When “Freaks” Become Stars: How Stranger Things Subverts Tropes to Defend Disabled Outcasts
People already have tattoos from Stranger Things, though the Netflix sci-fi thriller only premiered this summer. The characters most tattooed are Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Gaten and Millie are a little surprised by the tattoos and the devotion. He’s fourteen; she’s twelve. They didn’t live through the suburban eighties as the outsiders they so masterfully portrayed. So at the risk of Gen-Xplaining, let me tell you why Stranger Things is such a hit and what it was like to grow up with a disability in that upside-down decade.
Stranger Things is jam-packed with 80s tropes. However, there is so much more going on than just paying homage to Reagan-era suburbia movies. Stranger Things isn’t about the magic of childhood; it’s about realistically surviving childhood when you’re different. It’s about fighting back when authorities lie to you and you are taken to The Upside Down, the terrifying dimension under the surface that has a flesh-consuming monster.
I grew up in the golden age of kid movies. I saw ET, Gremlins, Back to the Future, Labyrinth and The Goonies in the movie theater. Kids like me were always having grand adventures. At least, they were mostly like me. They were all suburban white kids. Sometimes they had minority friends. Back then we were told that we were all the same; it didn’t matter if you were a minority or not. If you lived in the suburbs in the 80s you could be anything you wanted. You just had to work hard and fit in, so why would it matter how kids looked in movies?
If I worked really hard I would be a “regular kid.” It didn’t matter that my parents were divorced, a rarity for kids in my town. It didn’t matter that I was a bigger rarity. I was “handicapped” with Cerebral Palsy. I would have five surgeries before fifteen. Not surprisingly, what I really wanted was the magical escape childhood movies promised.
I loved the trope of the magical child/teen. I read Stephen King. I watched every Twilight Zone/Outer Limits episode. These kids (often girls) had someone to be angry at, someone who usually did experiments to make them the freaks they were. I loved it, even though the girl usually died or became crazy or evil. I would often rewrite movies and books in my head and change them so that the freak girl was the star. She didn’t die. She won and she ended up with the boy and talked more.
By the time I was the age of the kids in Stranger Things, my best friend had ditched me to become a cheerleader. She was still in the public school down the street, which I had to leave because there was a bully who would make the bullies in Stranger Things blush. It went on for years. The school knew and did nothing. When things began to escalate and the threats became unsafe, I didn’t know how to tell people. I was eleven years old. I felt like a freak.
In Stranger Things, Eleven is that freak-girl. When I was young, there might have been parts of Eleven’s story I’d rewrite. I would’ve made it so she didn’t . Now that I’m grown up I wouldn’t change anything about Eleven. The Duffer brothers took the common “magical child” trope and made her what I wanted to be when I was eleven. Eleven is a powerful girl that found friends. She was brave because of, and in spite of, all the horrible things that were done to her. She:
- Fights back more than once. It isn’t saved up for a climax twist.
- Learns how to be friends with the whole group not just the boy she has a crush on.
- Wears the dress and wig to avoid capture, not to make the boy like her. He already likes her. She desires the dress and wig because she identifies as a female and that has been taken from her.
When I got chicken pox and watched The Goonies everyday. I also cried a lot. Why? I was in a new school. Surely, if I just tried hard enough I’d fit in here. I didn’t need pirate treasure, but I wanted to belong somewhere. The teachers would yell at my one friend in front of everyone because she was “Asian and not good at math.” (Seriously.) She was the only Asian student. People said we acted “too weird.” We’d often scheme to fix our nerdiness. Maybe we should make up boyfriends or buy the right hair products. These were my ideas. I wanted to not be a nerd. I bought into the movie fantasy of the geek-girl transcended. Boys transcended via physical and sexual aggression; girls changed their appearance and did micro-aggressions.
I’m not surprised when some white male geeks freak out when a woman or a nonwhite person replaces their cool outsider trope. They saw Anthony Michael Hall sleep with a cheerleader when she was blackout drunk and then she fell in love with him, along with many more examples. They were told they could bully their way through being a nerd. I’m not saying most of them bought it or took it that far. I’m saying some people cling to the idea that the Ghostbusters have to look just like them because otherwise, the fantasy that they can transcend being a loser is ruined.
