The troubling flaws of Back to the Future – reappraising a favourite

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Back to the Future is flawed.

I’m not talking about the inconsistency in its chosen model of time travel (though I have a lot to say about that – maybe another day). I’m talking about its sexual politics.

Yes, perhaps a colourful 1985 blockbuster about a time-travelling DeLorean is an unlikely place to look for lessons on sex, but, as I rewatched the film yesterday, I was struck by some of the attitudes encoded in the film.

I didn’t intend to be struck by any encoded attitudes. I wasn’t watching in the hope that I’d be able to go all lefty liberal about it. It was my birthday, and my girlfriend asked me if I’d like to watch a film. ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘The colourful 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. The time travel’s wrong, but it’s great.’ I’d seen it a few times before, though not for several years, and I knew I could rely on it for 116 minutes of carefree fun.

We watched it, realised we were frowning and wincing from time to time, and discussed the troubling flaws of Back to the Future for a while afterwards.

Of course, you know what happens in Back to the Future: teenager Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time from 1985 to 1955. Here, he inadvertently averts the first meeting between his parents, George and Lorraine, and spends the rest of the film trying to get them together, to ensure his own birth.

It is fun. There are funny bits. It’s exciting, tense at points, and it is a thrill to behold charismatic, larger-than-life characters like Doc Brown. He’s just marvellous. Now, as in all films, there is a barrier to the success of our hero. In meddling with history, Marty accidentally catches the amorous attention of his would-be mother, Lorraine. He must somehow direct Lorraine’s affections away from himself, and towards his would-be father, George. And there’s another problem: high school bully Biff is skulking around, appearing at inopportune moments and scuppering things.

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Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), doing some classic 1955 bullying

Now, Marty’s task of mathematical matchmaking is a premise that should be handled carefully. This is not a time travel film where characters are fated to act without agency, as in 12 Monkeys (1995), Timecrimes (2007), or Predestination (2014). Conversely, this is a time travel film where free will is alive and kicking, and threatening to unravel things. That’s fine – it’s dramatically interesting. But Marty’s scheme for getting his parents together ventures swiftly onto dodgy territory.

The film features two versions of attempted rape. One is Biff’s genuine attempt to rape Lorraine. The other is Marty’s plan: he will pretend to attempt a rape, allowing George a pretext to come along and romantically save the day.

I contend that the first makes sense within the fiction of the film. It is supported by the characterisation of Biff as a thuggish misogynist (though I do have problems with its actual onscreen depiction, which I’ll expand on later – bear with me).

The second, however – Marty and George’s plan – is a huge misstep by the goofy time-travel comedy. It makes clear the strange flippancy with which sexual assault is employed as a dramatic device in the film.

Obviously, like anything, the cinematic depiction of rape can be justified by the context of a film. If a film intends to portray or examine abusive relationships, or rape is a trauma that happens to a character, then it makes sense to depict that abuse, or at least its effects. The depiction of nasty things, of course, can also be justified in satire, in exploration and parody of social attitudes (as throughout Brass Eye, for example).

Indeed, as stated above, I do think that Biff’s attitude towards Lorraine in Back to the Future is contextualised by his character. His attitude and motivations are dramatically justified. I don’t want my opinion to be mistaken: these horrible things can feature in stories, and shouldn’t be shied away from when the context makes sense.

But Marty, our plucky hero, and his lovably geeky accomplice, George, are willing to stage a sexual assault as a pretext for a relationship – and we must tacitly accept the plan if we want Marty to succeed. Back to the Future is not intended to be a nuanced study of human nature and relationships. It is not Under the Skin (2013). We are not being invited to reflect on the faceted moral flaws in Marty McFly. He is our hero, accidentally sent back in time to an aesthetically romanticised version of the 1950s, and we are on his side as he comically attempts to secure his own existence.

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Lorraine (Lea Thompson), suffering the ‘Florence Nightingale Effect’

Now I’ll discuss my problems with the depiction of Biff’s actions. Trying to force himself on Lorraine is logical for his character, but I think the film allows him to go too far, considering what sort of film Back to the Future is supposed to be. The sequence of his assault goes on for too long. He tells his thuggish pals to drag Marty away, and they do. That’s fine. Then Biff turns towards Lorraine and tries to grab her. Okay, yes, that’s what his character would do. I’m still with the drama. He gets into the car.

