A kinder, softer ‘80s for your tweens
This is the second in a series of essays on the TV series Stranger Things (beginning 2016), a supernatural adventure show set in the small Indiana town of Hawkins in the mid ‘80s. You can read the first, on the roots of the ‘80s Kids on Bikes genre, here.
As someone who was a D&D-playing boy nerd in the ‘80s, watching Stranger Things is a disconcerting experience. This is not only because its version of the ‘80s is a stylised cartoon based on a handful of films that were themselves - as fantastical kids’ films generally are - stylised cartoons of the ‘80s: that’s only to be expected. And not only because it’s also a stylised cartoon American ‘80s, because that context that looked plenty fantastical from the other side of the Atlantic even at the time, with its cliques and malls and computers and exciting, edible food. Instead of High Valley High School from Back to the Future, I was at a British boarding school straight out of Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968), which ends with the hero mowing down the school bullies with a machine gun. My school was composed not of sunny, brightly coloured halls and quirky approachable teens with perfect teeth, but of gloomy Gothic Revival buildings through which, on dark winter nights, the monstrous seniors hunted new boys for sport.
The general attitude towards childhood bullying in the ‘80s was that it was entirely unavoidable and just had to be put up and gotten over with, like chicken pox and school dinners. We were a generation famously under-supervised, and any adults who might have been paying vague attention were not noted for their sensitivity. My school did not, in other words, have a bullying policy in place. But thanks to the Education and Inspections Act of 2006 all state schools in the UK must now, by law, ‘have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils’.
And this is what is so disconcerting about Stranger Things: despite being set in the ‘80s, it is decidedly 21st-century at heart. It does have sensitivity, it is thoughtful and empathetic, it is kind. If it were a school it would have the best bullying policy ever.
You can see this in how it treats its characters. The core party of characters in Stranger Things - Mike, Will, Lucas, Dustin and Eleven - are very much modelled on the core character from The Goonies (1985). (Indeed, Mike is presumably named after Mikey from The Goonies, who was played by Sean Astin, who himself shows up in the second series of Stranger Things.) While the Goonies are all fast friends, they treat each other with the off-hand cruelty with which ‘80s children were so adept. The ‘fat kid’, Chunk, is forced by the gang to do the demeaning ‘Truffle Shuffle’, a sort of dance in which he scrunches up his bare stomach and wiggles about for their amusement. In Stranger Things the character Dustin appears, at first glance, to be destined to fulfil the ‘fat kid’ role, but his weight and body shape are quite simply never remarked upon (and nor are anyone else’s). What does get remarked upon - by Dustin himself as much as anyone else - is his cleidocranial dysplasia, a condition which means that in the first series he does not have any teeth. His friends never poke fun at him for this, and the people who do are explicitly depicted as bullies upon whom Eleven exacts a terrible and well-deserved revenge.
Eleven herself is Stranger Things’ solution to ‘the Smurfette Principle’, in which a character is distinguished solely by the unprecedented quality of not being a boy. The Smurfette Principle is so named because of the lone female little-blue-Belgian in the ‘80s series ‘The Smurfs’, although this stuff goes back a long way, and Maid Marian is probably the ur example. Exceptional girls were to be found occupying roughly 10% of the screen time in multiple kids’ shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s: there’s Madame Cholet stuck underground in The Wombles man-cave, Cheetara among the spitting toms of The Thundercats, Princess in Battle of the Planets and Leia in Star Wars.
Eleven, initially an interloper into a group of gangly boys and thus at risk of being a Smurfette, turns out to be distinguished not by being a girl but by being a superhero who can summon psychic abilities by holding out her hand and looking cross, like a particularly intense lollipop lady. The growing gang also includes budding journalist Nancy; skateboarder, Kate Bush rediscoverer and hill-runner-upper Max; and ice-cream slinger Robin. All are fully fleshed characters.
This quality of careful inclusion, which feels like a mindful reparatory effort to create a virtual ‘80s with all of the Day Glo and none of the casual prejudice, distinguishes Stranger Things from its fellow ‘80s homage Paper Girls, a time-travelling 2022 Amazon series adapted from Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s comic books. The version of the ‘80s presented here is much closer to the real thing, and the show is much less inclined to smoothe off the rough edges. Mac, who is from ‘wrong side of the tracks’, voices anti-semitic slurs to Jewish girl KJ almost the moment they meet, and is horrified to discover that her older brother has become an empathic and sensitive 21st-century adult.
I shouldn't have bullied you. I owe you an apology. That must've been really hard for you. I'm sorry. If there's... anything you want to talk about, anything I forgot, any… feelings you want to get out, I'm available. You can tell me anything. Mac?
Yeah, well… I guess there is one thing. I just keep wondering when did you become such a gigantic gay-wad?
