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Stranger Things: The Villains in Authority} ?>
While many nerds were losing their collective minds over whether or not Suicide Squad would be any good, Stranger Things slipped in and caught people off guard with its interesting cast of lesser known child actors, 80s nostalgia, and a contemporary view on conspiracy and power. One of the reason Stranger Things resonates with contemporary audiences is because the real villain of the show is not the unnamed monster from the Upside Down, but the nefarious government officials who run the Hawkins Laboratory, conducting the secret experiments that release the Upside Down monster into our world, and indiscriminately eliminating innocent people to prevent those secrets from getting out. Sure, the monster is scary and dangerous… but not as dangerous as the people, hidden in plain sight, whose unchecked authority and power make them untouchable.
Most of the accolades for Stranger Things have focused on the show’s recreation of the look and tone of the 80s. The show is a loving homage to films like E.T., Stand By Me, and Firestarter. In fact, Wil Wheaton, former child actor and ubernerd, has declared that Stranger Things might be this generation’s Stand By Me. And while Stranger Things captures the look and feel of those films, its depiction of clandestine agents and corrupt government officials is more a product of our 21st century mindset.
The films that inspired Stranger Things rarely depict authority as dangerous or malevolent. In E.T., when the government takes the alien for testing and observation, they do so with the best intentions based on what they know. Though their methods seem barbaric, particularly to the children, the government officials are actually trying to understand an alien creature that, for all they know, could be dangerous. At best, the authorities are reactionary and unimaginative. Similarly, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the government crates the Ark of the Covenant, presumably “just to be safe,” rather than allowing it to be experimented on.
More recently, following a slew of stories about government corruption and cover ups, the plot device of the secret government conspiracy has become a standard, oft-used trope in television, films, and novels, playing on a growing distrust—productions like the X-Files, Castle, Firefly, The Black List, and The Bourne Identity fall within this category. Sometimes, it’s a rouge division within the government; other times, the whole system is in on the conspiracy. But the overwhelming message these narratives reinforce is that we cannot, should not, trust people in authority—they poison our water, they knowingly give us cancer, they conspire to kill innocent people, they’re keeping low-cost energy sources secret, they don’t care about us.
And these have become very real fears for many, and no longer just fringe conspiracy nuts. It has become more commonly accepted by regular citizens that our governments, our elected officials, and our police officers are actively undermining our freedom for their own purposes. Just listen to the political rhetoric being used in the current American election. My point here is not whether such conspiracies exist; my point is the voracity of such a belief.
Clothed in beige 80s pastiche, Stranger Things plays on our contemporary fear and distrust of authority, blending narratives of lost innocence with sinister, controlling people. Unlike Stand By Me, where the young protagonists experience a loss of innocence through their encounter with mortality and learn of the very real dangers of adulthood, in Stranger Things the lessons are a little different. There is no real resolution to the plot of the Hawkins Laboratory. Dr. Martin Brenner, apparently the chief researcher and principle experimenter on El, dies, but there’s no sense of who in the government knows about these tests or how far the conspiracy goes. It’s as unsettling as the realization in the show’s penultimate scene that Will Byers, after returning safely home, maintains some connection to the nightmarish Upside Down.
So what’s the take away from these sorts of narratives? For me, it’s the recognition of the “evil government” as a popular trope and connections to the ways this trope is employed in the real world. Yes, of course there are reasons to question leaders and hold figures of authority accountable. Yes, there have been abuses of power for which justice is needed. But to vilify governments as “corrupt” undermines issues of privilege and plays on people’s baser fears. Why work to change something for the better if you don’t think you can make difference? As we’ve seen (and continue to see), the rhetoric of malevolent authority is used to manipulate people in political campaigns and opinion pieces. We’re told to fear those in positions of authority—they are not only making our lives worse, they are working against the very citizens they are supposed to protect—but never to question who is telling us to be afraid or why they’re playing on our fears.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.
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