Stranger Things: A Theory On Nostalgia – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Stranger Things!
Written by: Claire Pickard
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Stranger Things – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today we’re talking about the show that launched a thousand Halloween costumes— Stranger Things. Pretty much every 20-something with a borrowed Netflix password is losing their minds over Season 2. But why is everyone so obsessed with a show that’s basically “The Goonies Meet Fox Mulder”? Some may pin it on nostalgia, but I’m going to argue it has a lot to do with toys. Whether it’s kids becoming the rulers of a nation by engaging in literal warfare or an animated baby in a suit doing espionage. TV and movies about powerful children tend to “age them up” in order to demonstrate their abilities rather than taking seriously the potential of childhood. Childhood is either something to be overcome or just comic juxtaposition against their adult roles.
What makes Stranger Things unique is that kids win by being kids rather than by growing up or pretending to be adults. By paying attention to the ways Stranger Things inverts that convention and shows the inherent power of children, we can perhaps better understand why the series resonates so much for millennials. Being a kid (at heart) doesn’t mean you’re regressing; sometimes, it means being a total badass. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on Stranger Things. Spoilers ahead.
If you need to get caught up:, here’s a quick rundown on the series. A decade before the start of the show, a secret, government-funded experiment kidnaps a girl, names her “Eleven”, and makes her use her psychic powers to spy on the Soviets and, whoops, summon a demon hell beast from another dimension. This beast attacks a boy named Will and brings him back to its really depressing home dimension which is just like Earth except the atmosphere is full of used kleenex pieces and everything is kind of damp.
Will’s three best friends— Dustin, Lucas, and Mike— set out on a quest to find him. Once Eleven escapes her creepy fake dad, she joins the junior rescue crew, and the rest, as they say, is eight hours of quality television. 80s and 90s-kid nostalgia certainly helped give rise to the popularity of the show. But… that nostalgia extends far beyond the reach of Netflix. We also see a certain longing for the past in the current millennial obsession with toys. Witness the insane popularity of Funko Pop figurines, Hoverboards, and subscription boxes. filled with everything from Star Wars pillows to Batman-themed ramen bowls. Toys, as a symbol, express lightheartedness and innocence, but they are also an important means for rational and emotional connection. Toddlers learn about the world through their toys; children use toys to share (or fight) with friends and to act out possibilities of the future. Despite this, many popular depictions of toys trivialize their role, label them immature, and their popularity has given rise to dozens of s***ty think-pieces on how “millennials need to grow up.”
Stranger Things takes toys seriously. They are not only an essential part of the storyline; they are the foundation on which the rest of the story is built. The quintessential example of this is the way that the language of Dungeons and Dragons is used to make sense of events both for our plucky gang of four and for the viewers themselves. “We were thinking of more of an evil dimension like the vale of shadows.”
When we first meet the boys in Episode 1, they’re in Mike’s basement playing D&D. The “demogorgon”monster is first shown as a figurine in their campaign and so when they meet the interdimensional monster later on, they talk about it in the terms of a monster they are familiar with. “Do you seriously wanna fight the Demogorgon with your wrist rocket? That’s like R2-D2 going to fight Darth Vader.” The same is true of the alternate dimension the monster hails from. As Eleven tries to explain what this place is, nobody understands until she takes the campaign board and flips it upside down to represent an alternate and parallel side to our own reality. Since those concepts are fundamental to making sense of the paranormal elements in the boys’ lives, they are also fundamental to the viewer.
We really have no way to understand or express “the upside down” or the “demogorgon” except through the language of D&D that board and that figurine shape the mythology for the entire series. We see the same kind of language-framing in Dustin’s constant references to comic books and Star Wars. “So do you think 11 was born with her powers like the X-Men? Or do you think she acquired them like Green Lantern?” To him, Eleven is one of the X-Men, and the Chief is Lando Calrissian when the bous think he’s setting them up. Dustin knows that Jean Grey has telekinesis, so Eleven’s similar powers don’t seem impossible. His relationship to games and toys and cartoons gives him (and the other children) the ability to understand. It’s powerful. “What if this is Hawkins, and this is where Will is?The upside down” “Like the vale of shadows.”
