Culture and Commentary
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By Fleur Renkema
In 2016, Netflix released the series Stranger Things, written and directed by the Duffer Brothers. Critics wildly praised the show and it received thirty-one Emmy Award nominations. The setting of the science fiction horror series is a town called Hawkins, Indiana in the year 1983. Besides featuring homages to American horror films from the 1980s like
Alien and E.T., the series also explores the political atmosphere around the Reagan presidency and the Cold War. Because of these references to the past, Stranger Things is often analyzed as a series focused on nostalgia. However, even though the setting of the series may be submerged in nostalgia, the underlining message of the series is not only a look into the past but the future. In fact, the first season of the series builds upon the theme of class exploitation as a continuity from the Reagan to the Trump administration at the time of its release. In this way, Stranger Things creates awareness of the socio-economic conditions of the American class through its broad reach as a popular Netflix show. This is firstly visible through the 1980s setting of the series and its relation to contemporary political culture. Additionally, through the symbolism in the series which represents working class exploitation, and, lastly, through the theory of winner-take-all-politics that illustrates the continuity.
Stranger Things paints a picture of the 1980s United States by referencing pop culture and demonstrating the socio-political atmosphere. Examples are the bikes of the main characters, which are similar to the bikes in E.T, as well as the music used in the series which features a lot of synthesizers. Evidently, The Duffer Brothers created a town that could have been real in 1983. This is visible through the role of religion in the series; there is a Christian funeral for Will Byers, the lost boy, and the nuclear families pray before they eat. Furthermore, there is also a theme of social conservatism. The older sister of one of the protagonists, Nancy, complains that her parents do not love each other but stay together because that is what society expects of them: “My mom was young. My dad was older, but he had a cushy job, money, came from a good family. So they bought a nice house at the end of the cul-de-sac and started their nuclear family.”¹ She is frustrated because of these enforced family values. In the Reagan administration, social and religious conservatism were his moral pillars. Michael Schaller describes that “[t]hroughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan spoke out strongly on a number of moral issues, including abortion, drug use, prayer in school, sexuality, and the importance of traditional family values.”² The socio-political atmosphere that comes with those policies is reflected throughout the series, with Nancy’s parents, her caution when it comes to sex, and the small amount of LGBT+ characters in the series. Moreover, besides the cultural values, Stranger Things also depicts the economic conditions under the Reagan Administration. Hawkins is a town with working- and middle-class people who struggle to earn enough money. Especially Joyce, the mother of the missing Will, has financial trouble. Joyce is in debt, and her oldest son has to help her monetarily with his work in order to make ends meet. In Reagan’s America, working- and middle-class families were struggling tremendously with coming around. Schaller writes that during the Reagan Recovery, “the rich got richer and everyone else tread water,” which was vital for the wealth of the working class.³ By including this social inequality in the series, it reflects the conditions of the working class during the Reagan Administration. Moreover, the working class conditions in Stranger Things also reflect the political climate in the United States in 2016, the time of Stranger Things’ release. The then freshly elected President Donald Trump is widely associated with white conservatism, holding values of misogyny, racism, and patriarchal family values. Economically, Trump’s policies also have the same effects as those of Reagan. Unemployment has increased, economic policy favored the wealthy and corporations, and, consequently, increased economic inequality.⁴ These similarities show how the 1980s setting of Stranger Things is also relevant today; the viewer can recognize how the political atmosphere of the show is not as different as that of today.
Considering this setting, the viewer can see Stranger Things as a metaphor for working class exploitation both in the Reagan administration and the Trump administration. The first season of the series follows the story of three boys looking for their lost friend, with the help of a girl, Eleven, that they found on their search. Eleven was a captive of the government which used her to spy on the Soviet Union because she has supernatural powers. However, one day an experiment went wrong, and she accidentally opened a door to another dimension. The boys and Eleven name this dimension the Upside Down, which is home to a monster that captured the boys’ friend, Will Byers. The Upside Down is a parallel dimension to Hawkins, but a dark, stormy, and cold version of it. Davis Smith-Brecheisen, considers this other dimension a symbol for class exploitation. He claims that the “echo [of the Upside Down] allegorizes the working-class desolation of Reagan’s America, a country that has grown ‘out of phase’ with itself, […] monsters come from the very institutions that support the town: the quarry that employs Hawkins’s workers, […] and the school where […] the monster makes its nest.”⁵ In the historical context of Reagan’s re-election, this analysis is relevant because the economic policies did not seem to be changing anytime soon, and therefore the working and middle class of Hawkins had no outlook on moving up the ladder.
To build on Smith-Brecheisen’s argument, the Upside Down does not only represent a reflection of the state of Hawkins in 1983 but the future of the town as well. The monster, which represents capitalism, is the only creature that creates doors between the dimensions, and therefore shows how the working class is unable to escape the standing economic structure. Eleven in this case, represents the individual worker. Smith-Brecheisen claims that “[b]y highlighting the similarities between her old life and a new one, Stranger Things shows us a young girl whose life has been torn apart by her unique skill as a laborer. Her plight becomes the plight of the entire town of Hawkins, and every town like it.”⁶ In Eleven’s old life, governmental institutions used her because of her powers, and she has to use them in order to receive the smallest bit of affection in return. The scientists working at the institution locked her in a small room where she is alone until her capturers tell her what to do. Her new life is not very different; her friends use her because of her powers, they constantly doubt and reject her, and they hide her in a basement that she is not allowed to leave. In both cases, Eleven’s labor is alienated. While she worked at the governmental institutions, her labor power is turned into profit for the government. When she becomes friends with the Hawkins boys, they in a similar way exploit her labor for their benefits. In both cases, Eleven does not own the means of production. In this way, Eleven is an accurate representative of the American working class; no matter how hard she tries to free herself, society has forsaken her because of her class.
