From Back to the Future to The Wonder Years, from Peggy Sue Got Married to The Stray Cats’ records – 1980s youth culture abounds with what Michael D. Dwyer has called “pop nostalgia,” a set of critical affective responses to representations of previous eras used to remake the present or to imagine corrective alternatives to it. Longings for the Fifties, Dwyer observes, were especially key to America’s self-fashioning during the Reagan era (2015).
Moving from these premises, I turn to anachronisms, aesthetic resonances, and intertextual references that point to, as Mark Fisher would have it, both a lost past and lost futures (Fisher 2014, 2-29) in the episodes of the Hanna-Barbera animated series The Jetsons produced for syndication between 1985 and 1987. A product of Cold War discourse and the early days of the Space Age, the series is characterized by a bidirectional rhetoric: if its setting emphasizes the empowering and alienating effects of technological advancement, its characters and its retrofuture aesthetics root the show in a recognizable and desirable all-American past. The show’s contradictions allow the audience to explore the possibilities of a technology-determined future without the threat of change produced by major epistemological shifts. I argue that, at a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation weighed again on the shoulders of America’s youth, reverberations from the past and its unfulfilled promises were key to defining and enabling the nation’s sense of futurity.