In contrast, Joyce sees evidence of the paranormal, and it pretty much destroys her because she has no way to communicate this knowledge to the other adults or even to herself. Everyone thinks she’s Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs because they simply don’t have the right frame of reference to make sense of the events. Except for Mr. Clarke. His connection to childhood toys and games makes him an understanding ally who entertains the idea of an “upside down” well before the other adults. “You know the vale of shadows?” “Echo of the material plane where necrotic and shadow magic…” “Yeah, exactly.”
The significance of toys goes beyond just making sense of the Eggo-snarfing demigoddess in the basement. On one level, Stranger Things gives credibility to toys by showing that they have the potential to be powerful. When Lucas suggests bringing his Wrist Rocket on their adventures, even his friends make fun of him. “You’re gonna take out the demogorgon with a sling shot?” And, it’s true that in the end, the Wrist Rocket gets (literally) beaten to the punch by Eleven’s psychic attack on the Demogorgon. This may seem like it detracts from our argument, but the mere fact that the Wrist Rocket was part of that fight shows that it can’t be easily dismissed. Successfully or not, that slingshot— that toy— fought a monster from another dimension.
In the world of Stranger Things, toys become objects of great utility. Nancy’s costume chest provides Eleven the ability to move around comfortably in public. She can go to the school, meet adults, and navigate the world more easily after she plays dress-up. Without the newfound confidence provided by the dress and the blonde wig, Eleven wouldn’t have found Will on the Heathkit Radio or saved Mike from the class bullies.
She has superpowers, but a dress-up bin did something that ESP couldn’t. We can also see the utility of toys in Will’s home-away-from-home, Castle Byers. It’s a kid’s fort built in the backyard, but it probably saves his life when he’s in the Upside Down. Not only does it shelter him from the Demogorgon— at least for a little while— it’s also somewhat implied that the sense of familiarity and comfort provided by the fort helps to keep him alive in the toxic atmosphere.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is the scene where Joyce and Eleven pull together a makeshift sensory deprivation tank so that our girl El can go dimension-hopping. They go to a school and fill up a kiddie pool that was once used to bob for apples. This scenario, despite the participation of the adults, is so laden with kid-fueled ingenuity that it’s almost over-the-top. But it’s that kiddie pool that makes it possible for Eleven to discover Barb’s body. Sometimes the role of toys in the show is a little less blatant. You might have forgotten the scenes where Eleven practices her powers on the Millennium Falcon figurine or when Will gets an Atari for Christmas at the end of the series.
But by making toys a constant presence in the show, Stranger Things emphasizes their omnipresence and importance in the lives of children. The significance of toys isn’t always limited to the kids, either. There are also a few occasions where toys are important tools for teens and adults. Joyce’s alphabet light display looks an awful lot like a Ouiji board. Nancy and Jonathan basically recreate Home Alone to catch a monster (and top it off with a smiley-face yo-yo). Jonathan’s very fancy camera is referred to as his “toy” and it’s key to documenting the existence of the Demogorgon… by first producing another toy— a puzzle.
These examples all point to the same idea: the times when the teens and adults are most successful at fighting the enemy or understanding the world are when they adopt the conventions of kids. This isn’t just children having power— it’s the power of childhood itself. We can see an interesting presentation of this idea in the case of the walkie talkies and compasses used in the show. Radios and compasses are not inherently toys. They’re primarily used by adults for distinctly un-toy-like purposes. But in Stranger Things they are toys, used by the boys as a form of play prior to taking on their strategic roles. The walkie talkies are vital for communication during the search for Will, and the magnetic misdirection of the compasses leads the gang to the conclusion that the portal is inside the Department of Energy facility. But we don’t see adults using them to similar effect. The police have radios, but they never hold the same kind of power or usefulness as the toy radios belonging to the kids.
So, Stranger Things taking toys seriously shows that it takes childhood itself seriously. The kids didn’t save the day despite being kids; they saved the day because they were kids. This doesn’t mean that everyone loving the show wishes they were actually 10 years old again— I wouldn’t deal with Troy and his ilk for all the Fun Dips in the world. But Stranger Things fights back against the idea that being a kid— or liking toys— is some kind of deficiency. There isn’t just nostalgia in remembering childhood; there’s power too. So, what does it mean to give toys this kind of influence? By empowering childhood, is Stranger Things fanning the flames of our nostalgia-driven culture? Is it fighting back against that by making childhood into something more than an ironic T-shirt? Either way, we’re happy to keep watching. Pass the Eggos.