What purpose does ‘Stranger Things’ serve beyond the dangerous delusion that things were better way back when?
Editor’s note: ‘Stranger Things 2’ debuts on Netflix October 27.
This past week, I watched two different works saturated in deep 1980s vibes and featuring adolescent boy protagonists. But though they seem superficially similar, they couldn’t be more different.
The first was Taika Waititi’s film, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based off the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump. Like Waititi’s preceding film, Boy (2010), it explores an adolescent slice of a young Maori boy’s life.
The second was the new Netflix original series from The Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things, billed as a 1980s nostalgia-orgy coupled with X-Files-esque subject matter, all topped off with a John Carpenter-homage score.
Full disclosure: I am a lady — a non-adolescent lady who rejects the notion that there are boy stories and girl stories. To me, stories are either good — worthwhile — or bad. Well-rendered or poorly wrought. However, as a lady who is on the cusp of entering the entertainment field as a storyteller, I grow increasingly weary and disheartened as, time after time, we are provided with another trite narrative about a little white boy in Middle America who has a remarkable experience that transmogrifies him into an even more remarkable little white boy.
As the United States continues to grow more diverse and undergo significant demographic shifts — in 40 years, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority — the media landscape should be proportionally changing as well. Yet the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report authored at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA shows that minorities have lost ground in representation to their white counterparts, and that women have gained no ground relative to their male counterparts since the last report.
As the United States continues to grow more diverse, the media landscape should be proportionally changing as well.
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Stranger Things are two diametrically opposed media offerings put forth against this backdrop of social change. The former reflects the diversity of the world, but has been relegated to limited release in arthouse cinemas in the United States — while the latter, created by two white men, is reportedly one of Netflix’s most-watched series.
The fervor surrounding Stranger Things reeks of complacency; as a storytelling culture, we need to step up our game and include a diversity of narratives.
The Slippery Slope Of Nostalgia
Stranger Things manages to encapsulate all of the worst elements of clumsily-crafted television — clunky dialogue, blatant sexism, and poorly written characters and scenarios — all celebrated under the auspices of nostalgia, a wistful pining for a past that perhaps never existed. I believe the sensation people are actually nostalgic for is how they remembered television/film looked and felt in the ’80s, not what the reality was. Either way, it’s a bleak yearning. To revel in a state of nostalgia is to be comfortable; this is dangerous because comfort is in direct opposition to change and growth.
We are currently experiencing an absolute explosion of quality, dramatic episodic programming that rivals the best dramatic Hollywood feature film releases. Spectacle may still fill theater seats, but television is where many entertainment aficionados now turn for their story fixes; these stories have all but dethroned the Hollywood feature film monolith. Unfortunately, Stranger Things does little to nothing to propel us forward into this Golden Age of television.
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The creators of Stranger Things present us with yet another tale of suburban, early-adolescent male exceptionalism, and while this is not, inherently, a deal breaker in terms of potential entertainment quality, the premise feels as moth-chewed as your grandmother’s wedding veil in the attic.
From the first episode, viewers are asked — required really — to accept the strange lack of knowledge that the townspeople of Hawkins, Indiana possess; they are apparently unaware that a massive, high-security government compound, within walking distance of a residential area, resides beside them. (Never mind that it also receives convoys of official-looking cars at all hours.) But perhaps this is to be expected from a world populated with characters who cease to exist when they aren’t on the screen, offering three of the most one-dimensional female protagonists that I’ve ever seen.
Winona Ryder, an incredibly talented actress (nominated for two Oscars), does her best to bring depth to the character of Joyce, who is written in two notes — frantic distress and anger. Meanwhile, Natalia Dyer is forced to resuscitate the Little-Miss-Perfect archetype as Nancy. She plays the sexually-repressed valedictorian coveted by the most popular football player in school. But that’s okay, because she’s totally not shallow; she has a friend who wears glasses, after all.
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Then we have Millie Bobby Brown, also known as Eleven . . . who I really, really wanted to like. She had potential — a mysterious appearance; the most developed backstory of the lot — but it quickly became apparent that sentences comprised of more than two words were too difficult for her female brain (albeit one that was clearly traumatized).
The lack of depth characterizing Eleven and the other females of Stranger Things perpetuates the notion that women are lesser formed beings, lacking the complexity held by their male counterparts, and therefore, deserving less of a viewer’s thought and attention. The creators of Stranger Things missed a vital opportunity to address this representational inequality, but instead fell prey into the easy trap of using a character as a plot device.
