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“Back to the Future” used to be a charming Reagan-era fantasy–now, it’s all about patriarchy

July 14, 2015

My latest blog post for the Independent Women’s Forum:

Back to the Future publicity still of Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson & Crispin Glover
Marty McFly (right) with his future parents: Note her adoring look at her hero

You probably thought Back to the Future, the 1985 Stephen Spielberg-produced classic that’s now celebrating its 30th anniversary in many theaters, was about an enterprising teen-ager who-time travels back to 1955 in a plutonium-fired DeLorean and saves his parents’ marriage.

Well, you’re out to lunch! According to [New Republic] senior editor Jamil Smith, Back to the Future is actually about Why Do Men Always Get to Be the Heroes.


Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), growing up in small-town California,  has a pair of unhappy parents: Dad George (Crispin Glover) is a loser schlepp who’s bullied by his boss, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson). Mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an overweight alcoholic. But when Marty goes back to 1955, he discovers that George, then in high school, is already a loser and is already being bullied by teen-age Biff. And teen-age Lorraine gets a crush on Marty (not knowing, of course, that he’s her own son). In order to bring his future parents together so that he’ll be born, Marty tries to set up a scene at the school dance in which George will “rescue” Lorraine from an inappropriate pass by Marty. But bully Biff, who’s also got his eye on Lorraine, shoves Marty aside and forces himself onto Lorraine instead. When George comes by and discovers Biff, not Marty, mauling Lorraine, he delivers Biff a knockout punch. A suddenly smitten Lorraine falls into George’s arms. The incident changes the newly self-confident George’s life and ultimately the tenor of his and Lorraine’s marriage: When Marty manages to return to 1985 in the DeLorean, his father turns out to be a successful novelist (and has Biff working for him), while his mother has neither her weight problems nor her boozy misery.

A charming ending, right?

Wrong, says TNR‘s Smith:

“Today, I can’t feel good as a feminist about how we saw George’s vindication come about….

“But in the revised future, Biff—Lorraine’s assailant—is portrayed as a mere functionary in the love story, and is shown waxing the family car in the driveway and later, coming inside the house to deliver a box of George’s novels. Lorraine is not so much a character as a device, denied all agency.

“Those movies in the ’80s with a message made things easy. While I once regarded George’s breakthrough in Back to the Future solely as a great thing, a pop-cultural moment that helped point me towards feminism as a young boy, I see now that it came cheaply. Doing the right thing is so easy when all you have to do is be the hero.”

So I guess Smith would like Back to the Future better if, instead of Biff’s manhandling Lorraine and being knocked out by George, Lorraine had invited both Biff and George to a “sexual harassment awareness” session set up by Lorraine. There, Biff would learn that it’s wrong to rape–and George would learn that it’s equally wrong to try to play the macho “hero.” Lorraine would have plenty of “agency” because she’d be running the whole show.
Posted by Charlotte Allen

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