: Technology and Entertainment in the 21st Century. Smith-Rowsey has had articles published in a wide variety of venues; he holds a Ph.D. in Film and American Studies from the University of Nottingham. Email:

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