This can be related to Sjavoj Źiźek’s concept of Californian paranoiac fantasy. He explains that “the late-capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyperreality, in a way unreal, substanceless, deprived of material inertia.”⁷ While Źiźek builds upon Californian consumerism, this is also relevant in relation to Hawkins. In the end, no matter how significant the threat of capitalism in the series is, it is still a science fiction horror with a monster; a fantasy in reality. The monster in the Upside Down is, in the world of the series, a very real depiction of what capitalism is. While it may feel like a fantasy, it is the reality of the horror that working class people in the United States face. This plays with the idea of the paranoic fantasy; instead of depicting capitalism as something passive, as it may feel like for a lot of American people, it becomes embodied in actual horror. This works well as a critique because it illustrates the realness of capitalism’s exploitative qualities instead of portraying it as a regular state-of-being. Additionally, because of its references to both the Reagan and Trump eras, Stranger Things shows how class oppression is not a struggle of a particular time.
It is important to note that the symbolism of class antagonism in Stranger Things is not a repetition but rather a continuity. Film critic Robin Wood has argued that horror films believe that horror reflects the fears of contemporary society.⁸ When a film or series has a setting in a different timeframe than its release, this is harder to analyze. However, it is not a coincidence that the political environment of 1983, a year before Reagan’s re-election, and 2016, the year Trump got elected, are so similar. In the case of Stranger Things, there is not a sense of a different fear in these timeframes, but rather a continuity of the same fear; the domination of the capitalist system. The continuity of this fear can be understood through the continuity of politics, which in this case is embodied by the theory of winner-take-all-politics. Winner-take-all is an economic concept based on the idea that the richest in an economy become richer while making it hard for the middle-and-working class to climb the social ladder.⁹ For many years, both the Republican and the Democratic parties have had sponsorships from major companies because the parties promised them tax cuts or other economic benefits.¹⁰ It is important to acknowledge that winner-take-all-politics is a continuity instead of a reoccurrence. This proves that, even though the Reagan and Trump administrations have striking examples of class exploitation, this is something that the American government has never resolved. Therefore, the theme of Stranger Things is not only relevant for the 1980s or the present, but American political society as a whole.
While dwelling away in nostalgia can be a great way to spend one’s time, Stranger Things actually contains a more profound message than that. The series uses clear references to working-class characters and the capitalist condition, which helps viewers to relate to their struggles. Additionally, through creating a town that is as close as it gets to an actual 1983 experience while simultaneously creating parallels with the Trump era, the resemblance with the current political climate of the United States becomes clear as well. The symbolism in the series helps us understand the deep-rootedness of the issue while the political theory of winner-take-all politics shows a broader insight into how the continuity of politics works. It may be common knowledge that Reagan and Trump have similar ideals; however, it is compelling to see that the consequences of Reagan’s policies lived on until Trump came into office and that the wage cap never stopped growing. Thinking about issues like class exploitation is essential since this is such a prominent problem in the United States, and it has always been this way. By creating awareness through pop culture, maybe one day this problem can be resolved. After all, stranger things have happened.
The Duffer Brothers, writer. “Chapter 5.” In Stranger Things. Netflix. July 15, 2016.
Hacker, Jacob S, and Paul Pierson. Winner-Take-All Politics. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010.
Schaller, Michael. “Rhetoric, Reality, and Results: The Reagan Years at Home.” Reckoning with Reagan, 1995, 67-98. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195090499.003.0003.
Smith-Brecheisen, Davis. “Horror Show.” Jacobin. October 27, 2017.
Thorbecke, Catherine. “A look at Trump’s economic legacy.” ABC news. January 20, 2021.
Accessed October 26, 2021. https://abcnews.go.com/Business/trumps-economic
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond. New York, New York:
Columbia University Press, 1986.
Źiźek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London: Verso Books, 2013.
¹ The Duffer Brothers, “Chapter 5,” in Stranger Things, Netflix, July 15, 2016.
² Michael Schaller, “Rhetoric, Reality, and Results: The Reagan Years at Home,” Reckoning with Reagan, 1995: 15
³ Ibid, 8.
⁴ Catherine Thorbecke, “A look at Trump’s economic legacy,” ABC news, January 20, 2021, accessed October 26, 2021, https://abcnews.go.com/Business/trumps-economic-legacy/story?id=74760051
⁵ Davis Smith-Brecheisen, “Horror Show,” Jacobin, October 27, 2017, https://jacobinmag.com/2017/10/stranger-things-reagan-neoliberalism.
⁷ Slavoj Źiźek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London: Verso Books, 2013): 14.
⁸ Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond (New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1986): 170.
⁹ Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics (New York, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010): 3.
¹⁰ Ibid, 174-175.
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