Here would be a fine moment for George to come along and deliver his line: ‘Hey you, get your damn hands off her.’ It would have the same impact. Biff would receive the same comeuppance. But, as the film actually stands, we see Biff tussle with Lorraine for a while. We see the car rocking back and forth. We see Biff’s hand apparently inside Lorraine’s dress. As tears stream down her face, Lorraine begs for help and is pushed back down into her seat.

Only then does George’s moment come (built, as it is, on Marty’s intended staged assault), and Lorraine steps gracefully with him to the dance. They live happily ever after, and George never feels bad for his complicity in an assault on his wife.

If this was a serious film about serious characters, I would understand the length to which Biff is allowed to go onscreen. But this is a cheerful, cartoonish family comedy, and this fairly visceral portrayal of sexual assault is not exactly a great springboard for the feelgood scenes that immediately follow, nor for Lorraine’s sudden light mood. View the film with even your mildest critical faculties ticking in the background, and tonal shifts suddenly become very jarring and uncomfortable.

But these things are not inherent to the plot. They could easily have been dissolved in a single rewrite during the early drafting stage; the excessive detail of Biff’s assault could even have been excised in post-production. The film doesn’t need Biff to get so far in his assault on Lorraine, and Marty doesn’t need to pretend to attack his mother to move the plot in the right direction. The first is unpleasant and at odds with the tone of the film; the second is a major flaw in the intended joyful heroism of our protagonist, and difficult to overlook when you’re watching with your brain switched on.

Now, in case you’ve read this far but think I’m being one of those snowflakes, I’d just offer this: pop culture is made by some people for a lot of people, and it is important to always consider the attitudes being pushed – especially if the pop culture in question is a beloved family film that endures over three decades.

Perhaps it was different in 1985. Perhaps people thought less about what the depiction of something might mean for a film. But if that film manages to float in happy popularity for thirty years, we should be willing to think about it critically; to acknowledge and identify its missteps, and to avoid making them in the future. Everything made by people for people should be open to this scrutiny. If that idea somehow offends your sensibilities, then you might be snowflake in the room.

I’d also say that I don’t think that a flawed or ‘problematic’ piece of art or entertainment should be banned or censored. I’m not sure I agree, for example, that Robin Thicke’s abysmal ‘Blurred Lines’ should have been outright banned from play at several universities across the UK. But it should be open to examination and criticism, and the personal free choice of what next to do with it: to play or not to play.

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Jukebox, not playing ‘Blurred Lines’

I should clarify that I don’t think Lorraine’s character in Back to the Future was written or directed by deliberately sexist men. I don’t intend to associate Rob Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg with seedy old Thicke. Rather, it feels as if the disquieting implications of Marty’s plan might not even have occurred to the writers, just as they fail to occur to Marty.

As such, Lorraine is chiefly a plot device, intended by the male characters to be sexually assaulted into consequences without any agency of her own, like a human chess piece being groped across the board. Agency is written around Lorraine, in a film where the idea of free will is essential to the story.

I’m sure I can still enjoy much of the Back to the Future trilogy. I can still enjoy pointing out its little details, listening to the theme tune, and privately wishing I had a DeLorean. I can still waste pass my time picking at the problems in its time travel, and pondering the strengths and weaknesses of the sequels.

But, on yesterday’s rewatch, its flaws seemed too glaring to overlook without examination. And it’s helped me to realise that it’s good to watch old favourites with a fresh, critical eye, and that we needn’t be nervous about reappraising the colourful blockbusters we hold dear.

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2 thoughts on “The troubling flaws of Back to the Future – reappraising a favourite”

  1. This whole thing has been done extensively! I think Nik Drou actually had a crack in the recent past. My personal view is that the film inhabits – with the intent of lampooning – the sexual politics of the era as well as the notion of a ‘hero’ movie itself with the tropes that naturally involves – this is supported by the remarks I’ve read from the people involved in it. Being realistic, it could not be reasonably taken as attempting to establish contemporary gender roles unless you interpreted it in the most determinedly mendacious fashion.

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