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Friday, November 18, 2016

November 18, 2016: Stranger (Things) Studying: ‘80s Nostalgia

[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 three layers to the show’s nostalgic embrace of all things 1980s.

First things first: I don’t think there’s any way to explain the runaway popularity of Stranger Things that doesn’t start with 80s nostalgia. I’m not suggesting that the show is only or even centrally a nostalgia-fest; I hope that my posts all week have made clear the layers of compelling characters and complex themes that have kept me interested and engaged throughout eight episodes and a week of blogging alike. But as any David Simon fan knows, great television doesn’t necessarily mean popular television, and I would argue that our collective love for all things 80s went a long way toward leading so many Netflix viewers to stream Stranger Things. Much has been made of the prominent role of nostalgia in producing so many remakes and reboots, including of one TV show (The X-Files) that has a lot in common with Stranger Things. But Stranger Things offered a unique and perhaps even more potent form of nostalgic art—an entirely original story that nonetheless echoed a prior decade’s popular culture on numerous satisfying levels.

I’ve written about nostalgia in this space before, and made the case that it can be a limiting and too often an exclusionary perspective. It’d be difficult not to the say the same thing about the 80s world nostalgically conjured up by Stranger Things—while one of the show’s three youthful protagonists is African American (played by the wonderful Caleb McLaughlin), he and an African American police officer seem to be the only two people of color in an otherwise very white Indiana town. There’s no necessary reason why every show has to feature a diverse cast, of course—but at the very least any show produced in 2016 has to engage with those questions, as another great Netflix original show (Aziz Ansari’s Master of None) deals with at length through its focus on an Indian American actor struggling to break into the business. That is, Stranger Things isn’t defined by the whiteness of its 80s world, but we can’t ignore that element either.

Yet if the show is in many ways frustratingly bland on that cultural level, it does offer—as I’ve argued in other posts this week—interesting and often revisionary examinations of gender, social roles and identities, and the possibilities of science, among other themes. And while there would be many different ways a 2016 cultural text could bring audiences into such re-examinations, I think Stranger Things’ use of nostalgia to do so is particularly compelling: partly because it taps into such a potent shared emotion to interest and draw in viewers; and especially because it then offers characters and themes that challenge just as much as they comfort those viewers. At best, perhaps such a sneakily revisionist nostalgia could allow viewers to reexamine both their memories of the 80s and their sense of its popular culture, all while still allowing for enjoyment of some of that popular culture’s most prominent tropes and trends. If that seems like a lot for one 8-episode supernatural thriller to accomplish—well, I’ve seen stranger things in American culture.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other responses to the show?

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