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At the beginning of Season Three of Stranger Things, teens El (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are enjoying a sweet summer romance. They spend all day every day together, and occasionally kiss in El's room. El's father, police chief Hopper (David Harbour), doesn't find the romance sweet, though. Instead, his daughter's perfectly normal interest in boys, love, and sex, causes him to completely freak out . Determined to keep her away from her boyfriend, he lies to Mike, telling him that his grandmother is ill. Then when he gets him in his car, he locks the doors, makes borderline threats of physical violence, and tells him he has to stay away from El or else Hopper will prevent him from ever seeing her again. Mike, who has faced down apocalyptic demons from outside space and time, is so cowed that he lies to El, and they break up.
This whole arc is played for humorous effect. Characters do acknowledge that Hopper is overreacting. But that just shows his love for El—which is cemented by his heroism at the conclusion of the series. Mike, whose only crime is being afraid of someone who has significant power over him, gets most of the blame from El and from the series.
Stranger Things, like many pop culture narratives, features children and teens performing heroic feats. But, also like many pop culture narratives, it is leery of directly confronting the ways in which adults actually oppress and bully young people. The constant reiteration that young people are heroic drowns out the reality that young people are often victims of those who are supposed to care for them.
We don't generally think of kids as oppressed or discriminated against. That's in part because, as with other marginalized groups, children and young people are seen as naturally inferior, which justifies any mistreatment. And yet, if you think about the position of children in society, it's clear that they are systemically disempowered.
Young people are not allowed to vote, which makes it easy for politicians to ignore their concerns. They're subject to curfews which, rather than protecting them, make them subject to police harassment and arrest. This is particularly dangerous for black and POC youth. In the US, parents can still legally strike their children. Teachers and school authorities can legally beat children in 19 states. Schools can search student lockers and invade their privacy with impunity. Stalking adults is universally frowned upon, but parenting websites offer how to articles to allow adults to spy on their kids online.
More, parents like Hopper have virtual impunity to prevent their children from associating with friends or significant others. Parents can even prevent their children from leaving the house if they want. Children have little recourse; emancipation before 18 generally requires parental consent. And the alternative to parents is the foster care system, which is also often abusive. Parental mistreatment and bullying of queer and trans kids can be particularly nightmarish, which is why as many as 40% of homeless youth are LGBT.
Not all parents are abusive, obviously, and infants and young children need protection. But the fact remains that if a parent wants to, they can hit their children, ban their friends, and cut them off from outside contact. If anyone had that power over an adult, we would see it as a terrifying tyranny.
Stranger Things acknowledges that young people are disempowered and targeted to some degree. El spends most of her childhood being tortured by the government. And in season three, Mike's older sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), is treated horribly at her workplace. Nancy has just graduated high school and is interning at the local newspaper. She is smart, dedicated, and tenacious, and pitches some story ideas that are, as it turns out, prescient and important. But the older guys at the office dismiss her suggestions, belittle her, insult her, and send her back to make coffee. They even set up a plastic rat to jump out at her in a cruel practical joke.
The show is aware that the older men are sexist assholes, and refers to them as such. But it never acknowledges that Nancy is discriminated against not just because she's a woman, but because she's young. Similarly no one in the series ever manages to fully articulate the ways in which Hopper's treatment of El and Mike is abusive and wrong. Adults in season three treat young people like crap. But no one ever recognizes that this is because young people in general are discriminated against, or treated poorly. The one reference to abuse is a joke about child endangerment, made by a 10 year old who's going off to fight Russian spies with some teen friends.
Of course, ten year olds shouldn't tackle armed enemy spies on their own. Adult civilians shouldn't tackle armed enemy spies on their own, for that matter. Pop culture regularly features young people like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen fighting to save the world against incredibly dangerous odds. The kids in Stranger Things fight thirty foot monsters, zombies and armed military personnel with courage, fireworks, and, in El's case, telekinetic superpowers.
Showing children behaving with responsibility and bravery could be a way to push back against cultural ideas about young people's incompetence, incapacity, and inferiority. Sometimes it is, as in Netflix's The Society. But more often in narratives like this, young people are presented as superpowered saviors in order to distract from, or even excuse, their everyday disempowerment.
In the recent film Spider-Man: Far From Home, for example, the hard-bitten spy Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) berates sixeteen-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland) for not devoting his entire life to saving the world as Spider-Man. Fury's abusive rants are (like Hopper's) presented as a bit extreme, but ultimately justified by his concern and position of authority. Kids have to be forced to do what's right, even if "what's right" in this case means "being a child soldier."
Is it really empowering to show kids saving the world when you simultaneously present adult emotional abuse of young people as reasonable and funny? Do these narratives show that kids can do anything? Or do they show that, no matter how responsible and accomplished young people are, they still should be under the thumb of adults?
In the real world, young people win tense matches at Wimbledon, lead the campaign against gun violence, and act in hit television shows. Those televison shows no doubt inspire kids too, and teach them they can be brave and inventive, and that their ideas and actions matter. But shows about young people, for adults and kids, rarely acknowledge that the dangers kids face often come, not from extradimensional monsters or supervillains, but from a culture and society which sees them as inferior, and which normalizes parental and adult oppression and abuse. Mike's got it right. Scary as the Mind Flayer is, the real threat he faces is from Hopper.