“Stranger Things Season Three, and the Limits of Nostalgia” – the Week
“In Stranger Things’ Third Season, the Nostalgia Well Runs Dry” – Slate
“Stranger Things Doesn’t Know How to Grow Up” – Vanity Fair
So read the headlines from some of the more popular, mainstream media outlets online. The recently released third season of Netflix’s hit ‘80s-infused horror / sci-fi / coming-of-age program, Stranger Things, seems to have divided critics and fans on social media, with most of the criticism being thrown in the direction of the show’s handling of its naturally occurring (and typically well-constructed and balanced) nostalgia, which, in and of itself, is part of a larger ongoing conversation about the merits of nostalgia in storytelling. It seems this is a more recent phenomenon, because it’s not like nostalgia is a new concept. The history of cinema and television is colored with very successful examples of works that were carefully crafted to evoke very particular emotional responses from various target audiences.
Films such as Animal House, American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, and Ready Player One, TV shows like Happy Days, Freaks and Geeks, or Netflix’s recent ‘90s-inspired program, Everything Sucks, all rely on the influence of nostalgia, whether it be very much or only slightly. Some of the aforementioned titles are considered all-time classics of their forms and genres, and such success certainly depends on how exactly the nostalgia is utilized. For example, the ‘70s setting of Dazed and Confused makes great use of the things loved by those who grew up in that era (the music, the fashion, the parties) without ever sacrificing the timeless relatability of the fears, concerns, wants, desires, and needs of the film’s characters. The same cannot be said for Ready Player One, which, for all its supposed charm and fun visuals, always feels like it is constantly winking at the audience. It is sensory overload and nostalgia gluttony—nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, or maybe for the sake of quick and easy profit.
Much of this conversation / debate has political implications in today’s social landscape. Playwright Lynn Nottage fiercely explores and demonizes nostalgia in her 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat, a piece that sees close-knit friendships strain due to the recession and deindustrialization of the early to mid ‘00s and eventually devolve into racism and violence in the name of returning things to how they used to be. Nottage sums up her feelings on the topic with a line spoken by the play’s most “centrist” character: “nostalgia is a disease.” Part of what is destroying the lives and relationships of this particular work’s characters is an attachment to a time that maybe was not as wonderful as it really was—a time that was, at best, good for select groups of people that is now looked back on with rose-tinted glasses to great detriment.
This is where the criticism towards season three of Stranger Things begins to take shape. There is a sizable segment of folks who bemoan and take great issue with what they perceive to be excessive, self-indulgent nostalgia mixed with blatant product pushing and offensive pro-Capitalist themes. Since the season three debut, opening Twitter to the Stranger Things hashtag has often felt like falling down a rabbit hole of users declaring this new season as an extended propaganda piece designed to sell you on consumerism by way of Coke and 7-11 or an exercise in ‘nostalgia therapy’ that glorifies the ‘80s without ever tackling social or political issues of the day. For example, one Twitter user was none too pleased with the season’s apparent tone deaf romanticizing of the ‘80s that never once engages with something as significant as the AIDS epidemic.
What this points to is the function of nostalgia in the show’s greater narrative, which, as I discussed earlier, is always paramount to the success of any work of this kind. Visuals such as the magical neon glow of the Hawkins’ new mall or the tried (or perhaps tired) trope of Evil Commies are ways in which some believe the show suffers from the detrimental ‘disease’ that Lynn Nottage believes nostalgia to be. By this reading, then, nostalgia not only emboldens people to eat up the superficial and superfluous synth-soundtrack ‘80s references like Pop Rocks and New Coke comfort food, but also discourages movement and change. “Things were better back then,” thus is a mantra for unnatural social regression and acceptance of a false narrative. Stranger Things would certainly be guilty of this if it engaged with its time period in a way that never condemns or even questions it. However, various character arcs, storyline beats, and scene directions simply refute this assessment.
