“Stranger Things” and the Limits of 1980s Nostalgia

Wynona Ryder as Joyce Byers on Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Initially, I was hesitant to watch Netflix’s Stranger Things. The eight-episode miniseries was initially billed as a nostalgic 1980s mash-up of the novels of Stephen King and the movies of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. The Carpenter and King parts of that equation gave me pause. A wayward substitute teacher allowed my class to watch the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s It on a rainy day in fifth grade (on a VHS tape recorded off of live TV!). I’ve never quite recovered.

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But as the onslaught of articles detailing every single 1980s influence made it clear that Stranger Things would be just as much The Goonies as a slaughter-fest, other articles appeared suggesting that it was a subversion of the outdated gender tropes of the blended genres. Posts on Think Progress and Vulture made the case that nerdy sidekick Barb (Shannon Purser) and overworked single mother Joyce Byers (Wynona Ryder) were the real heroes. A work that combined all of the best of ’80s entertainment with some of that “ideological colonization” the Pope is so afraid of? Plus Wynona Ryder? Someone peeked at my dream journal.

It doesn’t quite live up to such lofty commendations (spoilers ahead). Set in a suburb in Indiana in 1983, ST follows the disappearance of Will Byers, Joyce’s middle-school–aged son, one night after he bikes home alone after dark (the ’80s!) from the house of his best friend, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard). The mystery of Will’s absence is complicated by the simultaneous arrivals of a vicious monster and a telekinetic preteen girl who answers to the name of Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown in a breakout performance), both of whom are being chased by murderous government agents.

The three plots converge in a final showdown.

Stranger Things focuses on three separate groups of characters: Will’s friends Mike, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) discover Eleven while searching for Will. A group of high school students, including Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Will’s older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), find themselves drawn into the hunt for the monster amid regular teenage conflict. And the official police investigation by Chief Jim Hopper (an outstanding David Harbour) fails to convince a grieving Joyce that Will is actually dead, especially once her electricity starts to go haywire. That the three plots eventually converge in one final showdown is a given.

Another goodie from our time filming season 1 😊

A photo posted by Gaten Matarazzo (@gatenm123) on

Unlike movies such as Scream, Stranger Things isn’t a meta-commentary on ’80s culture, and it doesn’t function fully as pastiche. There are recognizable reference points to other films and books. Nobody could miss that Eleven’s love of Eggo waffles is a direct reference to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’s love of Reese’s Pieces. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro, creators Ross and Matt Duffer (twin brothers) said that in order to pitch Stranger Things they created a trailer with all of the ’80s films they wanted to reference. According to Matt:

I think it was around 30 different movies — a lot of them were from the ’80s, but not entirely from the ’80s — movies that we cut together to kind of tell the story of the show. But it was cool because we had a lot of shots from, but we scored it with, like, John Carpenter synth music. So I think it helped us figure out what the show was going to feel like.

The above quote about what the show would “feel like” is exactly what makes Stranger Things so successful. Instead of creating an homage to one ’80s movie, or even a dozen, the Duffers made a movie so steeped in that era’s popular culture that it resonates whether you were a fan of Friday the 13th or Adventures in Babysitting.

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I knew that I would love Stranger Things, starting a little over three minutes into the first episode, when Mike complains to his mother, Karen, that he just need a few more minutes to complete the Dungeons and Dragons game it took him weeks to plot. He receives from her (Cara Buono, underused) an epically dismissive eye-roll before being completely brushed off by his father, Ted (Joe Chrest). You don’t see a lot of this deeply indifferent (but still loving) parenting in entertainment anymore. When you do, it’s treated primarily as neglect.

Because ST is so thoroughly a product of ’80s nostalgia, it fails to take advantage of opportunities to push back against the limitations of the time period. To complain that the female characters are underwritten is disingenuous — most of the characters of ST are underwritten. Atmosphere and plot are where the Duffer’s excel, not characterization. This leaves the mostly talented cast to bring emotional depth, but it also strands the weaker actors, notably Matthew Modine as one of the government agents and Nancy’s irritating high school friends. The high school sections drag because of this imbalance, while the middle-school and adult sections are lifted by the chemistry among the leads, as well as mesmerizing performances by Brown, Harbour and Ryder.

