“Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) Works Because it Wouldn’t Work Today

Not to be this person, but do you realize that if they made Peggy Sue Got Married today that the 25 year time jump would bring us back to 1995? 

For all the seismic cultural shifts that have occurred between the mid-nineties and now, I guess the joke there would be that teenagers pretty much dress the same now as they did back then. 

Why does it seem like the 25 years between 1960 and 1985 covered so much more ground? In the years since 1995, we’ve developed powerful, omnipotent computers that fit on your wrist, and television that’s actually good, and a diametrically divided political culture. We had a similar endless, pointless war that poisoned legions of young people against the lie of American exceptionalism. And people who were teenagers in the mid-nineties are full-pedigreed adults now, just like Peggy Sue and her dear, old friends at their high school reunion. 

Peggy Sue toes the line between the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers. She’s probably too young to remember World War II, and she’s slightly too old to have the trauma of her high school friends shipped off to fight in Vietnam. That’s why Peggy Sue Got Married works; it was made at the exact right time about the exact right past. 

I don’t think you could make this movie about any other 25-year period in American history. Its bobby socks and sock hops nostalgia is so specific to a particular set of years, and a particular wealth bracket, neighborhood, and race. Everyone wishes they could go back to high school and get it right — but, for 1960 graduate Peggy Sue, high school represents a time before divorce, and a time before conflict became personal. When you were a pretty, wealthy, white teenage girl in a segregated suburb in the final clutches of the conservative, separatist sensibilities of the 1950s, you had no reason to think anything about your life would ever be anything less than perfect.

There’s a scene where Peggy Sue’s best friends confront her about her one night stand with beatnik bad boy Michael Fitsimmons. They tell her she’s messing with the plan: that all three of them will marry their high school boyfriends, and live on the same street, and raise their children together. When Peggy Sue suggests they skip date night to have a slumber party, her friends roll their eyes and tell her she’s immature. It’s wild to imagine that spending an evening with your closest friends is a more ridiculous teenage notion than planning for an ideal life spent inside of little boxes made out of ticky-tacky.  

Peggy Sue has seen 1985, a much less-innocent time in the context of rich white womanhood. She has seen her high school boyfriend cheating on her and breaking her heart; she’s seen a president shot and killed; she’s seen the rise of Black activism and a racial reckoning (and maybe met a Black person for the first time?); she’s seen students massacred for protesting on their college campus; she’s seen the pointlessness of war in Vietnam. She has seen America for closer to what it is, so a return to the past becomes a return to the blissful ignorance of her privileged, late-50s youth.

My grandmother, who’s about two years older than Peggy Sue, talks to me about this a lot. She worries about me and my cousins and our constant exposure to the 24-hour news cycle. I’ve argued with her that it’s better this way; that if inequities and atrocities happen, it’s best that the whole world knows about them outright. The more people exposed to tragedy, I’d hope, would mean a swifter end to that tragedy. 

But Peggy Sue Got Married gives me the context of a truly worry-less existence, and I understand what she means. No human being was meant to process as much suffering as we’ve processed just this year. I wouldn’t want to be left uninformed, but I can understand the impulse to disconnect, or to return to a moment before connection. 

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