‘Stranger Things’: How politics factor into pop culture nostalgia

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Nostalgic pop culture is a phenomena as American as apple pie. From shows like “Stranger Things” to countless reboots of older franchises such as “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” “Riverdale” and “Fuller House,” it is clear that viewers want to relive a moment. But why the need for so many blasts to the past? American audiences seem eager to hold onto memories of a golden era in which things were the way they remember them to be, or at least how they want to remember them. Given the current maelstrom of political chaos, it makes perfect sense that people yearn for something close to home to give them comfort and relief. 

Yet behind that desire for the simplicity of the past are hidden political implications. With every era comes the political context behind it — the media we elect to intake may reflect a sense of rose-tinted denial about bygone days.

Take, for example, “Stranger Things.” Helmed by creators, writers and directors Matt and Ross Duffer, the show is set during the 1980s in suburban Indiana at the heart of the Reagan administration’s anti-drug campaign and the panic of the Cold War. At the onset of the television series, the first season of which takes place in 1983, the initial references to 1980s culture were largely innocent and nonpolitical, harking back to the quirky fashion sense of the time and echoing science fiction themes from influential films such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” 

The resulting feedback from viewers during the debut of the show was resoundingly positive, with most people adoring the campiness of the show. The closest “Stranger Things” got to real-life problems in season one was with the controversy of Hawkins National Laboratory, which may allude to the plethora of nuclear accidents and instances of contamination during the era.

 As “Stranger Things” progressed into its third season set in 1985, however, political undertones became more apparent in the series. With the appearance of Starcourt Mall, show creators Matt and Ross Duffer took the opportunity to highlight themes of commercialization and the belief in the rising threat of communism. In both cases, these are themes that can be tied back to the present day, with online consumerism now being considered a primary menace against small businesses — as opposed to traditional malls — and Russia being of major concern in the political sphere. 

Still, there is a part of “Stranger Things” that seems to glorify the capitalism and consumerism of the 1980s and reinforce the United States versus Russia rivalry. Starcourt Mall is painted as a glossy, vibrant haven for teenagers and families, while the store that the character of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) works at is left in the dust to serve as a backdrop for the character of Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and his failed attempts at flirtation. Furthermore, Russian scientists are the main antagonists of the season, conniving to steal the technological tactics of Hawkins National Laboratory in order to delve into The Upside Down. These plot points are, in many ways, reminiscent of the Cold War’s arms race and the Reagan administration’s missile defense program to provide a contingency plan against nuclear invasion. 

Unfortunately, the show does little to dispel the long-standing myth of Russians as “the bad guys” and reduces them to your run-of-the-mill foreign villain. The one exception to this stereotype is Dr. Alexei, the lovable, Slurpee-loving Russian scientist who ends up being Hopper’s sidekick throughout much of the season after being kidnapped. Alexei revels in everything American, from Slurpees to Looney Tunes, and for that, is deemed the “good Russian.” In this manner, “Stranger Things” seems to imply that the only way for a default “bad guy” to be redeemed to cross over into mainstream American culture.

Thus, in taking a step back into history, “Stranger Things” opts for a naive, idealistic lens toward a previous era that, in reality, had its own fair share of problems. Although avoiding the theme of the Cold War in a show set in the 1980s would be nearly impossible, the approach toward this issue had ample room to be more nuanced. But the Duffer brothers took the easy way out and used Russians as their scapegoats. Furthermore, the opportunity to expand further on the endangerment of small businesses was a theme that was hinted at but never totally developed, and Starcourt Mall ended up being another shiny new setting to spice up the series. 

With that in mind, rumors about the fourth season of “Stranger Things” suggest that Russian scientists will continue to have a prominent role in the series’ storyline. Time can only tell if the Duffer brothers will handle the political themes of the show with a lighter, more informed eye or merely extend the narrative they have already constructed. 

Contact Luna Khalil at [email protected].