In 1991, actor Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Florida. The story made worldwide headlines, as Reubens had risen to fame over the previous decade as the beloved oddball children’s entertainer Pee-Wee Herman. With hit movies and his Pee-Wee’s Playhouse TV show, the bizarre man-child had become an icon of 1980s popular culture, and in one fell swoop, Reubens had shattered his character’s image and stunted his own career.
I don’t think I was ever the same after that.
I thought about Pee-Wee’s not-so-big adventure—and how things have changed so much over the last 25 years—as another formerly beloved celebrity of the Spuds MacKenzie era saw his career burst into scandal-induced flames. Hulk Hogan is arguably the most iconic professional wrestler in the history of the WWE, but last week the organization removed all mention of “The Hulkster” from its website after video surfaced of Hogan making racist remarks about African-Americans. In the footage, Hogan complains about a black billionaire taking interest in his daughter’s fledgling pop music career some eight years ago.
“I mean, I’d rather if she was going to fuck some nigger, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall nigger worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player! I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking nigger,” he said in the tape, sources told Radar Online and The National Enquirer.
That’s right, Hulkamaniacs—don’t bone black dudes without benefits! Of course, Hogan subsequently issued an apology.
“Eight years ago I used offensive language during a conversation. It was unacceptable for me to have used that offensive language; there is no excuse for it; and I apologize for having done it,” he said in the statement. “This is not who I am. I believe very strongly that every person in the world is important and should not be treated differently based on race, gender, orientation, religious beliefs or otherwise.”
Hogan’s fall from grace coincides with a number of superstars from the decade of “Where’s the Beef?” grabbing headlines for all the worst reasons.
Yes, it’s a hard time for anyone who was a kid in the ’80s.
A generation grew up with Bill Cosby as “America’s Dad” every Thursday night. The Cosby Show centered on Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable dispensing fatherly wisdom and goofy hijinks to 30 million households at its height. Now, Bill Cosby’s name is more likely to conjure up images of the comedian drugging and assaulting countless women; the real-life Cosby has robbed us of Dr. Huxtable. In a similar vein, Terry Bollea has robbed us of Hulk Hogan. And then there are the deaths of so many of the people I looked up to as a tyke. And why those deaths happened. Even with his own headline-grabbing scandals, Michael Jackson’s death was a devastating blow for a generation of MTV-raised music fans. “The Coreys” were the epitome of ’80s teenage cool before drugs sank their Hollywood careers. Corey Haim died in 2011 and though Corey Feldman is alive, his career was euthanized long ago. Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman—and his co-star Dana Plato—also shuffled off this mortal coil. All of these people were well-documented addicts, alcoholics, or in financial ruin. We demanded that our squeaky-clean superstars be perfect personas for the kiddie fans, then mocked them as they fell from stardom—only to weep tears of nostalgia when the end finally came.
In the pre-Internet pop culture landscape, you were able to celebrate these icons as idealized symbols—pillars of success who attained that success through hard work and good values (or so we were encouraged to assume). In the ’80s, idol worship wasn’t just a part of our fascination with celebrity—it was encouraged. After all, part of Hogan’s appeal was his wholesome moralism. As he barked goofy threats at his opponents, he’d end every rant with advice to young “Hulkamaniacs” to “say your prayers” and “eat your vitamins.” With its penchant for tackling “issues” as varied as child molestation, bulimia, and environmentalism, no kid-oriented half-hour embraced teaching “life lessons” as earnestly as a “Very Special Episode” of Diff’rent Strokes. If you wanted to know the right thing to do in a pressure-filled situation, just watch Arnold and Willis—because they always did the right thing. Before Michael Jordan had ever won an NBA championship—or made headlines for gambling debts and philandering—Nike encouraged us to “Be Like Mike.” Your favorite athletes and TV stars weren’t just good at body slams or making you laugh weeknights at 8 o’clock—they were presented as moral examples that could set you on the right path if you followed their advice.
And because we didn’t see them being petty and spiteful on Twitter, because there was no “Growing Up Emanuel Lewis” reality show or coke-and-weed Instagram videos from Michael J. Fox, American youth bought into these “clean” celebrities that were tailor-made for the conservative-minded era of Ronald Reagan.
Last week, I heard young, elementary school-aged kids in a supermarket discussing how much money LeBron James is supposedly worth. At first, I thought it sad that young kids would be so cynical. But maybe these kids aren’t more cynical—maybe they’re just less ignorant. Maybe it’s wise for kids to view celebrities through an honest lens that recognizes them more as capitalists and entertainers, as they are. We’ve seen the folly in encouraging our kids to think that anyone is a good guy just because they can run fast or dance well. The Hulkster is a racist and the Coz is a rapist. Meanwhile, a guy who was universally regarded an ’80s villain come to life—Donald Trump—is making a serious bid for the presidency. Nothing related to my childhood makes any sense now.
And we’ve just lost “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, too.
Where do we go from here? Is Bull from Night Court in a right-wing militia? Was Mr. T on steroids? I shudder to think of what’s next. Hell, there’s even a YouTube clip of ALF screaming racial slurs.
You can’t believe in anything, folks.