There is a magic behind Netflix's Stranger Things in the way it pays homage to, then subverts, the classic archetypes and tropes seen in pop culture. A number of the characters are almost instantly recognizable, the beginning of their stories traditional, until The Duffer Brothers flip the script to give the audience something both exciting and new.
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Stranger Things does a wonderful job in subverting the "bad boyfriend" stereotype with the character of Steve Harrington. Steve starts as the typical ‘80s jock who’s kind of a jerk, but still cute and popular enough for “good girl” Nancy to turn her back on what she cares about — high grades, doing the right thing, her best friend, Barb — in order to be with him. As the show progresses, Steve seems to increasingly play into his archetype… until he doesn’t. He eventually stands up to his nasty friends and helps both Nancy and his romantic rival, Jonathan, fight off the Demogorgon, risking his own safety.
His story is subverted not only in that he’s not the “bad boyfriend” he first seems, but that he’s the one that changes. Frequently, in romantic tales, it’s the woman who changes: She switches out her friends, wardrobe, interests, and all sorts of other aspects to better suit her male love interest, but that’s not the case here. Nancy remains her confident self while Steve works to become someone better suited for her. He ditches his loser friends, dons an ugly Christmas sweater, and stays in for a quiet evening together rather than partying. He doesn't make Nancy lower her standards, but instead becomes a better man for her. On top of that he may be responsible — financially or otherwise — for Nancy’s very sweet Christmas gift to his romantic rival, Jonathan.
Nancy is set up as the sweet and brainy virgin willing to abandon everything she cares about — including uncool friend Barb — in pursuit of popularity and the affection of handsome cool guy, Steve. Only that’s not who Nancy really is. She doesn’t allow anyone to take advantage of her or judge her, including her peers and parents. Nancy refuses to let others determine what’s right or important for her and, in the end, she’s the one luring and leading the charge against the Demogorgon. This flies in the face of the typical girl-next-door archetypes she was based on and destroys any presumptions about Nancy’s storyline.
Rather than being killed after losing her virginity as horror movie trope law requires, Nancy thrives. It’s Barb that’s attacked (also a trope subversion) and once Nancy realizes this she begins a mission to destroy the Demogorgon. While she doesn’t outright kill the creature, Nancy is able to do some serious damage to it with the help of both Steve and secondary love interest, Jonathan. Speaking of love interests, Stranger Things also subverts the classic love triangle by having Nancy end up with original jock boyfriend Steve, instead of the deep and arty Jonathan who's had the not-so-secret crush on her.
Between the shaved head, stunted social skills, and psychic abilities, Stranger Things’s Eleven, a.k.a. El, is absolutely presented as the Carrie-style “weird girl” in the beginning. A young woman with dangerous telekinetic and telepathic powers ,she can't even begin to control them, causing her to be both hounded by the government and ostracized by her peers. Only El does make friends in Mike, Dustin, and Lucas and starts to be (almost) fully in control of her powers, with the ability to dole out punishment in appropriate measure — kid bullies get a broken arm, assassins get killed.
Of course, if she wasn't as out-of-control and dangerous as Carrie, it’d be easy to set her into a gentler, E.T.-type, role… only that doesn’t quite fit either. El is absolutely willing to aggressively fight back against those who threaten her and those she cares for, while E.T. would rather make himself and his friends fly than kill a truck full of government agents.
With the archetypes El first touches on, you prepare yourself for at least one of three trope endings: a self-destructive death similar to Carrie, a journey to a safe “home” like E.T., or a continuous mission to reveal the truth to the world. None of those three options are what happens, though. Against all expectations, El sacrifices herself for the betterment of her newfound friends, destroying herself into black dust to defeat the Demogorgon. Yet not even her death is certain, thanks to another subversive character, Hopper.
Chief Jim Hopper
Every stereotypical small town has the disinterested cop archetype, and so Stranger Things's Hawkins, Indiana, has Chief Jim Hopper. He smokes, drinks, eats poorly, and cracks wise with fellow cops more than he ever seems to work. When frantic mom Joyce Byers comes into his office about her missing son, Will, he pretty much blows her off. Yet, as the mystery grows, Hopper reveals himself willing to do whatever it takes to solve the case, including punching everything that moves, going up against the US government, and selling out El. This ultimately takes Hopper beyond the small-town cop trope and into something closer to an anti-hero… but he’s not quite that either because, despite turning in El, Hopper doesn’t give up on her.
By the end of Stranger Things, Chief Hopper returns to cracking jokes and grabbing munchies at a holiday party, which reaffirms him as the small-town cop trope, but it doesn’t last long. Almost as soon as he arrives, Hopper leaves the party to drop off the food along with El’s beloved Eggos in a box out in the woods, thus subverting his initial archetype once again. It also heavily suggests that El’s tragic ending is not assured, that her story isn’t only the opposite of a cliché, it’s not even finished.
Joyce Byers defines the scattered single-mom archetype when she first appears onscreen. She's divorced, working constantly, and dumping the care for her youngest, Will, onto her eldest, Jonathan. She doesn’t even realize Will is missing until she drops home between shifts and realizes he hasn’t been seen since the previous day. After that, she falls quickly into the mom-on-the-edge trope, insisting her son is alive and speaking to her through the lights, then taking an axe to her home to try and get to him.
The twist here isn’t that she’s right — although she is — but that she’s stronger than her archetype would suggest. She never fully breaks down, nor does she give up by doubting herself. She acknowledges her behavior is “crazy” to others, takes the verbal jabs from all sides (including from Jonathan), and carries on with a determination only a mother could have. She stands up to El’s villainous “Papa,” Dr. Brenner, and supports the girl throughout her journey into the Upside Down to try and find Will and Barb.
That she doesn't end up in a mental facility or falling back into the arms of her ex-husband for support subverts the standard tropes of her archetype. In the end, Joyce stands alone as the head of her household and, once Will returns, that household appears both happy and full of love. She remains strong, independent, and a good mother to her sons.
At the end of any show or movie this is the happy ending we expect, but once again not all is what it seems. After a coughing fit, Will excuses himself to the bathroom where he coughs up a nasty black slug and briefly flashes back to the Upside Down. Between El’s open fate and Will’s darker one, this once tidy ending is no longer as easy, and Stranger Things has worked its subversive magic right to the very end.