[Like most of my fellow humans, I spent a good bit of the late summer obsessed with Netflix’s Stranger Things. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of topics linked to the Duffer Brothers’ nostalgic thriller, leading up to a Guest Post from an expert on supernatural cultural texts!]
On two sides to science in 80s popular culture, and how Stranger Things engages with both.
Among the many ways it significantly influenced film and pop culture in and after the 1980s, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) helped establish a particular, highly critical image of scientists and science in such cultural texts. Although in a later version of the film Spielberg replaced his scientists’ guns with walkie-talkies, in the original these supposed men of knowledge tellingly wielded such weapons, one of many ways that their pursuit of the film’s titular alien and of those kids who help him is treated as highly hostile and threatening. Such intimidating and dangerous scientists also feature heavily in other 80s films across a variety of genres, from comedies such as Ghostbusters (1984; granted, the heroes are also rogue scientists, but the villain works for the EPA!) and Real Genius (1985) to teen dramas such as War Games (1983) and The Manhattan Project (1986). Despite many differences, all these stories share a sense that scientists are willing and able to threaten and kill in service of (if not indeed as) their goals.
Yet in many of those same films, the protagonists and heroes could also be defined as scientists—not necessarily professional and certainly not official ones, indeed often young people who have not entered professional or official worlds at all, but nonetheless still characters who view science and knowledge as sources of power and utilize them in service of their goals and victories. Even more exemplary of that narrative is the film which gives my post its title, Weird Science (1985); while that film’s two uber-nerdy protagonists (played by the decade’s go-to actors for such characters, Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith) certainly do not expect all of the effects of their scientific experiments, and encounter threats both silly and serious as a result, the ultimate message nonetheless validates, as do most of the films I’ve mentioned thus far, such scientific pursuits and the kind of nerdy dedication that they require. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the key difference between the heroes and villains in many of these films comes down to the contrast between an idealized vision of science as serving all humankind and one that serves instead as a source of division and violence (whether incidental or intended).
As will be addressed in every subsequent post this week, and most especially in both my Friday post and the weekend Guest Post, Stranger Things does its cultural work in direct but complex engagement to a variety of 1980s tropes and trends. That’s most definitely the case when it comes to these competing yet complementary 80s cultural visions of science: the show features a menacing human villain in scientist Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) and his plethora of well-armed and willing-to-kill henchmen and –women; yet its youthful protagonists are defined centrally not only by nerdy interests like yesterday’s topic Dungeons & Dragons, but also specifically by their love of all things science, a passion encouraged by one of the show’s most heroic characters, middle school science teacher Mr. Clarke. Indeed, one of the show’s most crucial sequences (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) hinges on the boys constructing a sensory deprivation tank under Mr. Clarke’s guidance, an apparatus that directly parallels one used by Brenner and his evil scientists yet serves what we might call precisely the opposite purpose. Just one of many scenes and ways through which Stranger Things extends, echoes, and adds to such 1980s images and narratives.
Next StrangerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other responses to the show?
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