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.

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