First, let’s look at the season‘s handling of the social and political climate of the ‘80s. Russia is bad, and America is great. Sure, but the Russians are also pretty ineffective in accomplishing their nefarious goals, often comically so, and the Mayor of Hawkins—the poster boy for American Capitalism in this season—is dirty and arrogant and gets what he deserves a number of times thanks to Hopper and Joyce. So, yes, there are aspects of this era’s culture and consciousness being recreated, but it is not without some commentary. Maybe we’re being told that the idea of Russian bad guys was always ridiculous, and that we should’ve been more suspicious of our authority figures in the US, just as Hopper is instantly suspicious of the Mayor. Now, perhaps this commentary is too thin for some viewers, and everyone is welcome to their opinion. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The Twitter user I mentioned before, who called the season a tone deaf false narrative of the past, is not alone in thinking that more could have been done in terms of engaging with the major issues facing certain segments of society. Consider, though, the larger implications of this silence. Is it the showrunners promoting dangerous nostalgia or is it an attempt to remain apolitical and craft a well-written sci-fi / horror romp? That could be the case, but sometimes apoliticalism is still political. To use the example of that Twitter user, the AIDS crisis and resulting increase in homophobia is never mentioned or even alluded to. This surely could be a reconstruction of the actual political silencing of AIDS during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Personally, I think it’s wonderful that people have noticed the glaring omission of certain social issues of this time, as it is an example of nostalgia’s proper use in media, with an eye towards recreating the positivity of the past, but also the negativity in a thought-provoking manner.
This is touched upon in Haley Schobert’s article, “Stranger Things, Nostalgia, and American Consumerism,” wherein she explores the definitions of separately functioning forms of nostalgia, an idea first presented in the video essay, “Stranger Things, IT and the Upside Down of Nostalgia,” by Lindsey Ellis. Of particular importance to Stranger Things, is the notion of deconstructive nostalgia, or the “feeling of longing for the past while still being able criticize it.” There are several strong instances when the nostalgia that permeates the show is set aside in the name of subversive action.
The very apparent oncoming danger in Hawkins is first noticed by Joyce Byers, who refuses to give up her investigation when outside parties wish to silence her (whether said silencing be out of malice or ignorance). Much like AIDS and President Reagan, something is happening that authorities are ignoring. But, just like Gay Rights activists Larry Kramer and Harvey Fierstein, Joyce will not be silenced. She perseveres because she knows she must; because it affects her family and small town society.
The same is true of Nancy Wheeler, who just as fiercely refuses to be silenced and chases down the horror story she knows is happening under the noses of her supposed higher-ups. The showrunners take things further with Nancy by positioning her in an office surrounded by men who do not respect her despite her dreams and aspirations of professional Journalism, a reflection of casual 1980s sexism. Now, we as an audience do not like these men. We do not find their sleaziness charming, and it is not likely an accident that we don’t.
The scenes in the newspaper office are all smartly composed. They convey the stereotypically piggish nature of these men casually lounging around a room that likely smells how it looks—stinking of stale cigarettes and testosterone turned toxic. The attention of the audience is also drawn to Nancy and her tear-welled eyes as she desperately attempts to subdue her pain and humiliation. The direction creates such disgust for whom deserves it, and empathy for who needs it, that when Nancy is confronted by the same men after they have been turned into Mind Flayer zombies, the metaphor of office sexism and rape culture comes to life as this young woman is stalked by a malicious male evil in one of the more haunting sequences of the season. However, by the definition of nostalgia as a disease, these men would have had to been presented as being decent at one point. Perhaps a bit rough, but harmless products of their time and still basically good men would be our takeaway of Nancy’s male co-workers if a false narrative were being promoted. Yet, these men are monsters even before they turn into actual ones.
Speaking of monsters, they serve to help our core group of young characters subvert the rose-tinted nostalgia of the ‘80s and does so with an eye towards the sensibilities of present day. I believe it is no coincidence that the final fight happens the way it does. All the forces of evil have converged at once at the new town mall that everyone seems to love despite its negative, lethal effect on the local businesses and culture. And our young heroes must face these evils alone — everyone else is busy having fun and celebrating America’s birthday at an event organized by our seedy, greedy Mayor. The fight is tense and at points visually bombastic, but one never quite shakes the feeling we’re being told something important here. The authorities might willfully stay silent about the terrors lurking beneath this seemingly innocent Heartland town, and other people may indeed be blissful in their passive ignorance, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some individuals willing to make a stand when they have to. “The Party” does it as we race to our climax, and perhaps we should take that lesson to heart and always try to practice the same ourselves. Again, this reading depends on how one perceives the deconstructivity of nostalgia in this program; what nostalgic elements from the past are being brought to the forefront in this storyline, and are they applied positively?
