***POTENTIAL MILD SPOILERS FOR STRANGER THINGS SEASON ONE AHEAD***
Nostalgia is a funny thing.
In Greek, it roughly translates to “homesickness.”
This would explain the feelings we experience when we find an old toy, flip through an album of sepia-toned Polaroids, pick up a vinyl record, or binge-watch a season of Stranger Things in less than 24 hours.
In the act of remembering, we experience a type of homesickness, a woebegone sense of longing for the beloved and familiar. While our memories can be positive and negative, nostalgia holds us in those idyllic moments with all its might. It give us glimpses of home and tastes of (more) carefree days.
We are nostalgic, because we can’t help but yearn for the past when our future seems so uncertain, unsafe, and unknown.
My generation gets a lot of flack for our “early-onset nostalgia,” but I think our critics often forget the context of the world in which we came of age. Some contributing factors included a huge economic recession, job and financial instability, and disenfranchisement with the crippling War in Iraq. It only makes sense that we would cling to relics from our past for comfort, especially from a time that, to us, epitomized financial and global security.
Yet we remember so selectively.
Nostalgia insists on the existence of the “good ole days,” a magical time in which “life was easier.”
But does it dare to ask for whom those days were good, and for whom life was easy?
Does it prompt us to wonder who was invisible in our lives then and shed some light on who is absent now?
Stranger Things tells a story with multiple perspectives through a retro, Stephens Spielburg- and King-esque lens. Three boys search for their missing best friend and discover a strange girl with superpowers, a la E.T. and Firestarter. A teenage girl is caught in a cliche example of a love triangle right out of a John Hughes flick. The boy’s mother and the local police chief work together to find this missing child only to uncover an even darker secret that could have set John Carpenter’s hair on end.
From the clothes the characters wear to the posters on their bedroom walls and the iconic scenes they mimic, the whole show is cut and tailored to pull our nostalgic heartstrings by reminding us of a past time. And yet, with its retro style comes a freshness our generation craves. It is a nostalgic tale, but it is also a tight, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat story. The acting and writing are phenomenal, and the themes of conquering evil are both comfortingly cliche and organically original.
Many of us need some nostalgic comfort in our country’s chaotic heydays. At the same time, we need to be cautious with it.
Nostalgia influences our memories, and it can deceive them. There’s always someone or something missing from our strolls down memory lane, and if we take the time to find out why they are gone, we can infuse our fond recollections with a strong dose of reality.
Let’s look at the 1980s themselves. While the decade saw significant economic gains, they came as a result of slashed funding to government assistance programs for the poor and marginalized. While the US kept the USSR at bay, we also sent millions of dollars to corrupt Central American leaders, who spent it on weapons to murder their citizens. In return, we slammed our nation’s borders shut on these refugees when they sought to escape the war zones we had enabled. While the white population believed the country had moved on from racial inequality, the race-fueled “War on Drugs” and prison industrial complex picked up steam.
But these stories are not evident on the surface of this 80s-inspired show.
There is only one person of color in the first season (Lucas, one of Will’s friends), and not only is he relegated to a supporting role, but he gets a lot of flack for being rather reasonable with his concerns about Eleven.
None of the characters are people whose parents are not from the US, or who came to the US as children, and there are no people with disabilities.
This is not to say these characters’ traits and the complete absence of others is completely intentional. But then again, very little about anything systemic is.
And as such, we often chalk it all up to the fact that “things were different back then.”
But here’s the truth, y’all: the people who are absent from this and other stories existed then. They were the heroes of their own stories. At the same time, their stories were unacknowledged, ignored, and even silenced by a majority of Americans.
It’s an absence that, if you’re privileged enough, you have to hunt down. But for the forgotten ones, it is visible and painful.
Nostalgia’s comfort and trickery is in the biblical text, too. After its devastating collapse, the psalmists celebrated Jerusalem in its glory as if it wasn’t also a place of greed, oppression, and corruption. The prophetic writers were the ones reminding the people of both their triumphant past and the reasons for their tragic downfall.
King David is idealized as the perfect king, and he was a rapist who feuded with his own son to the point of death. Again, a prophet had to bring the man to his senses so he could see the error of his ways.
The writers of the conquest narratives talk about God’s blessing of their successful missions to destroy the Canaanites, but we never hear the Canaanites’ perspective. Unfortunately, they did not receive any prophets, and their stories of pain and loss went unheard.
This is not to say pursuing feelings of nostalgia is a corrupt quest. It is comforting and necessary to remember where we’ve been and who we are, and we should be thankful when we can do so with joy and thankfulness in our hearts.
But it can also blind us. It can hold us back and keep us apathetic. It can make us dwell on what was instead of moving forward into what could be, and it can make us focus on a false narrative instead of digging deeper into the dark Upside Down beneath its facade.
We can allow nostalgia to comfort us and remove us from our own reality. Doing so can encourage us to play again, and when we remember how to play, we can change the world. After all, the kids in Stranger Things saved the world because of the wisdom they accumulated while playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading X-Men comics, and watching Star Wars. They were victorious, because they knew the value of play and imagination. Nostalgia can help us recover those traits after we bury them under adulthood’s reason and seriousness.
So go ahead and be nostalgic when you watch Stranger Things, and be comforted and emboldened by it. It’s only natural in a world like this.
And also remember to be honest. Remember that the privilege to look back on a time with nostalgia often comes at the price of someone else’s comfort, and you did nothing to earn it, nor did they.
And remember to do what you can to make this a world in which every person can have a home for which to be homesick as we journey through life.