Spoiler alert: if you liked Stranger Things, Netflix’s most recent salvo in the battle to keep you inside forever, then you might be an imperialist pig. Oh, and Barb’s dead, but that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about.
Right now, you’re probably sitting there quizzically, wondering where in the Duffer Brothers’ huge hit all of this colonial baggage exists, and you’re right to be confused. You’re not supposed to read the subtext of the series, that’s by design. The entire purpose of propaganda is to make you feel something without ever really questioning it, so that’s why you walked away from the harrowing tale of a tortured super kid and some missing doofus named Will thinking that the good guys had won. But, let me assure you, you are wrong. Papa and his henchmen may have died (spoiler alert?), but the damage was already done. The imperialists won.
Let’s begin with Eleven, that cute little girl with a serious body count on her conscience. We can all agree that those maniacs at the Hawkins Lab were using her as a weapon. At first, she proved an extremely effective spying device, as evidenced by her dunk tank abilities to traverse the globe and eavesdrop on KGB gossip. Like all good imperialists, Dr. Brenner and his cronies were using their advanced technology and unlimited resources to interfere in affairs beyond their borders. Just like the overthrow of Allende in Chile or the Iran-Contra affair, this was a case of the good ol’ US of A trying to weaponize technology and overthrow governments from the shadows.
I know what you’re probably thinking right now. You’re sitting there, wearing your fancy petticoat, saying “well yeah, he’s right, but that doesn’t prove anything. Those guys are pretty clearly the bad guys, so if anything Stranger Things is anti-imperialist.” Not so fast. Dr. Brenner and Co. may be the conniving government agents in this story, but we’re all willing participants in this jingoistic game of plunder. Case in point, the Demogorgon.
Now, we don’t know much about the Demogorgon, the adorable faceless monster that stalks the Upside-Down, but I think it’s safe to make some assumptions. Chiefly, that it is essentially an animal living like animals do. It is drawn to blood, and as we saw in the scene with the bloodied deer, it’s simply a predator trying to find prey. Like a wolf or a shark or a high flyin’ patriotic Bald Eagle, the monster is just trying to live its life. In fact, it seems like it never bothered anybody outside of the Upside-Down before Dr. Brenner and his cavalry of American Conquistadors decided to invade its native land. Then, simply because the Demogorgon continues adhering to its biological imperative as a predator, we are made to believe that it is the monster? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
After much cajoling and probably a whole lot of swimming lessons, Dr. Brenner, that creepy fucking Dr. Mengele understudy, finally succeeds in getting Eleven to rip a hole in the fabric of space-time, thus opening the gate to the Upside-Down (related: there is no science trope more clichéd than “ripping a hole in the fabric of space-time,” and I, for one, love it). But, in an extraordinarily unsurprising development, the monster seems to be uncontrollable, leaving the Hawkins lab cabal with no choice but to kill it. If we boil that tale down to its most basic thematic elements, it becomes a story that should be familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of history: a colonizing power busts into an untouched land looking for resources — in this case the power that this monster might hold — but when it becomes clear that the native population will not tolerate serfdom without a fight, there is only one feasible option: destruction. Truly, the Demogorgon is the victim in all of this.
Have you started sympathizing with the monster yet? Imagine if you were just minding your own business, sucking bone marrow out of any dead thing that comes your way, when, without warning, a force of highly trained and violent invaders show up. Then, when it becomes clear that you’re not going to accommodate their desires to build craft beer bars and artisan furniture shops wherever they want, they try to kill you. Pretty fucked up, right?
Now, let’s get to the citizens of Hawkins, the people who think they’re doing the right thing. I harbor no ill will toward Hopper, Dustin, Nancy, or even douchey Steve because they’ve all been led to believe that they are morally superior to the monster by a clandestine government hellbent on destroying it. Considering the cherrypicked version of the facts that they’ve been presented, you really can’t blame them. However, the narrative presented to the townspeople — and the viewers — must be more closely scrutinized. Yes, the Demogorgon did take Will Byers and some other no-name characters (read: Barb), but it was a direct result of the foolhardy interventionism that led American forces into the Upside-Down in the first place. Will was just the false pretense that the government needed — think of him as the USS Maine with a bowl cut — to push the hearts and minds of the public into the pro-war camp. With something as emotional as Will’s disappearance in front of them, it didn’t take much effort for the government to convince those townsfolk involved that the Demogorgon is the aggressor, fully ignoring the government’s culpability in putting the people of Hawkins in danger in the first place. This narrative hegemony even succeeds in turning the youth of Hawkins into military vessels, as seen through Nancy and Jonathan going full Rambo and Mike, Lukas, and Dustin taking up arms against the Demogorgon. By the end of the series we see a previously peaceful town become a party to murder, chaos, and fear all because of the toxic environment created by the surreptitious imperialists in charge.
And that is why cheering for the destruction of the Demogorgon makes you an imperialist, or at the very least, an imperialist sympathizer. I don’t disagree that rescuing Will was a good thing, but it is a micro-good in the face of a macro-evil. The Hawkins Lab crew invaded the Upside-Down, and when it was determined that the Demogorgon was of no use, it became a threat and had to be destroyed. While I’m not excusing the near-fatal abduction of Will, it must be noted that the entire situation would have been avoided if the imperialist hunger of the West was not on full display. So, next time you watch Stranger Things and feel some sort of pseudo-patriotic pride when Eleven vaporizes the monster, just remember this: you’re supporting an imperialist ethos that seeks to militarize America’s youth, create an atmosphere of hate and terror for its townsfolk, and destroy any person or animal deemed unworthy of living on God’s green earth. And that, dear reader, is more unforgivable than any of Barb’s ugly-ass sweaters.