A subversion of gender tropes never comes.

The promised subversion of gender tropes never comes. Despite the Internet’s adoption of Barb (#JusticeforBarb, #WeAreAllBarb), she spends very little time in the narrative, first appearing as a prudish scold when Nancy wants to lose her virginity, then treated as a plot device to ramp up danger. Her celebration on social media tells us less about her importance to the story and more about how many people identify with the nerdy outcast who never gets to have any fun or be the hero.

Once Barb is dispatched, Eleven, Nancy and Joyce reveal Stranger Things’ narrow conception of women. The lone female figures in their narratives, these women and girls of ST are attractive and attracting, driven by their intuition and judged on their ability to nurture those around them. Just by existing, they cause conflict among the male characters who surround them. This is especially frustrating with regards to the treatment of Eleven. I wasn’t sure which gender she was supposed to be playing when she first appeared in only a hospital gown and with a shaved head, refusing to talk. The ambiguity of those early moments is immediately spoiled when the adult men and boys verbally identify her as a girl.

Like Nancy and Joyce, she causes contention between the boys, in this case Mike, who has a crush on her, and Lucas, who is jealous of Mike’s friendship. Also like Nancy and Joyce, she is harshly judged for not appearing nurturing and sacrificing enough when she won’t endanger herself during the search for Will. Additionally like Nancy and Joyce, her personal power is located in her keen empathic abilities, although Eleven’s is of a supernatural nature. And finally like Nancy and Joyce, her availability for heterosexual romance is a major part of the way she is viewed by the men around her and how she values herself. When the boys make her over to appear “normal” in a blonde wig and dress that used to belong to Nancy, she asks Mike repeatedly if she appears “pretty” to him.

At the end of the miniseries, Eleven has sacrificed herself for the safety of her male friends (although there are hints of her survival, she is now alone), Nancy is coupled with popular jerk Steve, and Joyce is serving dinner to her two sons. Sacrifice, romance, and motherhood are the happy endings for these women and girls.

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After Eleven, the biggest missed opportunity is Will. Invisible entirely except for a few short flashbacks, Will is a sensitive kid with artistic talent who survives his abduction because he is good at hiding. At first it’s hinted that he was bullied because he was gay, but this is never confirmed. A late scene with his brother Jonathan and their father suggests that both Jonathan and Will have been bullied, not because they are homosexual (Jonathan is interested in Nancy) but because they’ve failed to measure up to a certain masculine ideal. These ideas are interesting but abandoned because of Will’s necessity to the story line as an absence rather than a presence.

That these possibilities exist within the narrative make it more disappointing when they go unexplored. The treatment of the character Dustin points to the way a more considered storytelling might have proceeded if nostalgia had been the gateway rather than the entire destination. When Mike, Lucas, and Dustin pack to spend the night in the woods looking for Will, Dustin is teased for only packing snacks. I braced myself for multiple jokes at Dustin’s expense about his weight or his eating habits. Instead, Dustin is repeatedly shown to be the brains of the middle-school gang operation, as well as its most diplomatic and observant member. He also happens to really like snacks. It’s an unexpectedly thoughtful subversion of an established ’80s trope, a rethinking of limited character types that Eleven, Will, Nancy, and Joyce are never afforded.

Liz’s List: What to Watch/Follow/Listen To/Read

Watch Thomas Hellum’s TED Talk. Hellum is a TV producer at NRK Hordaland in Norway and one of the innovators behind Slow TV, where seemingly boring events like knitting are filmed and broadcast in real time. Netflix has added eleven Slow TV titles including Slow TV: Salmon Fishing.

Follow the hilarious invented conversations happening at Trump HQ as imagined by Owen Ellickson, writer/producer on NBC’s enjoyable and underrated Superstore.

Listen to the episode of the new Radiolab podcast spinoff More Perfect about the Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl involving the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. This custody battle pitted a little girl between her biological father and an adoptive couple.

Read Jason Cohen’s investigation into “The Legend of the Choco Taco” at Eater.com.