Course Description

During the 1980s, understandings of sexuality and gender in the United States were radically redefined not only in the bedroom but also by what happened in local and national news, in boardrooms and classrooms, and on the streets. These shifts played a huge role in the cultural, political, geographical, and economic transformations of the decade, from the rise of the Religious Right to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the Iran-Contra Affair and Challenger Space Shuttle accident to the launch of MTV, from the plague of AIDS and the crack epidemic to the fierce debates around the sex-porn wars and the “welfare queen.” This class will use gender and sexuality as a lens to explore these key events and issues as they play out in books, music, music videos, photography, laws, plays, movies, documentary, television, and newspaper articles, as well as in material objects like the IBM personal computer, Super Mario Brothers, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Through a diverse selection of focused discussion topics, students will learn to interpret and contextualize cultural objects in relation to America and the world in the 1980s by connecting the intimate and global topographies of these events and identifying the ways that they still affect our daily lives. In this core American Studies course, you will become skilled in reading and describing how the context of events shapes culture, geography, politics, and economics, and vice versa.

In a final research paper, students will select any topic covered in the course and, with instructor approval, craft an argument about that event, person, text, or object into a larger research paper. These shorter assignments will include a cultural and political reading of a work of art by Mapplethorpe at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and an embodied analysis of Saturday morning TV culture. Students are encouraged to use digital, visual, and printed materials, as well as other local libraries, historical societies, museums, and archives. As the culminating event to the course, students are required to use their research to make a public contribution to knowledge by editing a relevant Wikipedia entry of their choice.


  • Moffitt, Kimberly R, and Duncan A Campbell, eds. 2011. The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
  • Kushner, Tony. 1995. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
  • Fetner, Tina. 2008. How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Readings not listed here will be provided through links on the course website. The password for all readings is: iwantmymtv


The website can be found at The course Facebook page can be found at For more on WordPress, see the course page How to Use WordPress or look through for how to make a post, navigate the dashboard, add media, make a comment, and so on. Learning new technology as you share work is an incredible skill for internships, jobs, and graduate school—jump in! The Facebook page will afford a space for constant, brief conversations and idea sharing, while the WordPress site will be a space to record and share your longer papers and contributions to the course timeline. Finally, your adventures with the JSTimelines code will give you some experience worth bragging about in the world of digital humanities and cutting-edge collaborative, participatory technology.