Of Monsters and Men

(Spoilers for Season Three of Stranger Things)

In these days of late capitalism, Halloween has largely been emptied of its original significance, its marking of the tenuous barrier between this world and the world of the dead, of ghosts and monsters. But as the candy and costumes and decorative gourds proliferate, it seems more than ever—three years since the Trump era was ushered in as a belated Halloween trick—that we’ve been living in an unending season of horrors, and the monsters seem to be everywhere: mass shooters, Russian bots and right-wing disinformation campaigns, and an Undead Mayor haunting our news shows and butt-dialing reporters.

Among the popular costume ideas of the past few years has been the characters on the show Stranger Things, the third season of which dropped this summer— appropriately enough for a show that is sort of about national terrors — on the Fourth of July. Stranger Things doesn’t directly address the crises of today: it’s set in small-town Indiana during the 1980s. But I’d argue that it’s a show worth returning to, not merely because it is Halloween season but because it the show is a surprisingly effective account of what haunts us — and what might heal us — today.

If your mind is too full of our current national dramas of Ukraine and impeachment and emoluments clauses to remember the plot of a television show from several months ago, let me bring you up to speed. Stranger Things tells the Cold War story of a small town where government researchers, aiming to develop a new weapon, have opened up a connection to a horrific supernatural world: the Upside Down. The show spent the first two seasons telling the story of a group of nerdy and sweet D&D-obsessed tween boys who worked to uncover the secret of what was happening after two dramatic events: the disappearance of one of their friends, and the appearance of a girl with strange powers and the number “11” tattooed on her arm. The lessons of the first two seasons will be familiar to any reader of American literature: first, it takes a team to beat a monster (and it’s awesome if your team includes Gen X’s it-girl Winona Ryder, playing a tenacious and desperate mother looking for the truth behind her son’s disappearance); and second, that your triumphant victory over the evil alien outsider will only be partial if the monster is actually inside you. A lot of the pleasure of the show comes from the brilliant way the characters capture the full-hearted awkwardness of adolescence: puberty is less horrifying to our central characters (you can read a full-rundown here) than the monsters of the underworld – but just barely.

And that’s the reason I can’t shake the show, months after season three dropped. The show is about the onset of puberty and at the same time it’s about political and global horrors. In the 1980s, “toxic masculinity” wasn’t really a phrase, but the show is utterly about the ways forms of masculinity can poison both the home and the nation.

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Season Three, the one I’m going to talk about, initially seemed less promising than the first two. In the opening episode I was worried the show had jumped the shark. Set against the rise of mall culture that would permanently destabilize small-town Midwest retail economies, in Season 3 we watch yet another attempt by Cold Warriors (this time Russians) to open a door to the upside down. That’s right, Russians in Hawkins, IN. That seemed improbable.

Except is it? As I binge-watched the season, the show become urgently, unexpectedly real to me, and not just because in 2019, the Cold War doesn’t seem to have actually ended. Perhaps it was the finale’s perfect, heart-racing scene in which a station-wagonload of our heroes are chased by the Mind Flayer — the show’s perennial monster — to “The NeverEnding Story” sung over a CB radio by Dustin and his girlfriend. Or that Eleven uses her powers to spy on Mike and the other boys, only to find out that, when boys are left alone, they make a lot of fart jokes. Above all, I think, it’s that it became crystal clear to me that the Upside Down—where the Mind Flayer lives and which Eleven can access through her mind and a radio signal—is the internet, with its power to circulate fart jokes and mash-ups, cat memes and toxic prejudices.

This season the Mind Flayer puts together a zombie army of Hawkins citizens that sort of glop off and then get reabsorbed into a monstrous body with six phallic legs that can gruesomely pierce bodies. The first to be taken is Max’s abusive stepbrother, Billy. Sporting a blonde, curly mullet, and looking particularly 1980s metal-hot (if this is your thing), Billy is vile. When he and Max are introduced in Season 2, it came as a smart and unsettling reminder that not all threats are from another world. Domestic abuse still exists; men can be monsters without being literal monsters. Of course, this point is upended in Season 3 when Billy is possessed by the Mind Flayer. That said, I cannot think of a more powerful representation of the radicalization of angry young white men like Billy, primed to be resentful of the world and needing only a shove in the direction of men’s rights and white supremacy.

