Suspenseful, emotionally charged and downright creepy at times, “Stranger Things” is not for the faint of heart. This Netflix original series starring Winona Ryder has been a hot topic since it first appeared July 15. Wikipedia defines it as a “Science Fiction Supernatural Horror Mystery Period Drama.” The reason for the long title? “Stranger Things” actually is all of those things. The plot centers around a parallel universe theory. A demonic monster from another world preys upon the innocent. People speak through blinking lights. Oh, and all of this is taking place during one of the scariest times in American history, the 1980s.
The setting is a little Indiana town in 1983. A chunky rectangular box called a mixtape holds music. Teens wear thick turtlenecks paired with stiff corduroy jackets. And what is this Atari that all the children speak of? From Polaroids and The Clash to iPhones and The Chainsmokers, “Stranger Things” highlights many ways that American pop culture has changed since the 1980s.
The best scenes in the show involve near death experiences, children screaming in outrage and vicious battles. Rather than walking the streets with smartphones in hand searching for jigglypuffs, Mike Wheeler and his refreshingly nerdy friends bike around town live-action-role-playing (LARPing). They play board games, ride bikes and explore the woods in their backyards. Their adventures make me wonder if the world is somehow richer when it’s not viewed through glass.
What do cool grown-ups do to relax in this long forgotten decade? Kick back, put on some Tangerine Dream and light a cigarette. Chief Hopper and Joyce both smoke frequently throughout the show, which caught me off guard at first. But if you watch any late 70s or 80s film, whether it be “Die Hard” or “Grease,” the main characters all take long, calm drags off cigarettes. There’s no smoking in most modern television shows. If there is, it definitely isn’t glorified or seen as “cool.” According to a recent Gallup Poll, 32 percent of young adults in the 80s smoked regularly, whereas only 20 percent smoke in 2016. It turns out that our generation doesn’t find lung cancer very attractive; who knew?
Jonathan Byers’s character shows how homosexual people were treated during our parents’ time. Although the story leaves no reason to believe Jonathan is actually gay, the school bullies call him a “fag” and “fairy.” In a tussle between Steve and Jonathan Byers, Steve spits, “I always thought you were queer.” It was only 30 years ago that using somebody’s sexual orientation as an insult was generally accepted. This would be taboo in today’s mainstream culture, to say the least. The LBGTQ community is still often mistreated and denied the respect that every human being deserves, but it was much, much worse in 1983.
While several of the main characters are women, the gender roles portrayed are true to the decade. Men often condescend to women, who are expected to take care of the children and not worry about anything more. This is clearly seen in the Wheeler household. One of the more minor characters, Mr. Wheeler, reads the newspaper and barks intermittently at the children. He does little else in the show besides give away his son’s location to the bad guys. “We can trust our government,” he gently reassures his wife (after all, these were the Ronald Reagan days). Mrs. Wheeler at least attempts to know what’s going on with Nancy and Mike. She understands her children whereas her husband is oblivious. Still, both of the Wheelers manage to miss a third child living in their house.
Gender discrimination also appears in Nancy’s relationship with Steve. When Nancy supposedly cheats on Steve, students from her school spray paint “Nancy The Slut” across a movie theater billboard. However, Steve’s past adventures exploring puberty with Laurie, Amy and Becky have no effect on his reputation. This is one thing that is still eerily the same today. Often, boys face social pressure to hook up with several girls, while girls are told not to be “easy.” A guy sleeping around is just being a guy, but a girl sleeping around is a slut. At least now, most bullying is only engraved forever online, not spray painted on a billboard.
The American family unit has changed drastically in the past 30 years. In 1983, the stereotypical dream family unit of two married parents, a son and a daughter living in a white picket fence house was much more common. The Wheelers were the norm, a dad with a good job, a pretty, well-adjusted mom, and two and a half children (they were unknowingly taking care of El, thus the one-half).
In contrast, the Byers face unspoken judgment as the poor, “unstable” family. Joyce singlehandedly raises both Jonathan and Will. Her ex-husband doesn’t even make an appearance until halfway through the series, well after Will has gone missing. Heedless of Joyce’s protests, he declares that she’s having a mental breakdown. She’s just grieving. How would things have played out if Joyce had listened to her husband?
Nancy and Jonathan don’t find their parents’ lives appealing either. Nancy confides that she doesn’t think her parents ever loved each other. They just married so they could make money, live in a house at the end of the cul-de-sac and start a family. Later in the woods, Jonathan throws this back in Nancy’s face when she defends Steve.
“Nancy Wheeler,” Jonathan yells. “She’s not just another suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling by doing exactly what every other suburban girl does, until that phase passes and they marry some boring one-time jock who now works sales, and they live out a perfectly boring little life at the end of a cul-de-sac. Exactly like their parents, who they thought were so depressing. But now, hey, they get it.”
Maybe what makes “Stranger Things” transcend through three decades of culture is that the story confirms our worst fears. The creepy part of the show is the unknown lurking behind every scene. What’s hiding beneath the wall? Who is speaking through the blinking lights? Where did friends and family disappear to?
But this isn’t the only cause for fear.
Evil isn’t just in the Upside Down. Evil is in their own government. Their homes. Their friends. Themselves. Mike fears that the rest of the world will accept the lie about Will’s death. Joyce fears that she will accept her son’s voice as only a side effect of grief. Nancy fears that she will live out her days at the end of a cul-de-sac, her life a wasted breath before the void. What hasn’t changed since 1983 is human nature. The truth is stranger than fiction, and often we find the most fearful enemies of all right at home.