Rethinking Our Duties to Strangers: ‘Stranger Things’ and the US Immigration Crisis

Season three of Netflix’s hit show “Stranger Things” releases this week alongside a series of manufactured and fear-mongering crises regarding immigrants, caravans, and racism. (And the very material and real crises that result from actions like putting children in cages and turning away refugees.) As a scholar of popular culture, I think it is worthwhile to ask these two contemporaneous phenomena to speak to one another.

Specifically, I want to ask what can “Stranger Things” tell us about how we should treat people seeking entry to a community, particularly in the context of the border between Mexico and the United States of America? Karma Chávez, a prominent communication and Mexican American/Latinx scholar, offers the figure of the stranger to describe how migrant and queer people threaten some concepts of the country, especially those rooted in whiteness and heteronormativity. Strangers are not so different from “us” that they are antithetical to “our” existence. Often, strangers pretend to be similar to a group, writes Peggy Phelan. For example, in “Stranger Things,” the boys (our heroes) bring Eleven (the stranger) to their school and she immediately tries to meet expectations by changing her appearance, wearing a dress and a wig.

But both fictional and factual United States governments treat Eleven and real-world strangers (including migrants and queers) as inherently dangerous instead of as people who can belong. Following Chávez’s work on the concept of strangers, I argue that “Stranger Things” offers an example for accepting and welcoming strangers while offering a stark warning against governments that reject or isolate them.

Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will are the main child characters in “Stranger Things,” and audiences are encouraged to identify with them. They are the heroes. We generally think of them as being on the side of good. “Stranger Things” gives us a dramatic and generous moment wherein this group (except Will) encounters Eleven, a stranger. They stare, mouths agape, eyes wide at her. They are frozen in place and the camera zooms into a close up shot of their wonder. Their faces present a mixture of fear and awe, wariness and curiosity, categorical cracking and a subsequent shift in possibilities. This is particularly notable as Mike’s friends Dustin and Lucas slowly get cut off by the camera’s zoom as the scene progresses, leaving what is known behind. The shot alternates between Mike and Eleven’s viewpoints of their enchanting encounter that eventually unfolds into a romance using shot/countershot film technique.

The boys go after the stranger, befriend her, and bring her into the boys’ community comprised of their close friends and family. This encounter is an example of what Jane Bennett terms “enchantment.” The stranger has shattered existing concepts of the world as well as who and what exists in it. In the wake of that shattering, a new concept of the world can arise in its place. For the children, that new concept of the world is expanded to include strangers, in this case, Eleven. For the government and its agents, the world quickly re-solidifies, tightening up its boundaries and pushing strangers far outside the limits of community and into a realm antithetical to the demonstrated role of the government as protector.

When new elements are introduced to the public and enchantment occurs, a key definitional moment arrives for those who were already members. Do they work to welcome strangers in some way or do they reject strangers entirely? In political terms of our moment: Should the United States welcome those in search of opportunity, safety, and asylum or should their families be separated, their existence criminalized, and their children locked in squalid cages?

“Stranger Things” dramatizes these two approaches as direct, either-or competition. The young protagonists support welcoming, or at least making space within extant communities for the stranger. The agents of power and government seek strangers to study them, capture them, and protect citizen-subjects through an already made assumption that anyone, even a child, from outside the community is dangerous.

The show’s drawn out scene of Eleven, the stranger, stealing food and shattering a supermarket’s glass door becomes evidence of criminality and danger rather than youthful curiosity and desperate hunger. “Stranger Things” shows the kids’ heroic position to be one of inclusion, (mostly) youth, and (limited) diversity while the villainous goals of the government are isolation, separation, and homogeneity. This resonates with the current political moment, in more ways than one.

When the boys from “Stranger Things” first meet Eleven, they are wandering through the woods in the rain looking for their lost friend Will. Dustin begins a conversation about how he is worried they are going back to the spot where Will was last seen because something bad might be there. He says, “Did you ever think Will went missing because he ran into something bad? And we’re going to the exact same spot where he was last seen? And we have no weapons or anything?” Soft rustling sounds from Eleven (the stranger, unidentified at this point) are heard and Mike calls for silence. They swing their flashlights around toward the sounds a few times before the beams fall upon the face of Eleven, with her shaved head and soaked-through shirt, looking like a lost creature left in the rain. Again, the resonance of the scene with the current moment, specifically the ways that migrant children are held in cages without toothbrushes, blankets, or a safe place to sleep, is resounding.

Episode two begins with an establishing shot of Mike’s house before cutting inside to show Eleven, still wet but now wrapped in a jacket, sitting on the couch, and looking down, being questioned by the boys who are trying to find a way to help her. Eventually, Mike says, “That’s enough. She’s scared and cold,” before getting her some dry clothes in a scene reminiscent of children caring for other children in detention centers. Mike eventually makes Eleven a makeshift bed in his basement and welcomes her into their group (albeit not without resistance from some of the other members). Keeping in mind that, narratively, this is all happening while they are trying to find their other missing friend, the ethical commitments demonstrated by the boys such as compassion, care, and respect come into clearer focus.

