by Tessa Keough
*This article contains light spoilers.*
As I press pause on my Stranger Things Spotify-curated playlist, I realize just how much the hit Netflix series has pervaded everyday life. Pop culture has been completely taken over by the past. It is seen in fashion, television, film, etc. But the show is more than just a pop culture event; it is a revolution. The performances of Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven, or “El”) and Noah Schnapp (Will Byers) brought me to tears multiple times. Every character’s storyline, and how they intertwine, is powerful and absolutely captivating for the 9 hours of Season 2. The children grapple with real issues of identity crises, post-traumatic stress disorder, and growing up while the world attempts to swallow them whole. It is interesting to see a child-driven storyline; but in reality, the focus on young children leads to some real-life consequences, where we assume a maturity and force the responsibility of adulthood on pre-teens.
The emotional maturity of the children is beyond that of middle schoolers in popular media. What else could be expected, though, of children losing their friends and their minds at the hands of reckless scientists and underworld monsters? Their suffering and tragedy bind them together more than any Dungeons and Dragons quest ever could. In Season 2, Will Byers attempts to return to a normal life, but the Upside Down continues to haunt him in an extremely pointed way. What strikes me is his friends’ ability for compassion and understanding. They recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in Will*, and carry him through his “episodes”, or rather, his visions of the Upside Down. As his condition gets worse and more confusing, at no point do any of the protagonists shut him down or turn him away. Even the newest addition to the adult cast, Sean Astin as Bob “The Brain” Newby, never tears Will down for his episodes, not how his mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) reacts to her son. Bob’s view on her atypical parenting style is never negative; he constantly supports the boy’s right to be heard and seen, despite that not being a parenting norm of the 80s. Bob ends up playing an instrumental role in Will’s life. In a time of “latchkey” kids left to their own devices, the romanticized 80s of Stranger Things still enraptures audiences.
Stranger Things is a dramatized vision of the 80s. While the children of Stranger Things were given a similar kind of freedom, they also had trusting adults that allowed them agency to make change. Real children of the 80s were given a lot of freedom, but at the price of being left without a parental voice. This meant growing up fast, gaining lots of independence, and fending for oneself. In Stranger Things, the parents and teenage siblings are tools to reach the children’s goals, rather than being scolding caregivers. The children are allowed to grow and have a fostering environment with people like Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbor). The series is so addictive not only because of its stunning cinematography and set design work, but its realistic depiction of childhood trauma.
While obsessing over the show is fun and largely innocent, this rockets the children into a spotlight they may not have asked for. The child actors are harassed; Sadie Sink (who plays Max Mayfield) was egged on to kiss her costar Caleb McLaughlin (Lucas Sinclair) for a scene even though she was uncomfortable, and did not like the extras and crew laughing and ogling at them; a 27 year-old model notably sexualized age fourteen Finn Wolfhard by saying to “hit [her] up in four years”; Millie Bobby Brown recently won “Sexiest Actress” at age thirteen**. We have created a real-life environment where these professional actors are seen as adults because of the severity of their roles, rather than as children acting well beyond their years. Despite being another excellent season of the series, it is crucial to keep in mind the consequences that can arise with children in a serious drama. It is up to the audience to keep things appropriate and separate the characters from the actors. Mara Wilson put it best in her opinion piece in Elle magazine by saying, “We—the public, the media—are all grown up. We just need to act like it.”
Overall, Stranger Things 2 was excellent. The story drives the plot from the first season forward without seeming unnecessary or unrealistic. The children are stunning performers, creating nuanced emotions while still remaining true to the stories and their selves. Eleven starts to discover who she is in the world, meeting her mother, and learning about the other children like her. She is depicted testing the waters to see where she “fits.” She eventually returns home to her friends, where she finds strength in being a protector. Meanwhile, Will takes us deeper underground, where the Upside Down has infected the earth, and is prepared to kill. The adults also support the plot progression and deliver great work of their own. For me, every episode was seamless, powerful, and evocative. When we look at the reactions towards Stranger Things 2, we must recognize our position as observers, and the power that gives us over these children’s lives.
*. PTSD was not well-known or much discussed, but was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III), which was published in 1980, and further explained in the DSM-III-R, published in 1987.
**. W magazine wrote an article titled “Why TV is Sexier Than Ever,” that included a list of thirteen actors and actresses they considered sexy, which included Millie Bobby Brown.