Those who received this season well have pointed to the writing of the young main characters (which continues to be colorful and strong) as a proper use of nostalgic elements from the ‘80s. As we know, “the Party” is a band of misfits who have once again come together to fight a fight that any other group of normal kids would have no business taking on. However, they are able to face every monster by elevating and supporting one another. Their power lies in their unshakeable loyalty and unbreakable bond as friends, something that is especially reinforced in a season with themes of personal growth and transformation at its emotional core. Rob Dean identifies this trope as “an underdog story of the important bonds we make that lift us up against a fearsome opponent that has proven how horrible it can be,” which was perfected in the ‘80s in various films and in other popular media like Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run or Stephen King’s IT, the recent adaptation of which became so celebrated that it was a downright mainstream crossover phenomenon at one point. It is no surprise because works rooted in ‘80s nostalgia uphold a special tradition from this time, which has now become a touchstone in modern media by way of creatives reflecting in their works the entertainment they enjoyed during their formative years. Naturally, the big appeal for these types of characters lies in relatability.
We all crave stories with outsiders because we have all felt like outsiders at one time in our life (our countless times), and we’re overjoyed when the misfits reaffirm the strength of their friendships because it’s what we all endeavored to do when we were their age. We have the opportunity to live vicariously through their exploits, just as those who grew up in the ‘80s would when watching, say, the Monster Squad fight Dracula and his evil forces in Fred Dekker’s cult flick about kids and monsters. Of course, this has always been a major theme in YA media, but the difference lies in the character type more than anything else, because, for a long while, fictional characters seemed far too flawless to relate to. It’s hard to lose yourself in a story when everyone is described as being incredibly perfect; even the outcasts are weird in a way that makes that much more perfect. These types of characters seem too unobtainable to relate to, even when their wants and needs resemble our own. The fact that nostalgia is responsible for a resurgence of crafting characters that are more relevant to the insecurities of young people is certainly not a bad thing, and it is especially in full force throughout this latest season of Stranger Things.
There are no easy answers in this discourse. There will always be one more “yeah, but,” which is fine. Answering a question in criticism is never fun, because then there’s nothing left to say. I will say that I don’t believe critics of nostalgia in media are unjustified. It may have always been a tool in storytelling and marketing, but consumer nostalgia is on the rise, and such overzealousness and oversaturation is becoming increasingly recognized and rejected by the public, as it should be. Then, there are widespread social implications to consider when longing for the past is turned into a weapon, as it so often is in today’s political climate. Maybe Nottage was right about there being disease when not just government leaders but your own neighbors praise any ideology or action, no matter how offensive or extreme, as long as things are said or done in the name of making things ‘great’ like they used to be.
However, the simple fact that a trope or device might have been used improperly should not automatically discount the efforts of filmmakers and storytellers who imbue their works with that same device appropriately and in a way that enhances rather than dominates a piece. For my money, the third season of the Duffer Brothers’ slice-of-life monster romp was a huge success — exhilarating even. Smart writing and strong, well-defined and developing characters inspire a nostalgia for a particular kind of 1980s media — stories that spoke to young people rather than at them, featuring characters who were relatable on every level. And, it is all accomplished without ever diving too far down away from healthy criticism of society’s stage of growth during that era. There is shining potency to be found in this new season of Stranger Things—the exact kind of storytelling that we can always use a bit more of in the horror / sci-fi fandom.
And, of course, even if we can’t find an easy answer, we can always settle and agree one thing: we all want some of that Scoops Ahoy ice cream!
-Dean, Rob. (2019). The Future of Yesterday: Stranger Things vs. “Nostalgia Porn.” http://dailygrindhouse.com/thewire/stranger-things-vs-nostalgia-porn/
-Ellis, Lindsay. (2017). Stranger Things, IT, and the Upside Down of Nostalgia. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Radg-Kn0jLs
-Nottage, Lynn. (2017). Sweat. Theatre Communications Group.
-Schojbert, Haley. (2019). Stranger Things, Nostalgia, and American Consumerism. https://haleiga.wordpress.com/2019/07/12/stranger-things-nostalgia-and-american-consumerism/