Overall, this television show makes an argument for the inclusion of strangers while rejecting claims of purity or stability in populations, even while demonstrating the lengths to which power will reach to keep a population intelligible and controllable. The show offers the “right” stranger (Millie Bobby Brown who portrays Eleven is white, able-bodied, thin, and easily fits into heteronormative and cisgendered cultural frameworks). This stranger can shock the “right” people into accepting the enchanting opportunity to make themselves vulnerable to a new understanding of the world.

Photo by Daniel Di Palma

From what we see of Hawkins, it is filled with white (save Lucas), able-bodied, heterosexual people. In other words, despite Eleven’s buzzcut and odd clothing, she is enough like the people in Hawkins that she can pass most of the time. Yet, the southern border of the United States offers no such opportunity for brown bodies, those seeking to provide assistance, or even journalists. Rather, the border becomes a closed space that is resistant to change in order to protect some imagined vision about the U.S. Those in privileged positions can use these encounters as equipment for living in our interactions if they/we/me are open to reimagining our world in ways we may not be able to even imagine yet.

Yet, in “Stranger Things,” each of these young people go out of their way to assist a stranger, someone who is “freaking [them] out,” as Lucas says. They make clear moves to incorporate this stranger into their communities in some way. This compassion is offered as the superior option, opposed to capturing and controlling Eleven. They exhibit curiosity, compassion, and care, and we are urged to understand it as the heroic approach to strangers.

In contrast to a porous and inclusive notion of community from the children, the government agents in “Stranger Things” work to isolate community and prevent it from expanding to those who are not already included. The shadowy agents working for the supposed Department of Energy in “Stranger Things” work to return Eleven to her prisonlike living conditions under the control of Dr. Brenner. Early on in the series we see Eleven escape, killing guards with her psychokinetic abilities on her way out, and meet up with the group of boys at the end of episode one. The government agents then go through the rest of the season killing witnesses and using local utilities as cover for surveillance vans and agents. Government agents are attempting to prevent powerful entities (Eleven has “siblings”) from entering the community (as many white Americans clearly fear losing their status as a racial majority) so the government can continue to use, contain, control, and manipulate them and their (hidden) labor.

The government in “Stranger Things” is, like most of the country according to Bennett, in a state of profound disenchantment. It works to rebuild anything that comes crashing down, like an established and relatively controlled community, instead of reveling in the ruins and imagining what else might be built, as the children do. The government, through a disenchanted position attempts to turn away, isolate, or weaponize that which might disrupt or alter the status quo rather than embrace the opportunity to make a different, even better, world. The position of the child in “Stranger Things” offers the requisite amount of wonder to go along with the fear to be enchanted and willingness to accept the possibilities of what might be there instead. If we desire to tear down the literal and metaphorical walls (or prevent them from being built) we might also wonder what, if anything, could go in their place.

To engage political possibilities for a future yet unrealized, each encounter with a stranger need not be the fear and wonder filled experience of enchantment. However, the power of enchantment comes from the temporary suspension of rules, norms, and knowing in favor of possibility. If those moments can be seized to productively envision the future, then the kinds of enchantment possible from the United States’ side of the border must come not only from those most marginalized but also from those most in power. Bennett offers enchantment as the path to being “enamored with existence” and that this enamored state sustains “the will to social justice,” a feature we see, albeit narrowly, in the children of “Stranger Things.”

If we remain un-enamored and disenchanted, we risk neglecting the warnings offered by the faceless mass of government agents seeking to control and limit the world, so it might be more easily managed. But, if we turn into enchantment, potential, and care while demanding the same from our government, we might attempt to be more like the heroes from “Stranger Things” and expand the bounds of our community, welcome strangers, get to know them, and learn the lessons they can teach.

The show is not a call for marginalized people to make themselves vulnerable in the hopes that they might find a willing community. For some activists and marginalized people, becoming part of a community that previously ignored them, if not actively shunned and harmed them, might not be desirable. Rather, it is a call for communities, particularly those with privilege, power, and resources, to make themselves vulnerable to the political potential of enchanting encounters. “Stranger Things” does not ask of its audiences that they be like Eleven — the “right” stranger. It asks that we be like Mike — and make ourselves and those around us the “right” community: compassionate, caring, respectful, welcoming, willing to embrace change, and quick to bring a stranger in from the rain (or, from a cage). “Stranger Things” shows us why and how we should emulate Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will and be willing and eager to take in those in need, those who wander and search for refuge: the hungry, the tired, and the poor.

%d bloggers like this: