Under the Skin of Stranger Things Season 3

***Spoilers ahead***

If you’ve seen it, you’ll probably agree the third season of Stranger Things was the best one yet. It had all the pop culture references the audience has come to expect, a healthy dose of Red Scare, and new, interesting characters. 

Yet as I watched El navigate her black-room psychic world, wading through an inch of black water to find missing people in tableau, I thought of the movie Under The Skin, starring Scarlet Johannsen, in which an alien disguised as a human lures unsuspecting men into a black-room and…does something to them (movie clip Definitely NSFW). Under the Skin is bizarre in the best ways and almost impossible to make sense of unless you start thinking of it in different terms. Johansson’s beautiful, and guys want to own her. She flips the tables of masculine control. It’s a beautiful feminist critique and the images are disturbing.

You don’t have to look at Stranger Things as an allegory to understand it, but when viewed through a few different lenses it becomes far more than escapist entertainment.

Take 1: Political Allegory

It’s easy to write the Russians off as typical of the 80s in which the show is set, but the show was written now. One of the only human villains of the show that isn’t parasitized, the Mayor, has conspired with Russia agents on massive real estate deals. 

Think that wasn’t unintentional?

He probably acts exactly the way Trump would if Hopper got ahold of him, too. “You don’t know these guys. I had no choice. It just sort of happened.” The Mayor’s source of power is patriotism. The carnival scene is a fourth of July extravaganza (cough, tanks, cough) while the Mind Flayer prowls around in the background, infecting people. It’s not coincidence that in the final battle all the kids can shoot at the mind flayer are fireworks. Merica! 

And why are the Russians in Hawkins? What has drawn them to this backwater? The world is already thin. They’ve broken through to the Upside Down once before in Hawkins. There’s some kind of scar. And that leads us to…

Take 2: An allegory for the effects of racism

Did you see the infected gulping fertilizer? Consuming poison? The Mind Flayer awakens something in their hosts that changes them into monsters. They are suspicious and don’t trust. They follow commands and lose the decency required to be part of humanity. That’s what racism does. The only way to combat it is to remember the simple things that everyone experiences and has in common. As El says in the final episode to Billy, “You said the waves were 7 feet,” forcing him to recall when he had happily run to his mother after catching his first wave. That moment, gladly telling your mother of some new accomplishment, is something that transcends culture, nationality, or skin color. Choosing to forget that we are a human race with common experience is the first step of being indoctrinated, to being incorporated, if you will, into the machinations of much greater evil like the Mind Flayer. 

Overcoming such evil takes a broad coalition, and it’s no coincidence that the ranks of heroes include a lesbian, people of color, intellectual elitists, law enforcement, a concerned parent, journalists, and nerds, all of whom must set aside their judgments of each each to work together. For every set of characters, there’s a moment in which they must set aside judgment or overcome it.

It takes a whole world of people to eschew evil and destroy the power that controls it–in this case, closing the portal to The Upside Down.

Take 3: Archetypes and Stereotypes

Erica Sinclair is a great character, and I give props to Netflix for continuously pumping out content with diverse leads, but the writers could have done better. She’s a stereotypical strong black woman, albeit in pint-sized form. It would have been nice to see a few more layers besides nerdism. Maybe that wouldn’t be in keeping with the show–it works well because of the character archetypes, after all–but I still felt like it was an opportunity missed. 

Bonus Take: Parenting

Most of the parents in the show had no idea what their kids were up to. Those that did, like Hopper and Joyce were not only involved in their kids lives, but they actively tried to engage them in difficult issues–i.e. Hopper’s letter–and knew who they were hanging out with. Free range kids aren’t bad if you really know your kids, who their friends are, and are willing to have difficult conversations with them about the situations they will face–even if it is only dating. 

I liked Stranger Things before, but looking at it through different lenses makes it clear that even though it takes place in the 80s, it’s a product of our times in which nothing is quite as it seems, reflecting complex social issues and veiled takes on a society that is struggling to stay civil. 

Strange Things indeed.

Categories: TV shows


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