The Reagan-Era Subtext of Big and the Late-'80s Body-Swapping Film Boom

25 years later, the idea of kids working as adults seems like an allegory for yuppiedom.
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20th Century Fox

It may be too early to define the themes of the Year in Movies 2013, but it does seem clear that the poor economy remains very much on Americans' minds. Films like Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, and The Great Gatsby display a deep ambivalence about worship of youth and wealth, but they criticize our culture's materialist obsession while also indulging in it.

But not all cinematic trends tied to opulence have been as conflicted. Consider Big, the movie that turned Tom Hanks from a dependable comedic lead into a bona fide, Oscar-nominated movie star. The film, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, was the fourth and most successful in a series of five "body-swap" comedies that were released from October 1987 to March 1989, including Like Father, Like Son, Vice Versa, 18 Again!, and Dream a Little Dream. Viewed today, these movies show just what's changed in the public mood between their era and now.

When movies with similar plots pop up at the same time, there's usually both a simple and more-complex explanation for why. The simple one is that movie studios are copying one another's successes. But the complex explanation says those successes also point to some sort of cultural touchstone. What were in these films that resonated at that time and place? Few have attempted to place the "body-swap movies" of the late '80s into societal context. The closest anyone got was The Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote at the time of Big's release that it "makes one wonder if the genre's popularity might involve some deeply sublimated form of kiddie porn--arguably the distilled ideological essence of squeaky-clean Reaganism."

Although I would not go as far as "kiddie porn," Rosenbaum was onto something in connecting these works to the values that dominated the Reagan Era. Consider this: The dominant, lasting image in all these films is that of a grown man acting like a child. In Big, Vice Versa, and Like Father, Like Son, the lead characters transform corporate workplaces with their youthful exuberance. Essentially, these characters are yuppie analogues, thrust into positions of power too soon and struggling to hide their inexperience. They must have been easy to relate to for the young people who were making huge amounts of money in the 1980s and spending it on toys: pinball machines in Big, cocaine and cars in real life.

The dominant, lasting image in all these films is that of a grown man acting like a child. Essentially, these characters are yuppie analogues, thrust into positions of power too soon and struggling to hide their inexperience.

Further, these archetypes reassured American audiences and businesses that putting young people in positions of power could infuse our economy with fresh ideas (such as "a robot that turns into a bug," the off-the-cuff suggestion of Big's Josh Baskin). What's more, the uncorrupted morals of the child or adolescent characters (in the older man's body) often played a redemptive role in these films. Baskin, for example, teaches his gruff CEO how to feel young again by playing "Heart and Soul" at FAO Schwarz--while also making the company a tidy profit.

Most of these films also featured parallel storylines in which young actors acted like adults, but this dynamic was secondary to that of the grown man-child. It may be telling that the least financially successful of the five (18 Again!) focused almost entirely on the young body with the old soul, while the most successful (Big) found a way to leave the child actor out almost entirely.

Of course, the body-swap renaissance of the late '80s did not invent the genre. Freaky Friday was a surprise hit back in 1976, and the novel that Vice Versa was based on was published in 1882 (!) and adapted for the screen three times before the 1988 Judge Reinhold/Fred Savage film. Likewise, we have more recently been treated to 13 Going on 30, The Hot Chick, The Change-Up, 17 Again, and a remake of Freaky Friday. Some of those films were flops, others were hits, but none were as well-remembered or profitable as Big. That's likely because none of them were as good--but also, maybe, because after debacles like Savings and Loans and the 2008 financial crisis, audiences don't find the idea of overgrown kids running the world as cute anymore.

Presented by

Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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