The writers of Season 3 make explicit the role of misogyny in building this zombie army. The first person that Billy kidnaps to sacrifice to the Mind Flayer is his perky co-worker at the pool, Heather. A scene of frightening, unmistakable rape, its visuals recur in the finale, when Billy captures our heroine Eleven (who is now a young adolescent in the full flush of first love, with Mike, and a new friendship with Max, solidified by mall shopping and teen magazines). The camera closes in on Eleven’s face from the side, with Billy’s hovering over hers. He whispers, “Don’t be afraid, it will be over soon. Just try and stay very still.” The framing refuses to show us his point of view, as so many rape scenes do in Hollywood. We care, above all, for El, for her new love and new friendship and new life with her adoptive father, Hopper, all of which could be emotionally destroyed in this moment.

When all seems to be lost, Eleven fights back, and she does so in a way that takes part in a long and storied tradition in American literature and culture: by calling up a memory of Billy’s mother. El shows him a vision of his young self, surfing in California with his mother (an emblem of the freedom and hippie love of the 1970s), who laughs, congratulates him, and encourages him to catch another wave.

Had she known what surfing was, mid-nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe could easily have written this scene. Her 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely about the transformative political effects of embracing rather than rejecting all that is stereotypically feminine and maternal: care, kindness, sympathy, gentleness. This is the heart of sentimentalism. Feeling the power of a mother’s love that Stowe immortalized, Billy tears himself away from the Mind Flayer’s sway and martyrs himself (his arms out, as in a crucifixion) so that El can escape.

Billy is not the only man in the show to reject forms of toxic masculinity so prevalent in our culture. Earlier in the season, Joyce Byers had encouraged Hopper, our erstwhile Sheriff hero, to have a “talk” with Eleven about her budding romance with Mike. In the speech, Hopper begins by saying he wants to build “an environment where we all feel comfortable, trusted, and open to sharing our feelings,” and he gets stuck on that word – feelings. “Feelings – Jesus, the truth is, for so long I had forgotten what those even were. I’ve been stuck in one place. In a cave, in a deep dark cave,” and then El came into his life and he “started to feel happy.” Hopper never gives the speech, though. He chickens out and threatens Mike instead. Yet we still hear his planned “heart to heart” as a voice over as we watch the Byers family pack up and leave Hawkins, with El as a part of their newly expanded family (side note: thank you! Why doesn’t everyone leave this town?). The letter is alive and powerful – and, above all, powerfully sentimental. (Reader, I cried through the whole ending).

I watched the season finale after the devastating mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, my despair laced with a feeling of desperate powerlessness. What do we do about our current political moment, in which online technology fuels the radicalization of young people– especially of teen boys – into white supremacy? That there is easy access to military-grade guns and a culture reinforcing the darkest aspects of toxic masculinity: its insistence that if you have feelings, you’re a “snowflake”; that feminists and social justice activists are the true villains; that to care for others—gently, kindly, generously—is a sign of weakness instead of towering strength. For young white men going through the stew of new vulnerabilities that define adolescence, incel chat boards and 8chan white supremacist threads tell them it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of immigrants, or feminists, or Black Lives Matter activists. Gamergate—which culminated in the real-world harassment of women in the gaming industry—set the script. We are reaping the whirlwind for not listening to the black feminists and women in tech who tried to warn us.

The mall gets literally destroyed in Hawkins as it did, economically, in our world, but the virtual “Upside Down” lives on, in our Twitter and Instagram feeds, on Reddit and 8chan. We’re all living in our own Hawkins, and no matter where we go, we are stuck with each other, and increasingly it seems, that stuckness manifests as an angry outrage cycle, where everyone tells everyone else “fuck your feelings” and that “facts don’t care about feelings.” And while no one medium—novels, tv, film, social media—“brainwashes” people, it does shape the stories we tell ourselves, about our own emotions and other people’s, about how we all fit into a larger society. That’s why the stakes are so high. That’s why, for instance, Warner Brothers dropping Joker into our current media and political landscape is scaring so many people, and not just the family and friends of the victims of the Aurora mass shooting in 2012 (in which James Eagan Holmes shot up an audience watching The Dark Knight Rises).

