Stranger Things - Season 1
“The entire cast is white except for Lucas, who is black. This kind of retro tokenism is not something we should be nostalgic about.”
Title: Stranger Things
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Matt Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Ross Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers of Season 1: Matt Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Ross Duffer 👨🏼🇺🇸 (3 eps), Justin Doble 👨🏼🇺🇸 (2 eps), Jessica Mecklenburg 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Alison Tatlock 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Jessie Nickson-Lopez 👩🏽🇻🇪🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Paul Dichter 👨🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Read the Season 2 review here.
Stranger Things is an example of nostalgic TV done mostly right. While desperate remakes like Fuller House or Girl Meets World pander without bringing anything new to the table, Stranger Things crafts a new universe while leveraging tried and true devices that still resonate with today’s audiences.
Specifically, it encapsulates the spirit of the 80s with Stephen King spookiness and Spielbergian wholesomeness, then gives it all a modern-day polish with impressive visuals effects and a contemporary format (Netflix’s simultaneous 8-episode drop). The result is both comforting and invigorating. I stormed through the show in just a few days, enthralled by its eerie world-building, then repeated the viewing halfway across the world with my parents who live in Taiwan. This kind of quality crosses generations and cultures, appealing to anyone up for a good, old-fashioned adventure.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women are strong as hell in Stranger Things, but I can’t help think there was room to modernize their roles without losing any of that sweet, sweet nostalgia.
- Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is a badass canary in the mine who everyone thinks is crazy until she is proven right. But her role as a mother who overcomes all odds due to the love for her missing son is nothing new.
- Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is the ultimate badass, using telekinesis to protect herself and her male friends from bullies. However, her role as a waifish, virginal conduit to the paranormal is also familiar territory. Whether it’s The OA with the similarly hospital-gown-clad Prairie possessing magical powers, or horror films as in The Exorcist, The Ring, or Rose Red, this archetype forces women into the box labeled Other. Also iffy in Eleven’s characterization is the season ending where she sacrifices herself for the missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) and his friends, falling cleanly into the problematic fridging of women.
- Nancy (Natalia Dyers), the older sister of Mike, is a perfectly fine rendition of a teenager going through high school and navigating its social circles. I appreciate her ability to make shit happen without having to rely on boys, and her relationships with others feel distinctly multilayered. That being said, her personal journey is still closely tied with romantic story arcs involving teenaged boys, popularity, and other typically feminine storylines.
- Finally, I have to mention the overt fridging of Barb (Shannon Purser). She falls into the dangerous Upside Down world later than Will does, yet snuffs it long before he is recovered.
In short, the women are great and well-rounded within the constraints of their comfortably gendered roles as mother, supernatural lightning rod, high schooler in love, and awkward girl who dies prematurely.
Meanwhile, males conform to traditional masculinity as well; we have the hero sheriff with a tragic past, the mad scientist villain, the group of boys seemingly lifted straight from The Goonies, and a couple of teenaged boys easily read as the jock and the emo kid.
Not a priority. The entire cast is white except for Lucas, a rule-abiding kid played by Caleb McLaughlin who is black. His role is substantial and well-written, which bumps this score up a bit. But this kind of retro tokenism and overwhelming whiteness is not something we should be nostalgic about.
Homophobia rears its ugly head in Stranger Things as a menacing social backdrop in the everyday lives of our favorite characters. When Will goes missing, a bully tells his friends, “He was probably killed by some other queer.” Other pejoratives like “perverts” or “fairies” come into play throughout the show.
Daniel Reynolds shares an interesting theory on Advocate about how the entire show can be seen as an allegory for the LGBTQ experience. Our heroes are classic “outsiders” who are locked up and taunted in methods that may feel painfully real to some viewers. Reynolds points out visual parallels such as Eleven’s gender nonconformity, with her shaved head and androgyny. It’s fun food for thought, and regardless of its accuracy it’s clear the showrunners sympathize with those being bullied.
Unfortunately, Stranger Things stops there. Homophobia is part and parcel of its backwards-looking vision of America but the Duffer brothers never directly address the damage it does nor include any LGBTQ characters to help humanize the true targets of such slurs. This lack of decision-making can easily be seen as indifference or an unwillingness to ally on LGBTQ issues.
Bonus for Disability: +0.5
The young actor who plays Dustin, Gaten Matarazzo, suffers from cleidocranial dysplasia—a genetic disorder that affects the development of bones and teeth. In a smart move, his condition is incorporated into the show without fanfare, resulting in the lovable character of Dustin who benefits from an intrinsic authenticity that simply can't be faked. His popularity with viewers proves that Hollywood actors don't have to be flawless, conforming dolls to have widespread appeal.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.69/5
Stranger Things is one of my favorite shows. (That intro sequence still gives me shivers.) On inclusion however, while its showrunners are comfortable writing women—albeit within gender-conforming roles—they don’t even attempt to tackle racial diversity or LGBTQ issues. Regardless, this spooky adventure has its Demogorgon claws in me and I eagerly await its next installment, landing on Netflix on October 27.