We need to talk about ‘Stranger Things’

I finished watching Stranger Things during the week, it was very enjoyable; even if the ending felt just a little downbeat. Max is a great character – eminently relatable – so it sucked to see her end up in such a bad way [sorry – SPOILERS!]. I loved the fact that a new generation has been turned on to Kate Bush. For those who want a little more Kate Bush fire, check out Cloudbusting and the far less renowned ‘Hounds of Love’ – equally timeless and fantastic songs.

I found a fox caught by dogs
He let me take him in my hands
His little heart, it beats so fast
And I’m ashamed of running away

I also liked the way the long-format TV on Netflix is playing on episode length, with the last three episodes essentially being feature movie length installments. That sort of ability to play with the ‘beats’ of a story is a really interesting innovation in long form TV and must be a boon for storytelling.

But, at the same time, there are elements of the ‘Netflixification’ of storytelling that I think really let Stranger Things down, in some ways. There remains a clear desire to appeal to literally everyone that sometimes undermines the actual impact of the story.

The thing I enjoyed most about Season Four was the way in which it managed to play with the ‘DnD is corrupting our kids’ trope, which was a real thing in the 80s.

not subtle, but well played nevertheless.

The series nostalgically confronted how social fears about kids using their imaginations (instead of just playing sport and watching TV) could lead to a moral panic on behalf of witless adults and cool kids made uncomfortable by difference. The showrunners did a decent job of highlighting that the geeks aren’t just ok – their ability to comprehend the danger of ‘Vecna’ and their ability to organise against that danger was clearly enabled by their ‘geeky’ behaviour. Moreover, the fear expressed towards the different created more problems than it solved. It’s a good message that is almost timeless.

But really, at a point where Elon Musk and Mike Cannon-Brookes are generally seen as superheroes by the zeitgeist, is it really that interesting to suggest ‘the geeks are alright? The whole series is nostalgic, and I get that, but it also tries to make that nostalgia relevant for a younger audience that didn’t experience the 80s. And it’s a lot less cutting edge to stand in 2022 celebrating geeks than it was back in the 80s.

But I get it, Netflix production is dominated by attracting large numbers of viewers and achieving cut through across broad segments of potential audience. Hallinan and Striphas talked about this in ‘The Netflix Prize and the production of algorithmic culture’. Netflix use their unbelievably large set of data points about what audiences do and don’t like to curate content (such as Stranger Things) that they know will draw in guaranteed audiences – and the very data driven business model means that a show that fails in this regard and loses viewers can be axed very quickly indeed. So, yeah, I get it – Stranger Things blends its horror with humour, its bellicosity with banality because it needs to hit those audience numbers. (I wrote about this phenomenon – the ‘norming’ created by algorithmic culture in my article ‘The big data public and its problems‘).

But pandering to audiences should never mean that you lose opportunities to tell your story. And in the case of Season 4 of Stranger Things, the showrunners lost me when they – repeatedly – featured ‘gun porn’, particularly in the last few episodes. By ‘gun porn’ I mean scenes and shots of protagonists ogling, praising and fondling guns.

like this scene:

I have the power because I hold the gun

and this one…

killing things… orgasmic

and this one…

This is for being a real jerk to Max!

Now the relationship between media depictions of violence and actual violence is long and complicated – ‘direct’ effects are unverifiable. However, I’m a huge believer that the norming of themes, formats and, well, norms is one area where we certainly do see effective media. One example of this is Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘Male Gaze’. The ‘Male Gaze’ is the privileging of the heterosexual masculine eye in the construction of media.

Male gaze much?

Mulvey argues that this construction has been so privileged and prominent in media production that it has become its own social meaning system – it ‘norms’ a way of looking (and displaying) that we all take for granted/agree upon/see as somewhat unproblematic. The dominance of the Male gaze means that it is now unproblematic for TikTokers and Insta Influencers to see displaying for the ‘male gaze’ as something intrinsically valuable, whereas earlier generations would have viewed this behaviour as somewhat problematic. In fact, the ‘male gaze’ has become so unproblematic that males that have also internalised this way of seeing and displaying themselves, although they often ‘hide’ the gaze behind some other display of ‘utility’ [the capitalist gaze being the real power behind the throne].

Thirsty? FWIW I do enjoy both of their content.

The important thing to recognise about this is that this way of viewing has become so broadly accepted that it effects people’s behaviour. While it’s difficult to prove a ‘media effects’ type of causality in cases like this, it’s also clear that media plays a prominent role in ‘norming’ particular social meanings, understandings and [therefore, necessarily] behaviours.

One thing that US media/film/TV production consistently does is ‘norm’ the veneration of guns as being just great. To return to Stranger Things – which we love because of its accessible take on alt/genre culture – in Season Four guns are used as plot devices to give people power, to solve otherwise intractable problems and to be a sort of ‘democratising force’ for good (allowing the physically disadvantaged to stand up to stronger foes). Just like the Male gaze, these messages about guns have become so unproblematically internalised by US audiences that they are used consistently by US storytellers in these ways. We all see it, understand it and – more or less – accept it. But in my case, not so much.

