David K. Harbour, who plays Sheriff Hooper on the Netflix series Stranger Things, brought the house down when he accepted the Screen Actors’ Guild award for best television show a year ago.
He alluded to the 45th U.S. president in a fever pitch, speaking of “the violence of certain individuals and institutions.” Then he shouted: “Great acting can change the world!” The crowd of actors in the audience applauded wildly.
Likewise, the second season of Stranger Things ostentatiously invokes politics — without naming names.
This season’s antagonist is the Shadow Monster, a Lovecraftian concoction of fury, tendril and tornado. The Shadow Monster possesses Will, one of of the show’s six young protagonists, and connects him to a network of subterranean vines that overwhelm him with hateful images and urges.
The heart of the Shadow Monster, when it is finally revealed, is oddly hairy and incandescently orange.
With the didacticism of a kid’s show that teaches while it entertains, Stranger Things 2 even models an interpretation of the Shadow Monster for its audience. Another protagonist, Lucas, tells us to understand the Shadow Monster through “analogy,” and compares it to the Mind Flayer, a beast the boys know from the Dungeons & Dragons universe.
Another lead character, Dustin, explains further, with yet another analogy: “[The Mind Flayer] views other races like us as inferior to itself.” It’s like the Nazis “if the Nazis were from another dimension.”
Just as the boys use fiction and history to understand their real world monsters, so should we, the show suggests.
Clearly, Stranger Things 2 stands against prejudice and racism in principle, but what is its fuller political vision? This is a fair question to ask of one of the most popular shows on television, especially since the show’s creators invite a political reading.
The Lost Sister: “A very special episode”
The much talked about Episode Seven, “The Lost Sister,” provides some answers.
In this episode, Eleven, a young woman with telekinetic powers, visits Chicago. Audiences had a unique distaste for this anomalous instalment of the series which removes us from the main plot, familiar setting and beloved characters of Hawkins, Indiana.
Defending their creative choices, the Duffer brothers explained that “The Lost Sister” was important for Eleven’s character development but admitted that it was an “experiment.”
If it was an experiment, it’s another from the Duffers’ lab of 1980s revivalism. In this case, it’s “a very special episode.” Good or bad, very special episodes are memorable for their abandonment of familiar tone, theme and story for the sake of serious messages about alcoholism, parental abuse or — as in one “very special episode” of Punky Brewster – the dangers of climbing inside abandoned refrigerators. In Stranger Things 2, the “very special episode” happens to be about radical politics.
In Chicago, Eleven (or El as she is called), who is white, meets Kali, a young South Asian woman. Despite their differences, the two recognize each other as sisters since they both have supernatural powers and lived in the same lab where they were brutally experimented upon.
Kali is the leader of a diverse group of misfits who are guided by a desire for revenge. As Kali explains it, her gang murders and steals from people who have hurt them. They squat in an abandoned building and spend much of their onscreen time fleeing the police.
If you doubt that El, Kali and her group are a “rainbow coalition,” cover your head before you are hit on it: In the episode’s first 30 seconds, the word “rainbow” is uttered four times, the image of a rainbow flashed 10 times, interspersed with flashbacks to the young El and Kali in the lab.
A short history of rainbow coalitions
“The original Rainbow Coalition embodied the intersectionality of the critical issues of race, class, gender, anti-war, student, labor, and sexuality. It fused these various forms of identity politics into one group with one ideal form of identity — an identity that transcends differences and focuses on commonalities. The most common unifier was poverty.”
This diverse, class-based coalition was a political innovation considered especially dangerous by law enforcement. In 1969, Fred Hampton, who was 21 years old, was murdered by Chicago police while asleep at his home.
In 1984, the year Stranger Things 2 is set, rainbows were very much in the air, especially in Chicago.
Harold Washington had been recently elected the city’s first Black mayor and had installed a “Rainbow Cabinet.”
Jesse Jackson, in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, also drew on the support of the Rainbow Coalition. The phrase would become predominately associated with him. In a sign of the co-opting to come, Jackson even copyrighted the phrase.
By the time Jackson ran his second presidential campaign in 1988, his Rainbow Coalition had already moved somewhat to the centre.
A generation later, Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election victory was guided by a veteran of rainbow coalition campaigns, David Axelrod, who drew on rainbow coalition politics — even though in office, many of Obama’s economic policies turned out to be moderately conservative.
By 2016, the electorate proved less receptive to Hillary Clinton’s invocation of a rainbow coalition theme for her campaign, partly because she was not seen as progressive.
The rainbow coalition had lost its radical content as its rhetoric was co-opted by centrist politics. In turn, it became less convincing to the electorate. Stranger Things 2 replays this appropriation in its own rainbow coalition, incorrectly endorsing it as the way to win.
Centrism without race or class critiques
Kali teaches El to weaponize her Jedi-style, telekinetic rage, which Eleven will eventually use to defeat the Trumpian Shadow Monster. Kali even gives El a feminist makeover: A boxy-shouldered blazer and slicked-back hair.
But after learning Kali’s power and adopting her style, El rejects Kali herself, put off by her propensity to violence. She foils Kali’s attempt to kill their former prison guard, and soon returns to Hawkins to reunite with Sheriff Hooper.
It’s hard not to read this as the rejection of what the show considers the unreasonable violence of people of colour.
What’s more, by invoking the issue of policing, Stranger Things 2 alludes to Black Lives Matter, but manages only to repudiate that movement.
Kali tries to recruit El to her gang by criticizing El’s father figure, Sheriff Hooper. “Let me guess,” Kali says. “Your police man tries to stop you from using your gifts.” El nods, but ultimately chooses the side of law enforcement anyway.
Even as the Chicago police chase Kali and her friends, the police are shown to be essentially in the right. Kali’s gang always shoots first. Sheriff Hooper himself is gruff, but morally impeccable.
This uncomplicated validation of law enforcement, while common in popular culture, is disturbing given the violent fate of Fred Hampton, the man who first uttered the phrase “rainbow coalition.” His death at the hands of the police is exactly the kind of brutality that motivates Black Lives Matter today.
If we take its political analogies seriously, Stranger Things 2 advocates for a return to rainbow coalition politics — but the kind of coalition that has been emptied of its substantial race and class critiques.
A famously nostalgic show, Stranger Things 2 is nostalgic for 2008, a time before Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders. Like much of Hollywood, Stranger Things 2 aligns itself with a centrist liberalism that hopes for a return to politics as usual after Trump.
Meanwhile, the progressive left has a longer memory, recognizing that politics as usual was a problem before the Shadow Monster arrived. If there is to be a return, it should be to a grassroots more like the original rainbow coalition.