We all signed up for “Stranger Things” because it was a story about children learning to deal with growing up. Discovering evil, but also relying on friendship to fight against it. Dealing with bad family situations, but also learning that together they had what it takes to deal with the drama in their lives. We thought it was a show about friendship.
The element of fantasy and “Dungeons and Dragons” in the story led the Duffer brothers to a metaphor about growing up in America: demon invasions. This is not new. If we think back to “Halloween” or “Nightmare on Elm Street,” there’s a tradition of horror movies set in suburbia, where adults claim they have banished evil. This means the kids have no experience of hardship and since they’re protected, have no idea what the future will be either. What happens when adults are no longer in charge and the protagonists have to face life on their own? They discover evil.
Since the protagonists are boys, fantasies about playing the hero and vanquishing demons come naturally. What’s more, the very safety of suburbia can be boring and lead kids to dark fantasies since they crave adventure. They need to find a way to deal with their anger and competitive urges. They may be innocent in a way, but they’re also aggressive.
This is what growing up looked like in the first two seasons of “Stranger Things.” But the third season puts all that aside in order to deal with being a woman in America.
As a consequence, we got a story centered on eroticism instead of friendship. The new identity of the show is asserted boldly by having middle-aged suburban mothers ogle a teenage bad boy at the community pool. One gets close to committing adultery with him, even though he’s young enough to be her son.
While this may not exactly flirt with statutory rape, it’s far from the innocent pre-teen boys that made the show such a hit. Since “barely legal” became a phrase, since men get trophy wives, why not women, too? They’re equal, after all.
Thus the notion of protecting children that tied adults together as parents is weakened severely by another notion, the notion of fulfilling one’s desires, which is the source and pattern of individuality. Love is a kind of self-discovery, since something grows inside of us that we can’t control and that others cannot see unless we tell them it’s there. Previously, parenthood and friendship set the stage and boundaries for that experience. Even the teenage crushes and relationships of the previous seasons were focused far more on romance for that reason.
The story doesn’t return to this level of titillation, but gives example after example of how the girls on the show could follow their dreams, fantasies, and desires even if it means abandoning their friends. So it’s no surprise that at the end of the story, most of the new romances are broken up suddenly and the friends separated. The whole point of chasing after fantasies is that fantasies replace real people.
The mother who was persuaded to commit adultery but then backed out (because she loved her family and wouldn’t do anything to harm them, not because adultery is a sin) has a heart-to-heart with her teenage daughter where she encourages her to follow her dreams, wherever they may lead. This would seem crazy or, as we say, hypocritical, since she knows better than to do that herself. Perhaps the woman wants to live vicariously through the girl. Since duty and circumstance limit the satisfaction of desire, then progress might mean more satisfaction of desire in the next generation, fewer limits.
The daughter wants to be a heroic journalist who exposes the ugly truths the authorities are too blind to see so she can lead a populist crusade against some fantastic threat—a redo of “Invasion of The Body Snatchers.” That’s the progressive side of things. It also fits her personal narrative, since she has to fight the evil men who run the newspaper and won’t give her a break.
This mother’s daughter is just starting an internship at the paper, but she’s already a superior journalist to the entire staff put together. Her desires to be famous and admired fit with the ideology that journalism is the savior of the people and therefore journalists should be famous and admired.
This explains why the female characters on the show express their desires tyrannically, or shamelessly, and win. Previous tomboys like Eleven and the skater-girl Max are now suddenly working on embodying the Madonna ethic and aesthetic. Why? Because they’ve discovered erotic desire as well. Their idea is to torture their boyfriends. It’s funny, because they’re Midwestern kids and rather innocent, but the show is clear that it’s not so funny to the boys who throw themselves on their tender mercies. Well, love is a war—the girls are winners, the boys are losers, and that’s that.
The most innocent example is Erica, a math genius who obsesses over politics. She loves capitalism and hates communism, which is good and patriotic, but really means she always asks for free samples of ice cream and never buys anything, humiliating the teenagers who work at the ice cream parlor in silly outfits. It’s funny, because the girl knows what she wants and is shamelessly honest about it. But it’s not funny to the guy she constantly mocks.
The arrival of desire leads to a great shift in the beloved story. The girls now seem to mock the boasting these boys have done for two seasons. The boys thought they were the protagonists in their own story. Well, they aren’t anymore. It’s the girls’ story now.
They’re all geniuses, unlike the silly boys they leave behind at the end, and they’re the rightful protagonists. They will be chasing their dreams, fulfilling their fantasies, and building the future. The body snatchers are the old patriarchy, starting with the men at the newspaper. This is certainly very #MeToo and #TimesUp, but is it “Stranger Things”?