Much has been written about Stranger Things as a nostalgic throwback to the glory of 80’s pop culture where all things now retro, felt new. As an 80’s baby, admittedly, the show pulls at my heart strings. From allusions to E.T in Season 1 to the obsession of arcade game play in Season 2, the pulse of the series is grounded not just in a “simpler time” but rather a decade where all what we now know was at it’s point of genesis (Nintendo Switch wouldn’t be possible without Atari and the arcade). Although the series is celebrated for its nostalgic factor, I argue that it’s greatest success rests not just in narrative and reference but it’s understanding of genre. Like the works of Spielberg, King and Cameron that the show pays homage to, the Duffer Brothers and executive producer and director Shawn Levy, recognize that genre is about the shared cultural experience – about time and place. Fittingly, the horror and anxiety brewing in the small town of Hawkins may take place story wise in the 1980’s but urgently reminds us of the lurking reality today; a socio-political time where it seems like we’re all living in the Upside Down.
From the opening frames of Episode 1 Season 1 where Dustin, Lucas and Will ride their bikes home in the dark after a epic day long game of D&D at Mike’s house, the image of the bike (with lights flashing) harkens semiotic imagery; images of Elliott running from the “bad men” in E.T where the promise of adolescent innocence (and quest for the paternal) confronts the secrecy of government or The Goonies where a squad of kids get on their bikes in search of treasure to save their families from economic greed and a local government not willing to help those on the outskirts from over development. As such, to appreciate the nostalgia of Stranger Things is to understand genre, recognize that popular culture is rooted in the political and understand that it’s nostalgic connection is not merely grounded in fandom but meaning; the films the series pays homage too aligns with the politics of not only the 1980s but the realities of today.
The looming fear then and now: Government
From James Cameron Sci-Fi and War hybrid Aliens where Ripley has a deep distrust of the “corporation ” the notion of the government and its secrets not only creates the narrative’s upside down (the gate that’s been opened) but reflects and mirrors the upside down that exists in our everyday; a post Edward Snowdon political space fragmented by a lack of trust and where the notion of government seems self-serving rather than in service of the people. As in Season 1 where Mike’s dad naively asserts this his wife that Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his goos should be trusted because their government, or as in the opening frames of Season 2 where he quips that “we’re all patriots here,” his lack of active voice, protectionism of his family and critical view of the political institution heightens a shared need to be skeptical; government must be held to account and reminds us that all is not what it seems.
What is truth?
The 1980s was consumer obsessed decade born out of harrowing times; the death of JFK, the horrors of Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the questioning outcomes and achievements of the Civil Rights movement and other political truths that propelled the 80’s into the “me” decade. As the Cold War carried on, the narrative timing of the series is fitting – many unknowns and new realities emerging. This is very much connected to our today; making the show a relevant genre study of popular culture as a mirror and reflector of time and space.
Are we in the Upside Down?
In my teaching of film and new media, I challenge students to recognize that popular culture rises out of the political; a testing ground to see what a shared cultural experience looks like. In the show’s immense popularity and response across a diverse demographic base, it can be argued that the anxiety brewing in Hawkins provides not escape from our everyday but a mode to process our own uncertainty. The nature of horror lives out the political. As such, to watch the show as a simple throwback to the 1980’s limits it’s deep relevance of today. At a time where secrets and lies are shared readily on the web to investigations into democratic sabotage , our now like the Cold War anxieties of the 1980s reminds us of how upside down our world really is.
As with the characters in the show – be skeptical. Be critical.