But with the way gun reform is going in the US, and with a nod of the head to the ‘moral panic/won’t anyone please think of the children’ vibe , I found the gun porn in Season Four of Stranger Things to be pretty gross. In my world, guns create problems – they are used by teenagers to shoot innocent protestors, commit armed robbery and shoot up schools. There are clearly a lot of ‘good’ uses for guns but I see a lot more evidence that they create more problems than they solve. Wouldn’t it be great if media started running storylines that reflected this – the presence of the gun makes everything more dangerous, more lethal, and allows a vigilante to overpower and control a situation where they would otherwise be powerless. And people without guns, working together, can overcome that villainy through using cooperation, courage and candour.

In the case of Stranger Things, Season Four, I think the showrunners missed a real opportunity to make the ‘lessons’ a little more relevant and less nostalgic by finding interesting ways to solve the problems the protagonists’ faced. To be fair, they clearly illustrated that it was only in the case of the Russian side story that a weapon proved to be effective (the flamethrower on the mindflayer). In every other instance – the shooting of Vecna, the use of the gun in the plane hijacking, the fight between Lucas and Jason – the guns were pretty much useless.

So, maybe the writers are trying to be subtle about that what really ‘helped’ was the teamwork, the creative thinking, the solidarity and the bravery of the protagonists. But they missed a chance to feature that in a more direct way. I mean, they were creative enough to suggest that the upside down was a symbiotic system of evil and that Eleven could piggyback through time and space on other people’s memories… so why not use this sort of storytelling license to come up with reasons and ways to defeat Vecna without going into gun porn? They managed to NOT use guns earlier in the series to fantastic effect.

I mean Vecna could have probably been beaten by eczema

I’m not one who argues that all media needs to be politically correct – it is completely understandable that these gun porn beats are placed in these contexts. It is also useful to acknowledge that this is how guns are thought about in US culture. But if you ask me, the show does betray the very essence of what is wrong with the way the US thinks about guns (that they are a solution, rather than a problem), and I also think the otherwise savvy show runners missed an opportunity to tell a far more interesting story about how evil actually creeps into our lives, and what it takes to defeat it.

And the reason that they make these decisions is because gun porn, and violence in general, play well in the US market, and so we have ‘gun gaze’.

All of these are used to kill people.

What the media isn’t telling you about Scott Morrison

Ever wondered why the ‘mainstream media’ (MSM) has gone so easy on Scott Morrison and the LNP this election?

‘What’ you say? I thought they were remarkably even handed, he’s had some quite uncomfortable moments, and lost every debate!

Yes, MSM has gone incredibly soft on him (double entendre intended). In this post I’m going to talk first about some egregious corruption that should ensure that no one even thinks of voting LNP this election, and then cover why the media aren’t quite covering it that way.

First, here are some examples of issues where they have been kinder to the Morrison LNP than they were to the Gillard/Rudd Labor government. Much of this comes from the longer list at : https://www.mdavis.xyz/govlist/

A small sample of Morrison government corruption:

  • The Morrison government used $800m for paying for carparks and sports facilities (many of which didn’t even qualify for the funding) as a bribe for voters to win the last election.
    • The Morrison government responded by cutting funding to the national (fully indpendent) audit office that exposed this corruption.
    • Given the narrowness of the election win, this tax payer money can be understood to have directly ‘bought’ power for the LNP. Yet, this has never been mentioned in the media.
  • Implemented the ‘Robodebt’ system which cost more money than it recovered, mistakenly accused people of owing money and triggered a number of suicides.
    • For comparison, the death of two workers in Labor’s ‘Pink Bats’ scandal led to a Royal Commission and a strong finding against the Rudd government. The LNP even redirected $4m from the Child Sex Abuse Royal Commission to pink bats because those deaths were to be taken so seriously. While a senate committee has called for a Royal Commission into Robodebt, the Morrison government has refused to engage one – and the media is strangely silent on demanding one.
  • Paid almost $20m in incentives to encourage the sale of Port of Darwin to China, which Morrison now maintains that they had ‘no say’ over
  • Despite promising a Federal ICAC in the last election campaign, the Morrison LNP has failed to table a viable proposal for that ICAC and voted against proposals, insisting that any corruption investigation be overseen by government (as in, let them run their own investigation).
  • And well might this government fear an ICAC as they have repeatedly been implicated in shelling out money to their mates and supporters with no proper process literally dozens of times. Such as:
    • $450million on carbon capture and storage projects – none of which were successful, and almost all of which were subsequently cancelled.
    • $600m on new gas power plant that was not considered viable by the private sector.
    • $15.5m on fossil fuel research.
    • $39m to a naval boat manufacturer Austal for meeting key milestones when they DID NOT meet those milestones. However, Austal just happens to have donated $80,000 to the LNP that year (as opposed to a $1500 donation to the Labor party).
    • $25k to a US defense contractor blacklisted for bribery.
    • Paid a billionaire 10 times the market rate ($30m) for land valued at $3m a year later.
    • $50m to APA to develop new gas projects. APA just also happens to donate to the LNP.
    • $6.7m in Job Keeper to Harvey Norman, despite them quadrupling their profits during the pandemic. (Academics, musicians and artists got $0 from job keeper)
    • $18m on a ‘leadership program’ for young libs, awarded to a shady company with no prior experience, without a tender process.
    • Gave $10m of bushfire recovery money to a paper mill that wasn’t affected by the bushfires.
    • $200k to a National party media advisor to take photos and videos of bushfire recovery.
    • $423m to an inexperienced security provider ‘Paladin’ to supply Manus Island security via an illegitimate ‘limited tender’. The group had only $50,000 to their name when they ‘won’ the ‘limited tender’, so the government advanced them $10m to get started.
    • $385m (eventually $1.6B) for a Brisbane construction company with only $8 in assets at the time… but happened to be a LNP donor.
    • $443m to Great Barrier Reef foundation to ‘save the reef’ through developing business opportunities. This money was awarded without tender or applicaiton.
    • $2.2m on scientifically discredited ‘water fans’ as a solution to reef bleaching.
    • $100m loan to BHP and Rio Tinto – because they need the money.
  • While all this has been going on, the LNP has refused to legislate for transparency of political donations, loosened political donation laws and has increased the amount of government funding without proper tender process to $34billion per month.

