Tethered to the Past: Deconstruction of Reagan's Optimism in Jordan Peele's US

Curator's Note

Academic dialogues surrounding Peele's work thoroughly regard gender and race, yet generational identity is a crucial element in analyzing his oeuvre.   At the time of this writing, Peele, 43, belongs to Gen X, a generation that has been conspicuously missing from many cultural conversations in the public sphere and academia.

Could there be a possible collective trauma we suffered growing up in the 70s and 80s that influences Gen X's perspective and experiences in a Post Internet, 9/11, and the pandemic world? Some of Peele's films assert: yes.

As young children, like Adelaide in US, Gen X-er's impressionable images were those of a false sense of comfort from capitalism. Reagan's America had the perfect marketing; utilizing a pop culture rooted in optimism, prosperity, and unity. However, this "truth," as we see in hindsight, was a fabrication.

It was 1986, the year of the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl, ....and Hands Across America. The very first image of Jordan Peele's US is viewed through a television screen (how the majority of Gen X experienced 1980s pop culture) and prominently displays footage from the epic charitable event.  Riding off the success of the USA for Africa and the celebrity-laden "We Are the World" success, the producers found more corporate sponsors, more of the era's top-tier celebrities, to create a behemoth event aimed to earn enough money to successfully bring awareness to and significantly eradicate child homelessness in the US (US).  The event pulled in roughly 30 million, and half went to the cost of producing the event. Many panned it as nothing more than virtue signaling performance art and a huge commercial for corporate sponsors.  Indeed, there are more homeless now than ever in our country, and the promises of prosperity (via "trickle-down" economics) for everyone in this country was a myth as the forgotten ones, much like the Doppelgängers that dwell underground in US, were left behind.

It is a tale of collective lost innocence. Adelaide watching an event of brotherly harmony on TV, then dons her Michael Jackson shirt (an Easter egg homage to his participation in We Are the World) at the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. (Where a year later, The Lost Boys commented about the forgotten youth of the era and region). Her reality is not one that she witnesses on TV, her parents are not happy, and she comes face to face with Red, who escapes her imprisonment from the Underworld. Something happened in those "Wonder Years" that affects us today. Very similarly to Ricky "Jupe" Park's chimpanzee catastrophe during his innocent pop culture TV show taping in Peele's Nope. Those Gen X traumas haunt them through the modern day.

Peele's powerful iconography of the shears indicates a yearning to cut ties to this nostalgic Shangri-La. It is an existential crisis to discover the innocent memories you held sacred in your most impressionable years were the genesis of adult life conflict. As a child, Hands Across America makes you feel a certain way, indeed watching it now leaves a bifurcated dilemma within myself. The music evokes feelings of unity I felt as a kid like a time machine, yet as an adult, I see through the manipulation.  Gen X is tethered to a strange othered existence, almost like the 20th century was an alternative timeline in a multiverse, and looking back on who we were is looking back on not ourselves, but Doppelgängers. As if it was all experienced via television and film. How does Gen X negotiate their generational identity and still cope with the reality of the fact that the years of their innocence developed into the overwhelming reality we experience today? Peele recommends untethering ourselves to the false promises and policies of late capitalism and calling out the mythical legacy of Reagan. He is truly a Gen X auteur.

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