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This story is a part of pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.
I was one of those people who contributed to the record-breaking 7.2 billion minutes of streaming when the Emmy-nominated season four of Stranger Things aired this June. In the science-fiction/fantasy/horror drama about a group of high-school kids living in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, where the kids fight supernatural monsters and evil government-scientist-type people to rescue their friend, Eleven, from institutionalization after her telekinetic powers and traumatic past lead her to commit a series of violent acts.
Strange as it may sound, I consider Stranger Things as part of an abolitionist canon, albeit a whitewashed one. I see it as a self-conscious and referential continuation of a lineage set in motion by E.T., Stand by Me, It, and The Goonies. These are all movies and shows that imagine police-free universes, by way of a group of (usually pre-adolescent) kids taking on or intervening in "police" work. Elliot and Michael keep E.T. away from meddling government authorities long enough to deliver him back to his spaceship; Gordie and his friends find the body of a missing boy without informing the police; the Goonies use stolen treasure to prevent their house from foreclosure.
These movies promote an implicitly abolitionist message: You shouldn't need police to keep you safe, or to solve problems that you and your community can solve with more nuance on your own. You need material resources, time, a certain level of canniness, and people to solve problems. Incarceration inside of prisons or other government-run institutions is not an acceptable outcome for your friends, family, or community.
The abolition-adjacent universes of Stranger Things and its ilk are (mostly) white. They are (mostly) middle-class. They are (mostly) straight. They are far removed from the radical Black tradition and Black feminist tradition from which abolitionism springs. As a result, shows like Stranger Things engage in what I like to call "abolition-baiting." They trade in the ideals, world-building, and emotional resonance of abolition—the dream of a world in which the people we love are taken care of by institutions, never thrown away for decades in prison, and have access to resources for healing—without ever calling themselves abolitionist. These movies and shows don't have to align themselves with the Black radical feminist thought that scaffolds their imaginary worlds, nor do they call out the role that police and prisons play in thwarting the potential for worlds in which the people we love are taken care of.
Stranger Things continues a media tradition of highlighting white characters who escape carceral punishment and gain healing in the wake of trauma—suggesting that justice is for white people, not all people.
One of the fundamental underpinnings of prison abolition is the importance of investing in community resources. Prison abolition is about building "life-affirming institutions," as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, longtime abolitionist scholar and activist, says. The roots of crime, under an abolitionist philosophy, are the lack of such life-affirming institutions: adequate housing, education, health and mental health care, and jobs. In the U.S., these inequalities disproportionately impact Black and Latinx people and communities. The roots of the modern day penal system go back to the systems of slavery, lynching, and segregation in the United States. The basic argument of abolition is that just and equitable access to resources, not police, help people and communities address social crises that result from the lack of access to those resources.
As a result, we get a show that focuses its abolitionist-esque storyline on a system-involved young white girl, Eleven. There is a lot of potential in this storyline to embrace abolitionism: Over four seasons, Eleven kills many people and monsters. She assaults another girl with a roller skate to the head. She steals Eggos and then blows up the store. And she launches terrorist-level attacks on military helicopters. As a result? She is cared for tenderly by her friends (a robust community that includes her friends' parents and siblings), the Hawkins Chief of Police, Jim Hopper (who goes on to adopt her), and ex-military officer Dr. Sam Owens, outside of prison.
Stranger Things embraces abolition-adjacent tropes (cops are useless, cops are bad/bad guys are cops, the military is useless) with abandon, but still insists upon maintaining allegiance to a policed world. One of the most insidious ways it does this by giving a central role in the show to Chief of Police Jim Hopper. Hopper doesn't actually do what police do (more on that later). In fact, the critical roles he does play—Eleven's caretaker, a romantic interest for another main character, and a prisoner of war—don't require him to be a cop, at all. But by including him as a cop, the show is able to keep the entire police system, in its mundane removal from the supernatural evil lurking beneath Hawkins, protected from any real negative interrogation. This allows the show to offer its audience an abolition storyline for Eleven while insisting that the ideals of policing, the police, or imprisonment can still be upheld.
This is only possible because Eleven is a cute, young, white girl. This is the same reason movies like Stand by Me, The Goonies, It, and E.T. can trade in abolitionist ideals without ever having to directly address the interference, or lack of interference, of the police in their protagonists' "adventures." As a society, we are used to seeing white kids as individuals, deserving of respect, care, and multiple second chances.
The show's treatment of its two main Black characters, siblings Lucas and Erica, allow for this mythology to flourish. Erica, it's been noted, is a child version of the "sassy Black woman." In other words, she is provided for entertainment, not as a fully formed or nuanced character. Lucas, meanwhile, is a site for racially coded—but rarely explicitly racist—messaging that adds veritas to the show's 1980s, white, rural setting, without requiring its creators to grapple with a more contemporary or sophisticated understanding of race. Lucas is called "midnight" in season one, clashes with Mike over Mike's unstated assumption that Lucas would be Winston (the Black ghostbuster) for Halloween in season two, and cast as the "type of people in this world that you stay away from" by Billy in season three. This season, most horrifyingly, Lucas and Erica are attacked by white men. While viewers could no doubt feel the palpable, racially coded terror—an innocent young Black man forced to put his hands in the air while a clean-cut white man holds a gun on him—the show treats the conflict as just another byproduct of corrupted Hawkins.
The parallels between violence against Lucas and Erica at the hands of gun-wielding, authority-holding white men, and the violence committed against Black people by police are plain, and reemphasize the role that Eleven's whiteness plays in her relationship with Police Chief Hopper. Given the ways in which our society perceives Black men and women, if Lucas or Erica were to cause similar amounts of destruction as Eleven, the show might have a harder time avoiding obvious questions: Why isn't Hopper arresting them? Why aren't they in jail? They are dangerous, aren't they? Viewers might even start rooting for violence to happen against them because it's what we expect. (For an example of sci-fi that does address the role of police and race, see the outstanding 2011 film Attack the Block).
Eleven's whiteness allows the show to sidestep the reality of what Hopper likely would do if he were really a cop. I'm not, however, suggesting that Stranger Things should feature a fifth season in which Hopper, as a cop, does what real cops would do: Arrests Eleven, takes her to jail, testifies at her bail hearing that she's a flight risk to ensure that she stays in jail, and advocates for her to receive the death penalty at her sentencing hearing (hello, Indiana!). But, the shows we watch can and do shape our ideas of what's possible, what's normal, and what's unacceptable. This rewrite might make audiences see the cruelty, violence, and designed distancing of policing, and the ways in which policing would not allow us to see Eleven's humanity.
Instead, the show paints a picture of abolition with all of its Blackness scrubbed carefully away. Cops firmly in place, troubled (white) child—white, instead of Black—fought for, instead of readily institutionalized.
Stranger Things didn't just miss its Emmy wins with Season Four, it missed its opportunity to be radically groundbreaking in more than just visual effects or in minutes streamed. It missed its opportunity to lay claim to the Black radical dreams that say: Every kid should be safe, every harm should be healed—and we don't throw anyone to the Demogorgon, the mind flayer, the prison cell, or the police cruiser. Because we know they won't come back the same.