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Body Swapping Popularity in The '80s: Diagnosing an Aberrant Phenomenon

By Landon Palmer | Think Pieces | April 1, 2014 |

By Landon Palmer | Think Pieces | April 1, 2014 |

For better or worse, the late 1980s changed culture monumentally. From George H.W. Bush to Tim Burton’s Batman, Paula Abdul to RoboCop, the “Greed is Good” years left an indelible impression that continues to resonate and shape our lives in myriad ways. But if there’s one aspect amongst the many contributions by the latter part of the ’80s that we never acknowledge or recognize enough, it’s undeniably this important fact: there was a fuck ton of body swapping movies.

Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron are a demanding surgeon and fun-loving high school senior who make the switch in Like Father, Like Son (1987). Overworked businessman Judge Reinhold and undervalued son Fred Savage flip places as a result of a Thai talisman in Vice Versa (1988). 18 Again (also 1988) skips a generation and takes a notably dark turn, finding Charlie Schlatter swap bodies with grandfather George Burns, a millionaire who just so happens to be in a coma. And finally, Dream a Little Dream (1989) finds Corey Feldman trading places with intellectual neighbor Jason Robards just as the pressures of finishing high school and getting a girl begin to mount.

So what is to account for such an immediate proliferation of this conceit? The huge success of not-quite-a-body-swap movie Big? A nostalgic love for the 19th century comic novels of F. Antsey? A plea for basic human empathy during an era in which selfishness was widely brandished like a badge of honor? Actually, the glut of body-swapping movies captures something essential about the ’80s teen movie, and the decade’s perspective of youth in general.

While the teenager as a new social demographic had become solidified by the time the Teenage Bill of Rights was published in 1946, and while films and record companies vied for a teenage audience since the explosion of rock n’ roll ten years later, by the 1980s youth audiences had basically become all but sole sphere of attention that commercial entertainment competed over.

Freed from regulatory restrictions and social mores that had cycled through previous decades, teens of the 1980s had grown up in a culture in which they had been addressed as consumers since childhood (Saturday morning cartoons were no longer an opportunity for entertaining education, but for selling the latest He-Man toys). Thus, to be a teenager in the 1980s meant to be connected directly to the cultural pipeline, and to be the locus of attention for everything in culture - from movies to music to MTV, everything seemed to be about and geared exclusively towards teenagers and youth.

More importantly, teenage life no longer had a threatening aura like it did in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Sure, teens still partied, enjoyed recreational drugs, and lived their lives in pursuit of sex, but these activities were no longer part of a political identity meant to challenge an older generation. Teens of the ’80s by and large didn’t organize around their Woodstock, didn’t protest an endless cycle of war, and didn’t use new music to shock an older set that perceived the electric guitar to be the sound-making device of the devil.

There no longer existed something to stand for in teen life, only things to do. And movies, TV, and rock, in turn, continuously recycled a generally non-threatening image of youth, where in movies teen problems were petty but always guaranteed with a happy ending. Rather than the hip and square, movies separated teens into popular preppies and jocks vs. socially outcast nerds. And as nerd-dom had yet to gain the hip currency it has now, every underdog was poised to aspire to be the next main man: conformity, it seemed, was cool again.

The decade’s sole iconic cinematic rebel - Judd Nelson’s Bender in The Breakfast Club - was pathologized as a figure whose aimlessness in life was borne from an abusive, alcoholic parent. The message of ’80s teen movies was crystal clear: You should want everyone to like you. Feathers are not meant to be ruffled. Your problems never extend beyond the boundaries of your school. Listen to Nancy Reagan. Even nerd icon Anthony Michael Hall transformed himself into a jock by the decade’s end.

Ubiquitous cinematic representations of youth - with their idealized low stakes and monolithic portrayals of unencumbered fun - became no longer something to threaten an older generation, but rather something that older generations should venerate and even aspire to. Youth was no longer a problem, but a rite of passage characterized uniformly as a narrative of broken hearts, character-building trials, late nights, best friends, and first loves. While youth was a pronounced area of concern in media, politics, and culture, it was no longer a cause of concern, but was rather peddled by advertisements and the entertainment industry as the space in which life happens to its fullest.

In these late ’80s body swap films, the younger person in the swap is almost always shown to get the raw end of the deal. The older character gets to “become young again” or rather, experience youth for the first time within the context of a sugar-coated and exceedingly commodity-driven youth-centric decade. These body swap films demonstrate the modus operandi of the entertainment industries: we should all venerate youth, want to be “like” the young, for it is in this way that we actually experience life. To get older, by contrast, is to lose something vital.

Late ’80s body swap films were never about an empathetic process of learning what it is to be like someone else - sure, that message might be attacked on at the end, but this is after over an hour of an elder person living vicariously within the body of someone much younger. The real takeaway is that the older character has been given the means - albeit fleetingly - to know how to live one’s life as if they are still young. Body swapping movies enacted a fantasy in which older people could become what cocaine could only make them feel like.

Thankfully, the decade ended with the groundbreaking Heathers, a glorious middle finger to the idealized ’80s teen formula. Otherwise, there might have been a Dream a Little Dream 3.

Landon Palmer is a features contributor to Pajiba.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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