American popular culture in the 1980s reflected larger social, political, technological and media trends, from the rapid spread of cable television to the cultural peak of suburban malls. Here’s a look at five pop culture trends that heavily shaped the “Me” decade.
Women’s Power Dressing
Shoulder pads. Oversized double-breasted suits. The floppy silk “tie.” On runways and movie sets, in office buildings and boardrooms, women of the ’80s dressed in masculine-inspired fashions to express their growing power. Corporate business women, First Lady Nancy Reagan and global icon Princess Diana alike embraced the suit look, as did heavy-hitting designers of the era including Giorgio Armani, Thierry Mugler and Calvin Klein. The suits, shoulder pads and lady ties permeated pop culture as well, showcased in movies such as 9 to 5 (1980) and Working Girl (1988) and TV shows like Dynasty (1981-89) and Moonlighting (1985-89)—all of which featured strong female characters who brought even more popularity to the power dressing trend.
All this came during a decade when women’s participation in the labor force steeply increased, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and when Americans watched glass ceilings shatter across the professional spectrum. In 1981, judge Sandra Day O'Connor began her appointment as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Three years later, U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman vice-presidential candidate for a major party and Sally Ride was America's first woman in space. And Oprah Winfrey, in 1986, became the first woman to produce and own her own talk show, encouraging other women to stand on her well-padded shoulders.
Food + Fun = ‘Eatertainment’
Video games saw a huge rise in the 1980s, with standup machines like “Centipede” and, “Pac Man” (both released in 1980) and “Street Fighter” (released in 1988) sending kids and teens to mall arcades in droves. A favorite food of that same audience? Pizza. So when Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, decided to launch a family restaurant filled with animatronic animals and video games that served, you guessed it, pizza, it was a match made in heaven. Chuck E. Cheese—and the trend of "eatertainment"—was born.
The restaurant, featuring a giant rodent mascot and the slogan "Where a kid can be a kid," was a hit. Following the opening of its first San Jose, California, location in 1977, the chain expanded quickly across the country, and rival ShowBiz Pizza bought the brand in 1984.
The eatertainment trend moved beyond pizza when Dave & Buster’s opened its first arcade/sports bar/restaurant in 1982 in Dallas and Medieval Times opened its first U.S. location in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World, in 1983, before expanding across North America. The latter's dinner theater-style show, presented in a turreted castle and based on the true story of a noble medieval family, included sword fighting, jousting contests and paper crowns for guests who feasted on hearty fare.
“A big part of the appeal is that customers become part of the show—sometimes going so far as tossing a chicken bone into the arena to show their support," the Los Angeles Times reported in 1988. "Costumed wenches and serfs serve huge platters of roasted chicken and spare ribs, herb-basted potato and apple tarts. Dinner is served without cutlery, and soup is sipped from bowls."
According to New York Times reporting in 2018, more than 66 million people have taken part in the Medieval Times show since its U.S. debut.
Music Goes Visual
When MTV took to the airwaves in 1981, the world's first music video channel kicked things off with "Video Killed the Radio Star." And while the song’s concept of that song may not have exactly foretold the future, it certainly changed the way fans viewed musical artists.
The 24-hour music channel, with its moon man logo and a target audience of 12-to 34-year-olds, started as a way to promote new artists by airing videos, music documentaries and concert footage with a rotation of VJs (video jockeys) serving as hosts. Prince, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George and others offered conceptual videos that often made headlines and broke barriers. (Jackson's 13-minute short film/music video for “Thriller " was the first of its kind.) Shows including "Yo! MTV Raps," launched in 1988, brought hip-hop culture to the mainstream. And the annual Video Music Awards, started in 1984, not only recognized music videos as a new art form, but garnered huge publicity—think Madonna emerging from a massive wedding cake as she sang "Like a Virgin"—sparking sales of fingerless lace gloves worldwide.
Suddenly, an artist's appearance, visual storytelling ability, dance skills and fashion sense became as important as his or her vocals. Whitney Houston’s colorful “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” party dresses, Rod Stewart’s shaggy “Forever Young” hairdo, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” military style and more became instant trends. And, it seems, the channel’s timing was good for making money, too: According to Smithsonian Magazine, cable TV grew to 53 million subscribers by 1989, and soon the world was crying, “I want my MTV!”
The Mall Food Court Has a Heyday
There was a time when people shopped in one place, and when they got hungry, they went somewhere else to eat. And then came the shopping mall food court, an open-plan collection of food purveyors “expressly designed for shoppers to carbo-load while resting their feet—sustenance to keep them shopping,” according to The Washington Post. To a soundtrack of piped-in music, mall patrons could browse from an array of popular fast-food choices including frothy orange beverages (Orange Julius), mega slices of pizza (Sbarro), Chinese takeout staples (Panda Express) and massive, salt-studded soft pretzels (Auntie Anne’s).
Pioneered in the 1970s by the granddaddy of mall developers, James Rouse, as part of his idea of making the mall a “civic anchor” of the suburbs, the food court mimicked so-called ‘festival marketplace” projects of urban redevelopment like Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Baltimore’s Harborplace. Rouse’s first try at the mall-based food court in 1971 failed, according to Shopping Centers Today (too small, lacked variety), but he made good on the concept a few years later at the Paramus Park Mall in New Jersey. Rouse believed that the food court, more open than individual restaurant spaces, would provide a place for “community picnics”—without the bugs or inclement weather.
By the 1980s, food courts became a staple of the mall experience—and of suburban culture. It was a place where harried parents could quiet hungry little ones and where teenagers, before cell phones, could congregate, grab an after-school snack and score some people watching—as memorialized in the iconic 1982 teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Toy Crazes Spark Frenzies
Shoppers camped out in line overnight in freezing temps. People ripped boxes from the arms of strangers. A near-riot broke out in Charleston, West Virginia, as 5,000 people showed up to score one of just 120 available dolls.
All that behavior occurred in the name of Cabbage Patch Kids, a toy many described as "homely" that came with an often unusual name, plus a birth certificate, adoption papers and orphan backstory. The dolls, the brainchild of artist Xavier Roberts, hit store shelves in the summer of 1983, and all 2 million produced were sold by fall. As toy company Coleco raced to meet demand, reports quickly emerged of tramplings, fights and other violence by those desperate to purchase the dolls before Christmas.
At a department store in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania a woman suffered a broken leg and four others were injured, The New York Times reported, when 1,000 people rushed the store. "This is my life that's in danger," the manager, clutching a baseball bat, said at the time.
At its peak in 1985, according to Bloomberg, the line made $600 million. But while it earned the most headlines, it wasn't alone in the '80s toy shopping craze trend. Transformer sales reached almost $950 million in the 1980s, including $333 million in 1985 alone, the Associated Press reported. The Rubik’s Cube sold out during its debut year in 1980. And the animatronic Teddy Ruxpin plush toy that could talk, blink and move its head, sold out during the holiday season of 1985. Even at it's $59-$79 retail price, more than 800,000 dolls were sold that year.