Stranger Things || Q & E
Since Stranger Things debuted on Netflix a few weeks ago, both Eileen and Sarah Q were obsessed. Instead of individual reviews, they decided to combine thoughts and discuss the show together, with an aim to cover more themes and create an open discourse on this wonderful show. If you’ve seen the show, feel free to join in on the discussion in the comments. Warning: here be spoilers.
-Q: Sometimes you see a show and you think that this was created just for you; 80's nostalgia, bitchin’ soundtracks, science fiction and Winona Ryder. I knew from the get go that I had to watch it, and despite a lot of buzz and build up, I was not disappointed. Stranger Things, created by The Duffer Brothers, tells the story of a small town in Indiana with some mysterious shenanigans going on. Primarily centred on the mysterious disappearance of twelve-year-old Will Byers, Stranger Things deals with paranoia, friendship, acceptance and miscommunication, all whilst being a thrilling story with an even better soundtrack.
Tonally, the Duffer’s manage to evoke the late 70’s / early 80’s Sci-Fi without creating a pastiche. I don’t have to tell you how big reboots are these days; Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Jurassic Park, every science fiction movie that even remotely suggests a franchise is being rebooted, however (particularly in the case of Jurassic Park and Star Wars), they often come across as pale imitations. As a heartless homage, the typical Hollywood reboot will simply retell the story with a slightly more glamorous cast. What I really appreciate about Stranger Things is that it has an original story; there were certainly homages to earlier films (painstakingly collected here by Vulture,) however the plot feels new and original. Furthermore, it keeps the grit and griminess of these films of a bygone era. The sets are not particularly attractive – we believe that Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a struggling single mum, which makes it even more painful when she all but destroys her house in the search for her son. Even Karen Wheeler (Cara Buono) who is clearly shown to be more affluent than Joyce, looks as though she’s trying to parent three children in wildly different places of youth. (Great job by the makeup and wardrobe departments, given how stunning Ryder and Buono are in real life). The teenagers aren’t wearing designer clothes that fit perfectly, and they don’t look fresh off the runway, they look like normal teenagers; which makes the fear even more palpable as we can see how young and inexperienced they really are. This was a completely glam-free production, making the fear and paranoia even more relatable.
E, what did you think of the series, and what are your thoughts on Science Fiction and Nostalgia? Also, weren’t the child actors just the cutest things?
-E: I’m such a hopeless romantic for nostalgia and not-so-secret-admirer of sci-fi, so the series really charmed me. I think the first season is totally binge-worthy, with fairly gripping writing, beautiful scenes, and a stunning soundtrack, all wonderfully saturated in nostalgia.
Like you say, the cast of child actors is phenomenal, with two particular strengths being Gaten Matarazzo [Dustin!] and especially Millie Bobby Brown [Eleven]. The entire cast of kiddos is truly fun to watch, though. Who doesn’t want to vicariously relive their youth through the surreal adventures of daring kids on bikes? That being said, I will argue that Stranger Things feels like a Boys’ Club ™ version of one of my favorite graphic novels, Paper Girls.
Paper Girls features young girls in ‘80s Ohio, similarly fighting off interdimensional monsters, and searching for their kidnapped friend, all on bikes through the streets of small-town America. I was surprised to see that both NPR and HuffPo wrote about this, actually.
I was disappointed that the plot of Stranger Things hinged upon the sheer tokenism of Eleven, the mysterious and misunderstood alien/science-experiment-gone-awry youth that is cool-enough-to-hang but only as long as she pushes forward the plot. I felt she becomes cast aside as a device in the season finale. This upset me because I felt quite attached to her throughout the series. Eleven is remarkable because she’s a gender nonconforming young girl with an incredible presence; having been raised in a laboratory, her childhood was devoid of social cues and consumable materials from which to create gendered behavior. She is largely unsocialized in the traditional American sense, so while she is biologically female, she doesn’t appear to us viewers a “normal young girl.” Her newfound friends, honestly a harmless trio of boys, notice her lack of gendered performance and try to help her via transformation montage.
The boys offer her a pink dress and blonde wig, which is a total nod to E.T.’s gendered transformation [see above], and only then can she be seen in public with them. It’s an interesting commentary in the way we / 1980’s America perceives gender in childhood. It’s all performance.