A strong, multifaceted, female character who does more than wring her hands and weep or stare off into the distance as a trickle of blood rolls down from her nose is, unfortunately, still an anomaly.
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As for the boys of Stranger Things, they’re saddled with their own problematic tropes. These early adolescent boys are the nerdy outcasts (who later grow up and write Stranger Things?) who spend their time playing Dungeons and Dragons and have a somewhat unshakeable camaraderie. Do we ever find out much more than their names? No. One mysteriously disappears, one’s a skeptic, one befriends his very own little girl E.T. These boys, in small town Middle America, are clichéd in their awkwardness. They’re victims of a temporary paranormal conflict — which they undoubtedly experience — but afterward, bafflingly, they remain exactly the same.
Sure, the skeptic very quickly becomes both a believer and a friend of lady-E.T. girl — he even questions their friendship for about 30 seconds — but at the end of it all, the center of their universe is still the designated Dungeons and Dragons table in the stuffy upper-middle-class basement. Their world, and consequently, their worldview, remains the same. Their privilege — even as adolescent misanthropes — that is blindly accepted throughout the series remains unshaken.
The Hunt for Compelling Narratives
So what does Taika Waititi and Hunt for the Wilderpeople have to do with this? His story is also one that centers around an adolescent male, but there is a critical difference between the narratives put forth by Waititi and those put out by the Duffer Brothers (and of the world): a shift in worldview.
Waititi presents to us not just adolescent boys, but fully developed, three-dimensional characters who have likes, dislikes, multi-faceted personalities, and emotional range. They’re children who’ve built fraught and complicated identities for themselves that they believe will elevate their social standing — their caché — in an attempt to try and attain the status of their Hollywood counterparts, who they have elevated to a level of heroism.
As an audience member, you initially laugh at their antics because you know that they are really anything but cool — they’re just little boys who haven’t had enough experiences in the world to realize that peacocking to maintain a precarious social status toehold isn’t worth it. But what else are they going to do?
Society’s already given up on Ricky by the time we meet him at the beginning of the film. He’s a “bad egg” who engages in petty theft, vandalizes personal property, and thinks he’s the coolest gangster in the world. But he’s no gangster. He’s just a young boy who’s desperately trying to maintain some semblance of control in a life that’s been a series of stints in various foster homes and juvenile court. In a fish-out-of-water move, Ricky moves to a rural farm bordering the bush. Exposed to a completely different way of life and given jobs and responsibilities — namely, a new dog he names Tupac — he starts to learn that he possesses intrinsic value apart from flamboyant demonstrative actions characterizing his previous “gangster” city life. His world has now expanded wildly beyond his initial imaginings.
Unlike the characters of Stranger Things, the youth of Waititi’s films realize that their heroes are fictions, albeit entertaining fictions. They ultimately reject the mimicry of those “cool” Hollywood characters as a form of escapism, choosing to participate in their reality instead. In Waititi’s story, it is better to be a flawed human being than it is to be an overwrought archetype.
People are consumers of entertainment. People are also dynamic, ever-changing, ever-growing beings who enjoy seeing their personal experiences and feelings reflected in the characters they encounter. Perhaps the hero’s journey is such a popular storytelling framework because we all feel the need to enact our own version of it on an intimate scale.
Stories are how we communicate who we are as a people. They help to illustrate what we want to be, whether it’s through the contrast of exploring darkness and misery, or through a tale of possibility, of hope and conquering. The stories that stick with us are the ones that foster growth, because growth and adaptation are what enable us to survive as individuals and a species.
When confronted with a story like Stranger Things, a recycled retelling of an old story being marketed as homage and good, clean nostalgia, one has to wonder whether or not studios and content creators like the Duffer Brothers ever ask themselves whether or not the story they are telling is the one that should be told. What purpose does Stranger Things serve beyond reinforcing the status quo in the media landscape and perpetuating the dangerous delusion that things were better way back when?
Now is the time for content creators to fight back against how things have always been done — offering characters with depth and narratives that help generate a newfound understanding of our world, not a fetishization of where we’ve come from.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story noted that one of the characters “had a lisp,” an insensitive portrayal of Gaten Matarazzo’s Cleidocranial Dysplasia, which he has spoken candidly about. We have deleted the reference, and regret the mistake.