Chunk from The Goonies is an example of the trope that can’t transcend nerdiness: The Nerd of the Nerds, often a chubby boy. He was the comic relief. His own friends bullied him; it was funny. He feared for his life; it was funny. He was emotional and often messed things up for the whole group. No one wanted to be Chunk. We wanted to laugh at him. Even if you were a fat kid he wasn’t you. You identified with Mikey. You had to.
Yes, it was cool to be a Goonie as long as you shit on your friends who were really nerds. It is no wonder that there is a hashtag and Twitter account to “protect” Gaten Matarazzo. Not only is he a kid playing this kicked-around trope, he also has a disability.
ET put together a clip of Gaten matter-of-factly speaking on his disability, cleidocranial dysplasia, to raise awareness. They showed tweets to Gaten: “He’s an angel,” and “I’m a total crying wreck over him.” This is what people with disabilities call “inspiration porn.” As a person with a disability, who also wants to raise awareness, I can’t speak for Gaten but I will say we generally don’t like it when people burst into tears and tell us we are “an inspiration.” Would you like someone tweeting to you that you are a “cute inspirational angel” if you were fourteen? I would not.
I’m now trying to protect Gaten from others’ “protection.” We actually don’t have to protect Gaten or Dustin. Just like Eleven, Dustin behaves like his trope, but he also subverts it:
- Owns his own knowledge and doesn’t need help from a kid with better social skills to use his knowledge to advance the plot.
- Has strong emotions but never compromises the group. He is the one that keeps the group together.
- Always has dignity. His antics are not screw-ups. They protect the others. When he looks for food it’s comic relief but the group actually needs food.
This is why there are tattoos of Dustin. He makes you want to be The Nerd of Nerds. He is never cool. He doesn’t care if he’s cool. He rocks being a nerd. If I saw him in a movie in the 80s I couldn’t rewrite him. I would be too shocked that there was a kid with a disability onscreen and it wasn’t about how his parents were burdened. Gaten Matarazzo/Dustin is how disability should be done on screen. An actor who has a disability should represent disability, and theirs should be as strong as any other character.
Every kid in Stranger Things acts like a real kid who also knows how to be a good friend. They have age-appropriate conflicts with friends and are able to solve them. The friends tease each other, but they never bully each other. When Dustin is bullied for his disability, his friends tell him his cracking bones are “cool like an X-man superpower.”
What got me through my childhood were my rewrites, just as the Duffer brothers got the Stranger Things characters through theirs. But, like many, I had no one to play with. I never told anyone I was rewriting. I thought I was the only person in the world doing it. There was no fan fiction. I heard rumors that Star Trek fans had zines. That had nothing to do with me. Now, I’m obviously happy to let my geek flag fly. My generation’s gift to the world is the acceptance of Geek Culture. Don’t thank us too much. We just didn’t want to grow up because, obviously, grown-ups suck.
But Stranger Things shows how much better a story is when you do grow up. One of the most moving scenes is when Joyce (Winona Ryder) comforts Eleven. She tells her she is brave and that she did a great job with the rescue. Thank you, mom. I did do a good job trying to be brave in the eighties even I though I was scared! I mean Eleven—Eleven did a good job. I am not Eleven; I am not a magical/freak girl. I’ve been out of the hospital where they did “evil experiments” on me for a really long time.
I hope that the Duffer brothers continue to write the ensemble well in seasons to come. I hope they continue with Gaten’s disability as smoothly as they have and many more follow them. Writers can see that writing an actor’s disability into a show only adds to its quality and depth. I would love to see Dustin and Eleven as adults, although one of the stereotypes of their tropes is that they never get to grow up. But I’m not worried about Gaten. As his Twitter says, he’s “just getting started.” Stranger Things is too. I’m sure the seamless inclusion will continue (though I hope Lucas isn’t always the only African-American kid).
So to the cast I say this: I hope we don’t freak you out too much with the tattoos and essays. We’re just so happy to be cool magical Nerds of Nerds with you, and to finally be out of the Upside-Down.
(images via Netflix; Stranger Things title card via)
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Jody Sollazzo is a published science fiction/fantasy author of short stories. She is also licensed mental health therapist with a Master’s in psychology. She has worked with survivors of trauma and abuse and has performed research on disability, women, and sexuality. She is working on a novel about witches with disabilities and the fairies who love them. Follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.
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