Eleven’s pathos on camera is completely mesmerizing. To perform a character who is constantly in pain, never relieved of their own suffering—it is an exhausting feat. Millie Bobby Brown is a rising star who outshines her fellow young castmates. [Even you, lil’ Dustin.]
The timing of all these fantasies, reboots, and nostalgic reiterations [Pokémon Go, Star Trek, Ghostbusters] is no coincidence in the current geopolitical climate. The American and British public are weary, in a summer of domestic and global terror, post-Orlando massacre, Brexit, and American presidential circus [is Trump not the actual Demogorgon?]. Nostalgic fantasies like Stranger Things help us simultaneously escape and reflect, forcing a mirror to our present day while allowing us to imagine other worlds. Fantasy and science fiction force us to question the standards and norms we take for granted [presumed safety from potential invasion from other dimensions, problematic characterization of women, etc]. I argue that the spirit of political and social revolution is entirely reflected in the pop culture we create and consume. After all, the summer of 2016 has felt like a prelude to a dystopian novel.
Fantasy is a reflection of a society yearning for change, and nostalgia is simply an iteration of fantasy rooted in an idealized past. Stranger Things taps into these elements gorgeously, which is why I so enjoy it.
Q, what are your thoughts on the treatment of Eleven? Strong independent lead or plot device? You talked to me before about the role of motherhood and communication; does Winona redeem the writers’ treatment of other women?
-Q: Thanks for the recommendation of Paper Girls, that’s definitely going on my Amazon list!
Eleven definitely seemed like the Token Chick; cool girl who’s allowed to hang out with the boys and just happens to be interested in similar things without being traditionally feminine. You could argue that this in itself is an homage to 70’s / 80’s pop culture; this is the era of Star Wars, Stand By Me, Ghostbusters and the now infamous Smurfette. It’s difficult to discuss her as a character because she was merely a plot device. Millie Bobby Brown portrayed her beautifully and added an untapped depth to the character - in lesser hands, she would have been an empty vessel solely there to propel the plot forward. At least now she was a loveable vessel solely there to propel the plot forward.
Other than Eleven, all the female characters were defined by their relationship to men. Nancy Wheeler was introduced as a teenage girl fawning over a boy and was soon put in the middle of a hapless love triangle. Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler exist only as mothers, and the one character who wasn’t intrinsically linked to a man was killed off immediately. Poor, poor Barb. Barb has become somewhat of an Internet Darling recently, and it’s not hard to see why; in her handful of scenes, Barb was a badass. She was loyal to her best friend (who was being a bit of a dick), and unashamedly herself. Barb had no interest fifth wheeling her best friend while they downed beers on a weekday night, and who could blame her? Her disappearance was treated with no respect at all, and it only existed to bring Nancy closer to Jonathan. Even the police chief seemed utterly uninterested in her disappearance and was only focussed on saving Will. I’m actually really glad to see Barb’s ascent into cult icon; the show may not have cared, but we do.
Winona Ryder was, of course, amazing as the on-edge Joyce Byers. Her performance was so raw it was often difficult to watch. I’ve long been a fan of Winona Ryder, and I hope that this show brings nothing but good things for her. Ryder portrays motherhood in its fiercest fashion; she shows desperation and determination to find her son, while also showing a protective and caring nature. This is best seen in her scene with Eleven in the sensory deprivation tank. It’s ultimately the promise of a mother’s protection that gives her the strength to carry on and find Will. This is in stark contrast with the harsh, cold paternalism offered by Brenner.
Communication is often a theme in science fiction, be it alien languages or misunderstandings by robots, and in Stranger Things, the main plotline of Joyce is to communicate with her son through dimensions. I really enjoyed seeing this contrasted with Karen Wheeler. Karen is a struggling mother of three with a hapless husband and three children in wildly different stages of adolescence, and throughout the show she’s struggling to effectively communicate with her children. The show sympathised with Karen and she wasn’t portrayed as the nagging mum who just won’t give her kids a break, as parents often are in kids adventure films. In fact, my heart broke a little bit when she was talking to the government and realised exactly how disconnected she was from her children. It reminded me a little bit of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood; a mother is a mother – she has much less liberty to be anything else, but when she’s finished doing that, or not doing that as well as she thought she was, then who is she? I really hope they explore that family dynamic a bit more in season two, as I found it fascinating.
-E: I love what you say about Barb, and about every female character in Stranger Things being identified by their relationship with a male character. It’s devastatingly true! Standard of the time and sometimes the genre, but I think that’s no excuse. It’s 2016, inherent sexism needn’t be an aesthetic choice.
