Typically, the more someone tells me I really must watch a show, the less likely I am to watch. I rarely binge watch any TV show, no matter how much I enjoy it. That all changed in the summer of ‘16 when Stranger Things came to Netflix. I didn’t know who the Duffer brothers were before watching and have no grounds to judge the directing, acting, or production design. I’m not a child of the 80’s and I can’t speak to the nostalgia of the decade in which the show is set. I’ve seen the original Poltergeist, but as a child ET always scared me and I’ve never seen the Goonies. I’ve always preferred the music and general aesthetic of the 70’s to the 80’s. But gosh darn it, Stranger Things sucked me in and affected me in a way I really wasn’t prepared for.
For those who haven’t watched Stranger Things and aren’t concerned about having the greatest show ever spoiled, allow me to fill you in – Stranger Things begins when a young boy, Will, goes missing in the woods. The story continues as his 3 best friends, Mom,
brother Jonathan, and the town Sheriff try to find him. Will’s friends return to the woods where he went missing to look for him, but instead find a young girl, Eleven (El), in the spot where he disappeared. Throughout the series, Will’s mom never gives up and is often thought to be crazy when she is actually the only one who figures out anything on her own. El turns out to have mysterious powers, enhanced by years spent captive in a government lab and having cruel experiments done on her.
El is able to help find, communicate with, and rescue Will in the Upside Down, a parallel universe that appears like a dark, creepy forest and is habited by a monster. Supernatural elements abound in this scary, feel-good (yes, I used those two descriptors together) series that will make you believe in that everlasting bff-love all over again.
I’ve been thinking about why I love this show so much as an adult with no nostalgic connection to the 80’s, I obviously love the strong female characters. It’s relieving to know that strong, multi-layered female characters of all ages are not just feminist legends. Nancy, the teenage sister of Will’s best friend Mike, is not just the cliché, do-good, straight-A student who loses her virginity to the rebellious hunk. Her emotions trying to manage her relationships with her family and boyfriend are true to those of a teenager. But she’s also a badass who stands up to her jerky boyfriend and takes matters into her own hands when her friend, Barb, goes missing too. She lures the monster to her, sets bear traps to capture it, and then physically fights it with all her 5’2″ might! Will’s mother, played by Winona Ryder, is a hard-working and selfless single mother who cares so much about her kids. She is soft, but also tough and badass and never gives up. (How many times is too many to describe the female characters in this show as “badass?”)
And then there’s El, the brave, force-wielding, van-flipping, ultimate badass, and true friend. The appearance of El through most of the show – buzz-cut hair and baggy clothes – defies gender norms. In one scene when the boys need to sneak El into school with them so to disguise her non-conventional looks, they dress her up in Nancy’s dress and a long blond wig. When El sees herself in the mirror she seems awestruck to see herself look this way and even calls herself “pretty.” She’s even more excited when Mike calls her pretty.
Even if the dress and wig are not exactly her choice, it’s powerful to see El have a confidence in her looks that she didn’t show before. After a life spent treated more like a lab-monkey than a little girl, this new look makes her feel like a human girl for presumably the first time in her life. Later El ditches the dress and wig, but it’s cool that the writers of the show made a point to give her the opportunity to make that choice. El develops from a scared, defensive, and potentially dangerous girl, to a brave, independent girl with friends who protect her and who she can protect as well.
When I dig deeper, beyond just the fantastic soundtrack and badass Ladies, I recognize another reason the show resonated with me so much. Someone who I love and am very close to was a lot like the little kids in this show – nerdy and more likely to be found playing Dungeons and Dragons on a Friday night, than at a football game. Also similar to the boys in Stranger Things, beginning in junior high my person with bullied, verbally and physically, at school by the “cool kids” for being different. When I say “different” I mean not-athletic, really shy, and interested in things like sci-fi, comics, gaming, and school – normal interests that only mouthbreathers would ridicule anyone for.
Bullying sucks so, SO much. It ruins lives. It isn’t necessarily something kids just get over once they enter high school or college because they realize the bullies were the pathetic ones all along. Unfortunately, unlike Mike and his friends in Stranger Things, my person didn’t have such a fantastic group of friends to help each other get through school. It was tough to watch the bullying scenes in the show between the younger boys, but those kids were feisty and had each other’s backs. It was more difficult for me to watch the older teens being so mean to Will’s brother, Jonathan (I know he did some shady things, but still). It makes me sad to think about, but I think my person was probably very lonely, like Jonathan.
I’ve seen first-hand the lasting effect bullying can have. School may have become less physically painful for my person over time, but it was never pleasant. My person never got involved in activities or found a solid friend group. Instead, they retreated and spent a lot of time alone. Can you image going through high school without your best group of girl/guy friends? I can’t. 15 years later, my person still has very little confidence and has confided in me that they feel like they might spend life alone because they are too different from everyone else. It breaks my heart because being different is something to be celebrated – It’s what makes us all so friggin’ interesting! But when you’re ridiculed by mean kids constantly for years, just how do you erase those feelings?
I wish Stranger Things had existed 15 years ago so that every nerdy kid would know that they aren’t freaks and they’re hobbies and interests don’t make them weird in any sort of bad way. Mike, El, and their friends could have been *squad goals* for every boy and girl who was ever harassed by the mouthbreathers. I would want them to watch and realize they aren’t so different and they aren’t alone, that there are a million other children with the same nerdy interests — you just have to find them! I wish every other child who is or has been bullied had a group of friends like the kids in this show. Just having a few real friends – who think you’re cool for being different and who will defend you against life’s bullies – can make a world of difference. I know it did for me.