For nearly half of the 20th century, Cold War ideology permeated US popular culture and political discourse, disseminating propaganda celebrating American “goodness” and freedom, clearly contrasted against the purported “evil” of the USSR. Hollywood films, TV shows, and even popular music often rested on explicit and subtle celebrations of an idealized America, depicting the nation as the land of the free, often under threat of a real or symbolic monster invasion from without. However, in the later years of the Cold War, Americans bore witness to more complicated narratives, which sometimes suggested that the real enemy was, in fact, “right here,” either in the form of a terrifying government power (such as those scary hazmat dudes who tried to kidnap E.T.) or in a perverted, monstrous citizenry (like those creepy aliens masquerading as human in the show V). As national identity grew increasingly fractious and self-doubting toward the Cold War’s end, Americans began to ask themselves, “Are we the monster?”
In this Olio, we will examine these political and even existential dilemmas as presented in the lovingly nostalgic Stranger Things. We will examine the political message of the series, probing at what Eleven means when she claims herself the true monster, and we will explore the complex, and perhaps troubling, function of nostalgia at work in this masterful series. What, exactly, are we nostalgic for? There is more going on here, I think, than nostalgia for our youth and the stories we loved, and more too, I think, than simply the pleasure of being on the inside of an inside joke. By watching Stranger Things, we get to experience not simply a story, we get to experience ourselves experiencing our stories. We are watching ourselves watch, and it turns out, we were right all along. The government is bad, only kids know the truth, parents might love us but they have no idea that all of this is a lie, the cool kids are actually miserable, the outsiders will save the day, friendship is the highest moral good, and magic is real. But, still, we must ask, who is the monster?