What’re your thoughts on the season finale, Q? Any predictions for season 2? Do you think that the storytelling could have finished in one series?
-Q: Bringing me on to the idea of season two. No. No, no no. No. We did not need that cliff-hanger - this should have been a self-contained story. Actually, I’d go so far as to say there was about one episode too many. As is standard with Netflix dramas (looking at you Jessica Jones), there was a bit more wheel-spinning than necessary; we all knew that the whole gang needed to get together to try and solve the mystery, they didn’t need to prolong it for as long as they did. But I digress, back to the cliff-hanger; I thought it was pretty weak. The story was strong enough that it didn’t need an open end. My main concern is that the structure of season two will be too similar to that of season one; something mysterious happens and they all have to get together to figure out what’s going on. I’d actually argue that the characters aren’t strong enough to sustain another 10 or so episodes. I think Fargo set the bar with miniseries’ and how to handle a second season; instead of carrying on with the same characters, they completely changed the primary cast and made the second completely season removed from the first. There were a few allusions to the first season, and the show managed to explore similar themes with a fresh setting. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch the inevitable second season and hopefully it will exceed my expectations, but with the sophomore slumps of UnReal and Mr Robot, I won’t hold my breath.
What are your hopes for a second season, E? And what did you think about the government conspiracy stuff – is it relevant today?
-E: I had also wished that this series had been self-contained. As disappointed as I was with Eleven vanishing/dying with the destruction of the interdimensional monster, I don’t want to see Eleven haphazardly revived next season just so we can see her suffer in another dimension! But the viewers love her too much, and rightly so, thus we will most certainly be seeing her again in some fashion. But what of her budding romance with Mike? It’s hard to say. Will he pine after her in the afterlife/Upside Down? The boys didn’t seem to bothered when she disappeared into the nothingness. I’m not convinced.
As for the second season, I can’t imagine the cast wrangling through another season of small town monster troubles. Of course, in the event of this show being granted another season, I will be among the first in the queue to binge it, hopeful that Eleven gets a redemption, that Barb somehow isn’t really dead, and Winona Ryder gets more screentime to continue her performance as fearless mother.
Stranger Things most definitely plays into the current collective psyche of skepticism towards Scary Government Conspiracy. Akin to what I mentioned earlier with the present geopolitical climate, American people are especially doubtful and suspicious of our government, thanks to the DNC scandals, Russian espionage [talk about #tbt] and Trump/Hillary’s collective unreliability. Americans are seriously worried about our government, even if we aren’t as conspiratorial as the people of Hawkins, Indiana in Stranger Things.
Odds & Ends
Q: We’ve alluded to it earlier, but I am madly in love with the soundtrack. Someone made a playlist of songs they used, and it’s incredible. So pleased to hear that Netflix is releasing the soundtrack. I’ve long been in love with synths, but this further solidified my affection.
Netflix is totally killing it with their originals. Yeah, there’ve been some duds, but for the most part, their original programming is on point.
While most the homages were fresh, I thought that the ultimate reveal of the monster was a bit disappointing. It was basically a cross between Alien & Predator. Also, it was a bit weird how they made this whole plan to set the thing on fire, only for it to be totally fine afterwards.
E: It was a totally weird reveal of the monster. The CGI/general special effects are charmingly appalling, and this monster was certainly a highlight of that. Yes, because aesthetic, but damn, it’s 2016. [My general response for my disappointments of this show].
I’m really into examining the intersectionality between science fiction and feminism, and I think this show is a great case study for it. When we create fictionalized worlds, or romanticized interpretations of the past, why do we need to cling to the harmful institutions of our present to tell these stories? Stranger Things had such an opportunity to dismantle destructive stereotypes in their portrayal of women and gender roles, and instead, the writing played right into some of the worst things of the 80’s. [Read this article about homophobia being the real monster of Stranger Things]. I think it’s the role of science fiction and fantasy to present better models of equity for us to strive for; when we see these other worlds, we can see examples of society and government where issues of race and gender are different than ours.
If you want to check out the graphic novel I mentioned, Paper Girls, you can purchase it here through Image Comics. It's gorgeously illustrated and feminist-positive, with adventures on bikes, time travel, and so many interdimensional monsters.
Until next time,
Q & E