"Stranger Things" is more about looking backwards than moving forward - and that's okay

The October 2017 second season premiere of the breakout Netflix hit series Stranger Things was arguably one of the most highly anticipated television returns of the year. Set against the deceptively banal backdrop of semi-rural Indiana in the 1980s, the first season of Stranger Things is largely centered around the not-quite-typical misadventures of four exceptionally nerdy boys, and one exceptional girl. Or, more accurately, the misadventures of one boy trapped in a dark parallel dimension, the three friends who are looking for him, and a bald girl prone to nosebleeds who can do Things With Her Mind. It’s a hell of a premise, and one that could easily have dissolved into a convoluted mess in less capable hands than those of the show’s creators and producers. The show owes much of its compelling plausibility to solid writing, as well as its strong cast’s acting chops. There are some big names on the roster, and to their well-earned collective credit, no one disappoints.

Because of its science/speculative fiction themes and focus on secondary protagonist (and, until this season, only girl in the group) Eleven, Stranger Things has been subjected to feminist analyses and critiques. We understand that Eleven is exceptional from the start. She is allowed to be part of the group only after she has “proven” herself, and even then, under protest. Never mind that Eleven is incredibly powerful, and unmatched by ANY of the show’s humans, even the armed ones - if she wants to hang out with the boys and get everybody on board with it, she has to show them that she’s more than just a girl. It’s the gross burgeoning misogyny of little cishet boys, and it is infuriating. The show’s lesser female characters fare no better. They all seem to exist primarily in relation to the male characters, who actively move the story. For all the show’s freshness and creativity, the creators cannot seem to resist crafting its women and girls from the dry, sexist, tired clay of patriarchal femininity. There’s Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), the desperate single mother of missing Will Byers, ferocious in her darting-eyed grief. And the lovely and popular but initially two-dimensional Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), who in most of the first season seems to only exist as something for outcast loner Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to pine hopelessly after. And then there's poor, poor Barbara. Seriously, did anybody get a rawer deal than Barb? Basically, if you’re a woman or girl on Stranger Things, you’re either a mom, real pretty, Eleven, or dead. 

The subtextual misogyny of Stranger Things is baffling to many of us in the United States in 2017. The widespread implementation of what we call political correctness (and what I call “basic manners”) didn’t really stick until the mid-Nineties. If you were born after 1988, you grew up with political correctness as a part of the social fabric. The show is problematic in ways that we, as a society, are supposed to have evolved beyond. While they’re allowed a good deal more depth and individual dimensionality than any of the female characters, the boys - Will, Dustin, Lucas, and Mike - are DEFINITELY a formulaic ensemble. The group is made up of three White boys, a Black boy, and a White girl, a combination that, while wildly popular and generally lauded as progressive in the 1980s, seems inorganic and forced decades later. Three White Dudes & A Black/Jewish/Asian/Native American Guy (And Sometimes A White Chick) was industry-standard diversity in 1980s and early 1990s Hollywood. Like other icky bits - for example, the casual ableism and homophobia - in Stranger Things, the obvious racial tokenism makes many of us cringe a bit. Even telling ourselves that things were different back then doesn’t necessarily make some of it easier to process.

That being said, it is from here that I believe that those of us who love the show must appreciate Stranger Things. From that space - the crux between what we understand our world to be today, and what it was back in the day. The show is, above all things, a giddy nerd-boy pastiche, a painstakingly-crafted homage to the genres it borrows from, and - ever-so-slightly, with the lovingest of touches - remixes. Is this shit sci-fi/adventure? Yes, but it also is not progressive or forward-thinking. It is set, unapologetically, nearly three decades in the past. This is no accident. By doggedly adhering to a retro format, the show’s writers and creators have firmly cordoned off the show’s temporality; there will be no seeping in of any of those social justice-y plot contagions. Stranger Things beats you over the head with overt visual references to 1980s classics like The Goonies and Ghostbusters, but it also nods to The Warriors, Sixteen Candles, and the whole “Mad Max” and “Indiana Jones” franchises. And has “Dungeons & Dragons” ever received better press than Stranger Things gives it? EVER? (It’s worth noting here that the shows creators were born in the mid-1980s, three years after the time they set the show in. Those of us who were actually kids in the 1980s may remember it all with a bit less nostalgia.)  

There have been many ground-breaking and critically-acclaimed shows on Netflix, and throughout the history of television and film. Our prejudices limit both our creative scope, and our humanity. I’ve observed and written about the sad persistence of racism before. In this sense, Stranger Things will never be able to get out of its own way. It falls to us, the fans, to decide to stick around, and love it anyway.