There is now a raging online controversy over whether or not Joker feeds into the radicalization fantasies of incels and white supremacists. The debate is a master class in the now-clichéd script of online controversy: one side claims the movie incites violence or that we don’t need any more depictions of white men’s woes and aggressions, thank you very much; the other rejects the old canard that movies (or video games, or Marilyn Manson, whatever) directly incite violent behavior, and, of course, Free speech! USA! Todd Phillips, the movie’s director, and Warner Brothers both insist that the film is not meant to celebrate the Joker. It reveals, they claim, the psychological roots of his violence. Phillips goes further: he rejects that Joker could possibly inspire its audience to commit acts of violence. Movies don’t “mold” society, he says, they reflect it.

Scrolling through this predictable litany of accusations and defenses, I was struck by an aspect of Phillips’s reasoning that seemed so self-evident it doesn’t even play a role in the debate. Phillips essentially rests the entirety of his defense of the film on aesthetics. As he told The Wrap, “I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’” So, what is a real movie? Joker hearkens back to the gritty realism of 1970s and early 1980s films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and its setting evokes these movies (as does the casting of Robert De Niro as the late-night host). “Why [the violence] might affect you,” Phillips explains, is that “we tried to paint it with as realistic brush as possible so when it comes it can feel like a punch in the stomach.” Setting aside the point that Phillips does not get to determine how movies are received in our world of endlessly recirculated clips and memes, or the strangely false assumption that painting violence realistically is somehow off-putting to everyone in his audience, what strikes me most is that his defense boils down to a popular assumption about realism, one that is pervasive in the anti-hero narratives of the last twenty years. Realism is violence. Realism is dark. Realism is telling you the truth of what is bad in the world. Realism is “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

But what else is real? It’s not the monsters alone that pushes Stranger Things out of the category of realism for most viewers. It’s also the sentiment. American popular culture insists on a strict separation of sentimentalism from realism. Getting shot in the head is real. Being tortured by a madman in a clown mask, it seems, is real. But feeling compassion, falling in love, helping a friend move, aren’t?

***

This question recalls for me the emotionally raw and powerful—and, yes, sentimental—speech by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, when she called to the “young men, and increasingly some of the young women in this country, that are falling into the grips of white supremacy, that find themselves getting radicalized in a funnel of vitriol” to “come back, because there is a mother waiting for you. I know it. I know there’s a teacher waiting for you, saying, what happened to my kid? What happened to my friend? And we will always be here and hold space for you to come back. We will love you back.”

Like the writers of Stranger Things, AOC calls those “in the cave” back from the upside down, back to community, back to a place where love is not an emotion to be scoffed at, to be derided as unreal or dismissed as worthless. “We will love you back from the brink,” she says. Hers is not a narrative of the Joker’s twisted emotions and excessive violence, but about the lives of all of those around him. Those narratives and those feelings are also real.

Whether we feel we have it or not, we all know the place of return that AOC invokes, that Stranger Things represents in its finale. We call it home. Home isn’t a place; it’s a sentiment. Can love—a mother’s love, a teacher’s love, a friend or partner’s love—reclaim the army of radicalized young white men? I don’t know. But I would pit Stranger Things against Joker any day. Season 3 of Stranger Things may have begun in a way that seemed ludicrous (again, Russians in Hawkins!) but the finale is about how to build spaces of love and acceptance, families and friendships—how to strengthen communal and civic bonds rather than shoot everyone up in a nihilistic rage. Maybe the reason I sat fixed in front of the screen, watching Stranger Things like it was a life-saving medicine, is because the show was a long-form, narrative version of AOC telling me that it’s not too late. If there is a way back from the brink for Billy and Hopper, maybe there is one for us too.

–Justine Murison, #TeamJoyce