Stranger Things: The Eternal Whiteness of the Pop Culture Mind

South Park has Token, and Stranger Things has Lucas Sinclair.

Having come (very) late to Stranger Things, this was one of my first thoughts when Lucas sets off on his own to find the gate (S1E6).

Since Stranger Things is a pop culture referential series, my experience includes immediately thinking of WandaVision (also referential and driven by pastiche) and how Stranger Things includes more than a passing debt to superhero narratives, along with gaming culture as well as the broader 1980s TV and movie references.

I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s, but the love affair Stranger Things has for the 1980s speaks to vivid elements of my young adulthood spent navigating marriage, fostering a career, and fathering my only child in 1989.

The power of this series and the enduring elements of pop culture in the U.S. have been confirmed for me as I continue to make asynchronous connections (Stranger Things as the child of The X-Files and Mayor of Easttown).

Even though I haven’t watched the show until mid-2021 (I just began Season 2), I do have a good deal of fringe knowledge about the series and essential spoiler knowledge that likely dulls some of the tension created in the show when watched in real time.

I know, for example, certain characters persist even when they are put in serious danger in the first season. In S1E6 mentioned above, whether the show’s creators intended this or not, having a lone Black character placed in danger triggers one of the worst aspects of pop culture, linked to Star Trek (redshirt characters) and the use of “throw-away” characters that are too often Black and other racial minorities.

Lucas isn’t sacrificed, however (Barbara isn’t so lucky).

And like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things represents a much larger problem in the U.S. — the eternal whiteness of the pop culture mind.

Also like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things has a white people gaze that is strongly linked to white people dysfunction and the ever-creeping danger surrounding children (mostly white).

Eleven is remarkably frail (the camera work shifting from her intense face to her full-bodied spindly self is excellent), and fantastically powerful (at great expense to herself).

But the white problem in Stranger Things (Indiana) also sits beside the superhero genre obsession with white Middle America (see also the whiteness of South Park in Colorado and Mare in Pennsylvania).

Superhero narratives in the world of comic books are grounded in (and recursively obsessed with) origin stories, and the origin story of the superhero narrative serves an important purpose as I navigate Stranger Things.

Michael Chabon beautifully fictionalizes who and how superhero comics came to be in his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was a comic book collector throughout my teen years, the 1970s, and although the rise of the MCU is relatively recent, I have always felt comic book narratives have been incredibly important contributors to and reflective of pop culture in the U.S.

Those original creators, as Chabon dramatizes, were often Jewish and/or immigrants (Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel [Superman], Jack Kirby and Stan Lee [Marvel], Joe Simon [with Kirby, Captain America], and Bob Kane [Batman], for example).

These origins are steeped in a singular American Dream by men of aspirational backgrounds, and they seem to have chosen white Middle America as their only template; just think of Superman, an alien expelled from his home planet and landing in the Great Farm Land (Smallville) to be raised by an earnest working class white couple.

Kurt Vonnegut — a pop culture icon referenced in Stranger Things — writes on the first page of Mother Night:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

MOTHER NIGHT, KURT VONNEGUT

I think Vonnegut has a point not only for anyone (especially children and teens) existing in the so-called “real world,” but especially for those imagined worlds, the ones that seem struck in time and place — and race.

The many powerful themes of Stranger Things driven by the stellar acting must not be reduced to the simplistic “universal” praise — although childhood and the dangers of being a child or teen are shared among viewers regardless of race, etc.

Nancy Wheeler, for example, is yet another spindly white girl/young woman (like Eleven) who directly personifies Vonnegut’s warning; Jonathan Byers confronts her about pretending to be someone she isn’t in Season 1.

Her experiences are valid, and even compelling — although they pale beside Eleven’s.

Ultimately, I am left uncomfortable that Stranger Things has fallen into the well-worn rut (from Superman to Mare of Easttown) because too many people continue to believe the viewing public has empathy primarily for the frailty of whiteness.

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P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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