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Masculinity between Father and Son in “Back to the Future”

In the era of Rambos and Terminators, Marty McFly is not your typical hero. He’s not a bodybuilder, he’s still in school, and his best friend is the town eccentric. The “Back to the Future” franchise gave a second opinion on what masculinity could be in the 1980’s.

Marty McFly was a different type of 80’s hero. While watching his time-travel escapades we see him triumph and save the day for not only himself, but his family and entire community.

Marty McFly sits with his father George when he goes back in time.

In a period where brawn was more important than brain, we can look to “Back to the Future” to not only give a second definition to manliness but see how important the father-son relationship is.

The “Back to the Future” series has a simple enough plotline … a) man invents time machine, b) boy goes back in time, c) boy changes past, d) boy must repair timeline. This may sound like a great, yet forgettable, 80’s film was proven to be much more.

Over two decades later it is still popular, still quotable, and still as relevant as ever. The underlying theme, Susan Jeffords points out in her book, “Hard Bodies; Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era,” is revolution and the idea that one man can change the world. But the films go deeper than that to explore the father-son bond.

Marty McFly, is a typical teenager from a dysfunction family in a small town. When his friend Doc invents a time machine Marty is the guinea pig. He goes back in time thirty years to 1955 and accidentally interferes with his parents’ first meeting.

In doing this he changes his past and unless he can put things right he risks not being born. He befriends his nerdy teenage father, gets him to stand up for himself against the town bully Biff, and helps him win back his teenage mother.

When he returns back to 1985 he finds that he not only repaired the tear in history he caused but by giving his father some self-esteem in his teen years it carried over into adulthood. Now his family was well-rounded and successful.

The series teaches that one event, one action, can change history. Marty teaches his father, George, to defend himself, to be a man, which causes him to punch Biff, which leads to Biff working for George in the future.

Here masculinity was not passed from father to son but from son to father. Throughout the “Back to the Future” films Marty’s manliness is always put into question by the Biff of the era taunting him with two words, “You chicken?” This threat is one that Marty can never walk away from. By the end we see that it takes the bigger man to walk away from the fight rather then go in guns-a-blazing.

Marty travels through time to see not only his father, but his great-grandfather, himself, and his own son. Through all of these examples he learns how a man should act. He witnessed how a wimp can turn into an authority figure without tons of muscels, how you can walk away and still win, and how the trickle-down effect of those actions will affect generations to come.

Besides masculinity, we can also see how the values of the father can effect the son and the community. In the first film we see how the change in the fathers personality affects his family and their surroundings.

In the second we see what could happen if Biff was the patriarch of the McFly family. In “Back to the Future II” Marty and Doc travel thirty years into the future to visit Marty’s son, they return to a present where George is dead and Biff is married to his mother.

Biff fights George at the dance.

This community is not the bright and happy one Marty remembers. It is dark, dirty, and desolate; it is full of crime and the only building in town not in shambles is the casino that Biff owns.

This present is run by the values of Biff, it is where the people “lead lives of self-indulgence, addiction, and crime,” Jeffords writes. It is clear that the values of the father govern the life of the son.

One relationship, I have failed to mention so far is the relationship between Doc and Marty. Doc is Marty’s mentor from the very beginning. Jeffords summarizes the three films:

“Back to the Future” showed the son rescuing his community from the shameful world produced by a weak father; “Back to the Future” II shows how the successful father can be put at risk by a society that denigrates “family values”; but “Back to the Future” III abandons any interest in biological fathers and focuses on the symbolic father of all three films-Doc Brown, the inventor of the time machine, the savior of the future, and the man who taught Marty how to take control of time.

George illustrates the importance of a strong father for the betterment of the family and the community, but Doc has the stronger role in Marty’s life as well as a stronger role in the series. It is Doc who teaches Marty all the important lessons including the last one of the series, “… your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one.”

Marty McFly is definitely the hero of the “Back to the Future” series, no question. But can you compare him to other 80’s heroes? Sure, he traveled through time to fix all his family’s problems and make sure he wasn’t eliminated from all existence, great.

John McClane took out a skyscraper full of terrorists … barefoot. Lincoln Hawk came in as the underdog to take on the world’s greatest arm wrestlers and win and get his son back. So Marty McFly, scrawny Marty McFly is gonna come in and be the hero—yes.

This time, brains beat brawn as Marty takes on Biff, muscely, short-tempered Biff (who in my opinion is just overcompensating to prove is masculinity because he was raised by his grandmother) to repair time and learn to outsmart, not outfight his opponents.

The 80’s gave us some great silver screen heroes that still live on today. As we prepare for Rambo IV and another Indiana Jones epic, I’m still holding out for “Back to the Future IV.”

No matter who the protagonist of these films was or what they looked like a central motif in all of them was the father-son relationship, symbolic, biological, or both. Marty McFly, was a hero out of necessity. If he hadn’t corrected time he would have been erased from existence.

He proved that one man can change history and they didn’t need to look like a steroids experiment to do it.




  1. Pingback: Film Class Finds « No Worries - May 13, 2012

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