I’ve consumed “Stranger Things” content almost exclusively through memes and clips out of context, which by no means makes me an authority on the matter. But without having actually seen the show, I’ll take my best crack at summarizing it:
A group of all white children — save for one minority character — is forced together by a supernatural or extraordinary event that teaches them the value of bravery, love and friendship.
Have I caught all of the nuances and idiosyncratic departures from an otherwise conventional genre found in “Stranger Things”? Obviously not.
Did I just describe nearly every action-adventure film or TV show with a child-ensemble cast?
I know what you may be thinking — this is hardly the entire catalog of films in the vein of “Stranger Things.” And you’d be right! So let’s take “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” — considered one of the greatest children’s action-adventure films of all time. The ensemble consists of all white boys and one baby Drew Barrymore.
“Stand by Me,” another film that follows a group of best friends trekking uncharted territory? Again, all white boys.
I am not under the impression that adventure stories with POC characters don’t exist; last year’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a prime example. But this is the exception, not the rule.
In one of my favorite pieces of “Stranger Things”-born media, a video in which someone screams the dialogue of the Halloween episode from season 2, we see Lucas argue with Mike over his assignment as the infamously singular black Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore.
Maybe the joke is warranted, and maybe Winston did kind of suck. Even so, I feel like the showrunners should’ve realized the irony in having their only character of color struggle with a lack of diverse and interesting representation.
As I watched the world lose its collective mind over the phenomenon that is “Stranger Things,” I asked myself why it is that a gaggle of white children seems to be the stipulation for having a remarkable adventure.
I asked myself this same question when “It” (2017) was released, and when “Super 8” was released, and all through my childhood as I desperately tried to like one of the original genre-definers, “The Goonies.”
My parents really loved “The Goonies” and would put it on for my siblings and me all the time. I remember sitting down to watch that movie at various points in my life, and try as I might, I could not relate.
It wasn’t that I didn’t desire the adventure of a lifetime, the chance at making lifelong friends or having insane adventures at age 13. It was more so that I like to think of myself as having been a practical child — a rational human being. I can assure you, no rational person would ever wind up in such a precarious situation.
I was hardly to blame for this disposition. I wasn’t allowed to go off galavanting with what my parents would term “my little white friends” with God knows what lack of supervision. There was a certain level of maturity expected of me. This came from knowing that no matter how without fault I was for any form of misbehavior, I was significantly more likely to be blamed and significantly more likely to be punished. I was to navigate my life expecting that everyone around me was more trouble than it was worth.
What a way to be a child.
The rampant, near-universal love for “The Goonies” my parents felt escaped me because I simply could not picture an instance in which something like that could happen to me — mostly because the characters did not look like me. Even if the one minority character in the film had been a Black or Japanese kid, it wouldn’t have mattered. For people like me, the world didn’t come with clearly marked antagonists.
I still don’t really like “The Goonies,” and I still have not watched “Stranger Things.” Maybe, in respect to both things, that’ll change one day. Maybe the world I live in will change. I figure it doesn’t matter much anymore. I’m 22 — why do I need a relevant children’s action-adventure film?
But the issue of representation in youth-oriented media goes beyond just me.
I want a film or TV show rich in characters that look like me, that look like Data and Lucas, so that I’ll have no choice but to understand that people like me deserve the chance to experience the incredible. Because I have a younger sister, and I have younger cousins, and there will always be an audience of young people of color who deserve stories that are miraculous and remarkable.
I look forward to a time when these kinds of stories don’t feel few and far between. I think that time will come — stranger things have happened.
Areyon Jolivette writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on finding and celebrating identity through art. Contact her at [email protected].