Stranger Things: Channeling Nostalgia/Challenging Nostalgia

Curator's Note

Stranger Things--an 8-hour trove of 80s-90s-00s quotations--has proven great fodder for nostalgia fans, particularly GenXers gleefully posting its myriad references to their youth. For some dubious critics, that's all it is: "an homage and pastiche of all things Spielberg...[but] a little empty." Certainly, much of the spectatorial joy, for the GenX set at least, comes from identifying and reliving that era's texts.

Yet the series delves deeper than simple nostalgia for a Spielbergian heyday--often challenging it, even as it revels in it. The kids swear more realistically, for example, and experience more harrowing danger; one even loads a gun. And counter to Hollywood's insistence on heterosexual romance during a quest, Joyce and Hopper never romantically couple during their search for Will or even at the family dinner--sans Hopper--at series end.

The Duffers Brothers credit the medium of the television series--"basically a long-form film"--with the time and breadth to rework those movie formulas that inspired them. "We've seen so many movies and they tend to follow a very similar pattern. Television has been breaking narrative rules." The character of Steve, for example, they initially wrote as "the biggest douchebag on the planet"--clearly the wrong suitor for Nancy. So audiences expected heroic Jonathan, in classic Proppian fairytale style, to win the princess. Yet a closing shot shows Nancy instead snuggling with Steve. The directors explain their choice: "it felt like in a movie world she winds up with Jonathan... But it felt almost more real to us that she would wind up back with Steve... That's what's fun about television. You don't have the opportunity to do that as much in film."

The TV series format similarly granted room for a more complex identificatory structure. Rather than specify one age cohort for audience identification--more typical of the nostalgic source material--Stranger Things offers three age levels: kids, teens, adults. Although all three groups do appear in some 1970s-80s films, it's unquestionably the kids' story in E.T., the teens' story in Carrie, and the adults' story in Jaws. Splitting its narrative among three cohorts was risky, but it's striking how successfully Stranger Things appeals to GenXers, Millennials, and teens alike--and how pleasurably slippery their identification is. Presumably, now middle-aged GenX parents identify with the adults, twenty-something Millenials with the teens, and teens with the children. Yet GenXers also identify with the teenagers and children that they were in 1983, pluralizing their nostalgic pleasure.


Very interesting post, Virginia. I'm intrigued by the cross-generational popularity of the series, particularly its appeal to both GenXers and Millennials. The 80s pastiche of Stranger Things, I'd argue, appeals to both categories in two different yet compatible ways. The GenXers have a much more personal nostalgic relationship to the cultural content and style recreated by the Duffer Brothers; their head nods and innumerable allusions to 80s pop culture achieves the goal of nostalgic reflection, while it also gives them room to explore the narrative structure and traditionally static characters of the era. The millennial appeal is a bit more bizarre. Outside the realm of memory and nostalgia I believe the show has mastered pacing for binge-watching audiences, a practice of television consumption championed by twenty-somethings. Yet, there is a nostalgic appeal for the younger generation that never experienced the 80s (an appeal probably linked to the amount of Joy Division t-shirts I see worn by my generation on a daily basis). I'd love to explore this appeal in greater detail and hear others' thoughts. My first reaction sees Millennial's nostalgia more like the nostalgia we would find in fairy tales or mythic storytelling, a less experiential, personal recollection and a more romanticized longing for a time never lived.

Wolfgang, Great follow up comments that extend Virginia's flow but also present important questions. Indeed contemporary media must expanded to multiple audiences across numerous platforms toward divergent purposes, levels of enjoyment, and so on. You highlight the theoretical argument formalized by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green's book (and convergence theory), 'Spreadable Media' (NYU Press, 2013). Their chief slogan, "If it doesn't spread, its dead" applies to not only a series like Stranger Things but also, as you note, the "Binge-worthy" Netflix production strategy. Thus, it is the "Form" (as Kenneth Burke would say) that attracts Millennials regardless of their lack of cultural identification. You last line pinpointing "Millennial nostalgia = fairy tale/myth romanticization" is also fascinating and reminder of the simulacral nature of media and storytelling. Post-Internet generations won't know the feeling of living disconnected but they can experience the narrative as escapist fantasy to a time removed.

Garret, Thank you for the book recommendation and your comments. I find the Millennial generation as a consumer group fascinating, and your points and suggestions are very helpful for me as I begin my graduate studies. I think the modern fairy tale/myth is especially resonant for post-Internet generations, we see this with the rise of fantasy (Lord of the Rings, Skyrim, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter) as a more utilized genre by media producers in the 21st century. Stranger Things grounds fantasy in an almost Platonic form of the 1980s (as you point out a pre-connected era), offering a generational fantasy rather than a feudal (LOTR) or alternate world (Harry Potter) fantasy we've seen in the past.

Interesting post, Virginia. I believe your closing observation - about GenXers identifying with their younger selves - actually gets very much to the crux of the matter. For me, what Stranger Things has exposed - at least in part - is the degree to which youth / teenage life was so heavily coded in film and TV of the 1980s, and that these codes remain in play today, thus functioning for both nostalgic adults and younger viewers alike. While social phenomena like rites-of-passage have always existed in human cultures, the modern concept of ‘adolescence’– as a category – is itself still relatively young. Though prior media ‘modellings’ of youth culture existed – e.g. Rebel Without A Cause, etc. – I’d suggest that the broader cultural understanding of teenage life that we still work with today coalesced in the audio-visual cultures of the 1980s. In my view, it was primarily in the mainstream films of the 1980s that the most prevalent and influential codes for this still emerging category of adolescence came into being. And, despite seismic cultural change in the intervening decades, those codes largely still remain intact. Digital culture has not so much altered how those codes work as enhanced and extended them. Nevertheless, I believe you’re entirely right: the identificatory structures in Stranger Things are more complex than they were in the older films that the show references. However, I think the codes that inform those structures remain largely the same. In a weird way, the nostalgia at work in Stranger Things is a nostalgia for something that has never faded from view. In some ways we never left the 1980s. It’s always there beneath the surface of our reality – just like the ‘upside-down’ alternative reality in Stranger Things. (Which might just be another way of saying there are a lot of stalled adolescents in the world.)

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Wolfgang and Padraic. I completely agree that the series hits a perfect stride for binge watching, and that pacing appeals greatly to Millennials and GenXers both (though Millennials are arguably more formatively practiced at it). And indeed, the relatively young category of adolescence, though begun in prior decades, firmly gelled in the 1980s around these media texts, and clearly continues to shape generations of adolescents after.

Virginia, Thank you for your post and for kicking off this week's discussion on Nostalgic Media. When I start to think of the role Nostalgia plays in contemporary media, television specifically, and Stranger Things in particular, the designed manifestation and application starts to feel quite produced (even as it works magic upon audiences and critics). In some of my previous analyses of this series, I play with the concept of period pieces (nostalgic artifacts) as the raw materials of a contemporary genre mixing process. Following this logic, I see connective tissue in how you bring in varying generational character (and audience) groupings as an extension of this formula. You also bring in some rich excerpts from the Duffer Brothers interviews. I would love to read the interview in full if you could add a hyperlink below. Just as the interview and your post reference Propp, I have sensed a great deal of Structuralist Theory underneath the surface of their story.

Thanks, Garret. I worked from the Variety interview with the Duffer Brothers in particular here, but also pieces in Slate and the WSJ. Links below: Enjoy!

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