You can't say that anymore. It's offensive.
Well, what the hell can I say, then?
Hm, well, "motherfucker" is still a classic.
When KJ discovers that her future self is gay, she is so shocked and distressed that she punches Mac - on whom she patently has a crush - in the face, giving her a bloody nose. Meanwhile, in Stranger Things, when Robin comes out as lesbian to her co-worker and former high school jock Steve Harrington he is immediately accepting, supportive and appoints himself her wingman.
Steve Harrington, played by Joe Keery, is, in fact, a prime clue as to what Stranger Things is up to. At the beginning of the first series he is set up as a stereotypical jock, but by the end of the season he has become a hero. (It feels like you can see the producers realising that Keery has genuine charm and desperately refiguring the character to keep up with his charisma.) Throughout the subsequent seasons Steve grows to be a key member of the core gang and a reliable ‘babysitter’ for the younger kids, in the course of which he is variously beaten up, tortured by the KGB and attacked by vampire bats from a parallel dimension. (His hair remains absolutely pristine thanks to his regular four puffs of Farrah Fawcett hairspray.) In a standard ‘80s kids’ movie the prom king, basketball-team-captain jock would be dependably villainous. In Stranger Things he can transcend his stereotype to become not just dependably heroic, but unashamedly nurturing and empathetic.
Steve’s story arc reveals that while Stranger Things steals its references from virtually every adventure movie made between 1980 and 1989, it steals its heart from E.T. Other films of the period are about such standard themes as friendship, or team work, or overcoming your fears; E.T. is about empathy. As the mother, Mary, tells the NASA scientist Keys when he questions her about the relationship between Elliot and E.T.:
He's smart. He communicates through Elliott.
Elliott thinks its thoughts.
No. Elliott… Elliott feels his feelings.
Keys, who the audience has assumed is the villain of the movie, then reveals himself to be a good guy by expressing empathy with both Elliot and E.T. As Elliot feels E.T.’s feelings, Keys feels what Elliot feels about the wonder and hope of E.T.’s visit to our world.
Stranger Things believes that to understand is to forgive, and that (almost) everyone is redeemable. Eleven’s ability to enter other people’s minds - what you might call an act of radical fellow feeling - is often the point on which its plots turn. The toxic masculinity of apparent villain Billy is rendered understandable when Eleven walks down his memory lane and uncovers his abusive father, allowing Billy to be redeemed just before he sacrifices himself to save the gang.
Like a 12-inch remix of Popper’s Paradox (which states that the only thing we must not tolerate is intolerance), the only figures who can’t be redeemed are those who themselves refuse to understand and forgive. Jason Carver, the homicidal jock figure in season four, is driven mad by a series of terrifying killings and becomes convinced that the main characters’ Dungeons and Dragons gang is a devil worshipping cult. When he refuses to learn and understand, he is punished. Jason is, pretty clearly, a dark reflection of the main characters. He believes that there is an evil cult at large in Hawkins, and in an effort to save his community he resorts to violence. This is exactly what the show’s heroes do; Jason is an ‘upside down’ Steve Harrington, with all the jockishness and none of the empathy. He has failed to consider the feelings of the people he is demonising and thus must die an ignominious death in the corner of the screen.
The show never asks us to consider that Jason thinks he is doing the right, heroic thing, any more than it asks us to consider whether the protagonists are justified in exterminating the indigenous fauna of the Upside-Down. Despite the emphasis on empathy, no one ever stops to ask a Demogorgon how they are really feeling. As in a contemporary social media pile-on, we are asked simply to accept that someone is the bad guy because they are the bad guy, while empathy for everyone else is mandatory. You must always question your priors, unless your priors are the right ones, in which case you must never question them.
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The D&D gang targeted by Jason is the original ‘party’ from season one, which comprised the four boys and Eleven. (It keeps accreting new members as the seasons go by, because everyone is so damned redeemable.) The rhythm of a Stranger Things season is that the party is split into different parts, which separately discover and delve into mystery, slowly being brought back together for the final big bash. What is interesting is that because of its empathic approach, you can be reasonably sure that none of the main characters is going to turn out to be secretly a villain; there’s no attempt to introduce this kind of tension. The viewing pleasure is in how the different elements of the party mix, recombine and cooperate to defeat evil.
It’s a deeply cosy viewing experience with no real threat, just as E.T. was an extraordinarily cosy departure from the hard-edged, frightening alien encounters of Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982), as well as the high octane adventure of Star Wars (1977) and Conan the Barbarian (1982). But in contemporary America, a story based on mutual support, cooperation and empathy feels like radical cosiness, a genuinely revolutionary hopefulness and optimism. Maybe a new generation of kids will be inspired to hop on their bikes and save us all.
For more kids on bikes and their absent Boomer parents: