Stranger Things and the Demogorgon of Adolescence

Netflix's breakout hit of the summer, Stranger Things, triumphs as a composite of the themes and stories we're drawn to: government conspiracy, supernatural occurrences, high school drama, the power of friendship. But what undeniably lies at the center of this show is a depiction of growing up. With main characters almost all either in their preteens or their late teens, Stranger Things focuses on youth in metamorphosis, and explores coming of age as deeply and intensely as it explores the conspiracy at the forefront of the show.

The storyline has two main groups of teenagers: Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, the group of middle school boys who befriend the powerful Eleven, and the high school kids: Nancy, Barbara, Steve, Jonathan, and Steve's gross friends, Tommy and Carol. As an unknowable monster lurks in the shadows, all the kids take part in the archetypal teen moments: first crushes, fights with friends, fights with rivals, blossoming romance, sex, drinking, rejection, jealousy, perceived betrayal. It's no coincidence that as the unbridled teenage hormones run wild, a bloodthirsty monster does too.

Stranger Things illuminates the monstrosity that perhaps accompanies coming into one's sexuality. As Mike's crush on Eleven develops, tensions between the group of boys grow. At first, Lucas merely pokes fun at Mike for the feelings about Eleven he adamantly denies having. But the fun becomes more violent as Lucas feels that Mike's feelings for Eleven are blinding him to her deceit. The two attack each other, only to be pulled apart by Eleven who knocks Lucas unconscious with her powers. Eleven, horrified by her actions, runs away and Mike and Lucas part ways furiously. All the while, this violence and jealousy spawned from budding sexuality is juxtaposed against the boys' hunt to destroy the Demogorgon. While they're worried about being destroyed by this monster, the building power of their sexuality threatens to tear them apart first.

Violence is even more prominent in the lives and relationships of the older teens. While Nancy leaves Barb behind to lose her virginity, Barb, who is not portrayed as sexually active, becomes the first character in the show to die at the hands (talons? claws? fleshy digits?) of the Demogorgon. In this case, a lack of sexuality also results in violence-- it seems as though you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Nancy is sexually active, and she still must risk her life to fend off the monster as well. But some of the violence is not paranormal, and frighteningly every day. When Steve and his friends assume that Nancy has had an affair with Jonathan, some pretty ugly slut-shaming ensues. A terrible example of emotional violence, this attack segues into a physical fight between Jonathan and Steve. Although sex is not the only motivator (Steve provokes Jonathan with nasty comments about his family), sexuality and jealousy are at the heart of the skirmish.

It's as though in coming of age these teenagers are sucked into another alternate reality: it's a lot like the rest of life, but colder, and more confusing: trying to figure out how to manage new romantic relationships while also nurturing your old friendships; fighting jealousy; denying feelings. All the while, some violent entity stalks you, threatening to push you over the edge. The demogorgon of adolescence-- sexuality-- threatens to destroy the social order these friends have formed. While the moral of the show is to stick together, as the boys encourage each other to do and which allows them to survive in the end, their emerging sexuality places major stress on their ability to do so.

Sex is not bad, or evil, or life-destroying. But in Stranger Things, teenage sexuality is inherently linked with violence. Whenever teenagers become confused or angry or jealous about some perceived or actual sexual encounter, emotional or physical violence breaks out.

Carl Jung writes that "For most people it is the demands of life which harshly put an end to the dream of childhood... Very often it is the disturbance of psychic equilibrium caused by the sexual instinct..." (Jung, "Stages of Life"). The teenagers in this show do have a very pressing "demand of life": a missing friend and a lurking monster. But there's also the sexual instinct that distinctly pulls them out of childhood and into the parallel adolescent world. Stranger Things is a coming of age story. But it's one that takes coming of age to the extreme. Juxtaposing a life threatening conspiracy with the awakening of sexuality makes the violence that the teenagers themselves perpetuate even more recognizable. Stranger Things is mostly a coming of age story in which maybe the strangest thing is sexual desire.

text: penny mack
visual: stranger things
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