Arts & Culture

The problematic reception of ‘Stranger Things’


The beloved Netflix original series and cultural phenomenon, “Stranger Things,” has been described as a celebration of nostalgia and a love letter to movies and media from the 1980s. The show is no doubt popular, but it has garnered considerable critical praise as well, nominated for countless accolades (and winning many, including several Emmys) and receiving positive reviews in “The Wall Street Journal,” “The Los Angeles Times” and more.

But you probably don’t need me telling you this information. You’ve likely already binge watched the show or at least have heard the buzz and the hype surrounding it on social media and in real life. It’s almost inescapable. So many icons have already arisen from this show which is itself an amalgamation of ’80s iconography and references: Eleven with her love of Eggo waffles, the young boys with their love of Dungeons & Dragons, Barb and her love of mom jeans. This show was made to be ingrained in our cultural consciousness. “It’s spooky but not scary, escapist but not empty. It’s a genre throwback to simpler times,” writes Emily Nussbaum in her review for “The New Yorker.”

Simpler times. This phrase pops up in almost every review of “Stranger Things,” but it is not thoroughly explained. What exactly makes the times depicted simple? Is it simply the lack of modern technology like smartphones and the internet? Is it the innocence of the courageous child heroes so prevalent in ’80s cinema? It’s likely both of these things but perhaps also something more.

Does the phrase “return to simpler times” not eerily echo another similar phrase popularized by President Donald Trump during the election campaign — “Make America Great Again?” The meaning behind this slogan is hateful and insidious, evoking hypernationalistic and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 1920’s Ku Klux Klan, as pointed out by historian Kelly J. Baker in her article “Make America White Again?” in “The Atlantic.”

Though the show itself is not hypernationalistic or anti-immigrant, one must acknowledge the immense popularity of this show in today’s political climate. Donald Trump’s rise to power was aided by sentiments like “Make America Great Again” because these sentiments resonated with much of the U.S. population and spoke to a larger culture of intolerance than had been previously recognized.

Let’s return to the subject of “Stranger Things” and its alleged simplicity. As I said before, the show is a pastiche of ’80s pop culture and homage to to the era’s cinema. Critics attribute much of the show’s popularity to its palpable nostalgic value. So, the show is not about the ’80s. It is about ’80s pop culture. This is an important distinction when using an essentializing term like “simpler time.” Like any time in history, the ’80s were not a simpler time. The ’80s “Stranger Things” is depicting are not the actual ’80s because it is a fictional show about the fictional media of the ’80s. So perhaps viewers are not nostalgic for a certain period, but they are rather drawn to this easily consumable, simplistic depiction of the period, featuring effective use of classic stereotypes and iconography.

The way people have employed nostalgia in reference to “Stranger Things” and the resurgence in popularity of the ’80s aesthetic is much more materialistic. It is not a sentimental yearning for some past period but rather for that past period’s stuff. The Eggos, the Dungeons & Dragons, the mom jeans, the whole package!

While fans of “Stranger Things” are not inherently or necessarily racist or bigoted, they are surely buying into the U.S.’s capitalist mentality — the mentality that focuses on the accumulation of stuff. I am not criticizing the fans but rather the societal factors that conditioned us to be this way.

This article first appeared in the Friday, November 10, 2017, Edition of The Echo.