So, considering all this, yes, the media IS going soft on Morrison’s government. And this is why…

Included in the campaign against accountability that the LNP has waged for the past 10 years, it has worked furiously to coddle the commercial media (Newscorp, Fairfax and Seven West) and undermine critical media and journalism.

In terms of coddling, ‘traditional’ media has been thrown into a crisis by the economics of search engines and social media – and long story short – the LNP government has raced to the aid of large media businesses. Note, not journalists (more about this below), but the billionaire business owners. The ‘News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code’ could have offered rewards for insightful journalism that made a public contribution but, instead, it ended up guaranteeing some internet advertising revenue to the largest media companies in Australia – but not the ABC. This is the sort of legislation that is needed but the ‘shape’ of the legislation fits the issues described above – it favours the Murdoch press and big business. That has meant, in turn, that the entirety of the Australian commerical media has really opted NOT to go too hard on Morrison, who has been a great friend. I mean Morrison’s government even gave $345000 to News Corp to build a spelling bee website, there was no tender, no competitive process.

On the other hand, the LNP’s attack on critical journalism has been unprecedented. And I use that term pointedly. Unprecedented.

Like the unprecedented use of the AFP to raid ABC and Newscorp journalists who were collecting evidence of war crimes in Afghanistan and writing about increased state surveillance powers respectively. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-15/abc-raids-australian-federal-police-press-freedom/11309810

Like the unprecedented new laws

which mean Edward Snowden type leaks are punishable by up to 10 years of prison. No exemptions are made for anti-corruption leaks. If journalists report on anyone (including innocent bystanders) being killed accidentally or deliberately by security personnel, they will be jailed for up to 10 years.

The government has shown it means business on this by spending $2m trying to prosecute a whistleblower who leaked truthful information about corruption. It has also changed protest laws so that anyone who tries to object to the governments plans or policies will pretty much forfeit all their rights.

Like the unprecedented attack on the ABC, not just accusing it of not being on ‘Team Australia’ for making critical comments about war crimes, corruption and double dealing, but more importantly chronically defunding Australia’s most trusted source of news and information. The reason the ABC is so trusted is because it doesn’t replicate the cronyism and support that the Murdoch/commercial media does. For the same reason, the government thinks it is ‘left leaning’. No, it is the most objective and accurate source of news Australia has, and still the best source of honest journalists and journalistic training.

As I researched Australian’s media use during the pandemic, it became clear that Australians tend to turn to the ABC in times of crisis. Think of the pandemic, the bushfires, the floods. How reliant are we on the excellent journalism of the ABC at these times? And yet the Morrison and Abbott government defunded it to the tune of around $250 million dollars over the past 10 years. As a media scholar studying the proliferation of misinformation online, I can tell you that the quality journalism that the ABC offers has never been more crucial. So why defund it? Because it occasionally offers valid criticism of nepotism and corruption.

Finally, the Morrison government hasn’t just attacked critical voices in journalism, but also the training of critical thinkers (and journalists) in our universities. When considering how we could change university funding to encourage ‘job ready graduates’ the Morrison government ramped up the costs for training in journalism, critical thinking and anything else that challenged the ‘status quo’. For me, this is where the corruption becomes endemic – it is an attempt to ensure that not only does this government get away with it, but that future governments will too.

Don’t take my word on any of this, you can google any of these talking points and ‘do your own research’. At the same time check out https://theyvoteforyou.org.au/ and see how your local LNP member has voted on issues like a Federal ICAC and University funding just to check that I’m not smearing them. I’m not. This is what they are doing.

They are trying to destroy our democracy by making corruption endemic, and the media has been bought along for the ride.