Everybody loves the little guy who beats the odds and unexpectedly wins battles. Whether it's the geeky Peter Parker finding love, Rocky Balboa going from rags to riches, or Eleven turning the table on bullies, who doesn't love a good "underdog story"**?
In Stranger Things, humans are supposed to be the "little guy." On the surface, it seems like a simple story of bullied victims fighting back. But is it, though? Let us examine the evidence, shall we?
The Plot Revisited
As sci-fi goes, Stranger Things has a fairly simple main plot:
A human kid, Will, from a small town (Hawkins) goes missing. While searching for Will, other humans find out about a super-secret scientific project where they did weird sensory deprivation and drug use experiments on humans, including kidnapped kids with superpowers. This somehow leads to a tear in the space-time continuum, creating an inter-dimensional gate between our dimension and another one. An animal ("the Demogorgon") belonging to the other dimension enters our dimension to look for food in Hawkins and hunts several animals including deers and humans. Humans decide to fight the Demogorgon after discovering that he kidnapped Will. After a long and hard battle, the humans manage to kill the Demogorgon, thus ending Season 1.
In Season 2, we discover a large being who humans term "The Mind Slayer" and "The Shadow Monster." This being can take over the minds of and control other sentient beings. He infects and controls the mind of Will as well as the minds of certain 4-legged beings termed "demodogs." After fighting the demodogs a few times and mostly losing to them, humans eventually manage to close the portal.
And oh, there's the girl Eleven, who does most of the winning for the humans.
The brilliance of the show lies in its character development. All the main human characters are elegantly constructed and their personalities superbly illustrated. Those watching the show almost inevitably fall in love with the human characters and do not hesitate to cheer them on as they fight and kill other beings.
The animals depicted as "monsters" are obviously sentient beings who feel pain. That they suffer is evident from the way they react to being harmed, whether it's Dart reacting to light or the others reacting to fire and bullets. Such responses are always either trivialized or portrayed as primitive behavior which need not be taken seriously.
As important as their sentience is the nonhumans' individuality. In the second season, the demodogs are controlled by the "Shadow Monster" but still manage to retain their autonomy, as evidenced by Dart's reaction to coming across Dustin after being separated from him. It would be silly to assume that Dart somehow partially retains partial control over his self while the rest of the demodogs turn into mindless drones.
Once we have established that the nonhuman animals in ST were actually sentient individuals, we need to give them some sort of moral consideration. The human protagonists of ST simply don't.
Make no mistake- I understand that the humans were the ones being attacked here, but they don't even consider other methods of dealing with the "monsters" and compare the effectiveness of such methods. While watching them in action, I was thinking of ways to deal with the conflict without being cruel fuckheads. And I came up with quite a few, some of which I will discuss later.
The humans kill, maim, burn, and torture nonhumans who haven't done much wrong.
The Real Monsters
"It views other races like us as inferior to itself. It wants to spread and take over other dimensions. We are talking about the destruction of our world as we know it."
-Dustin, describing the "Mind Flayer"
If there's one thing that bothered me the most about the way nonhumans on the show were portrayed, it was that they were labeled "monsters" for absolutely no reason.
Neither the Demogorgon nor the demodogs had done anything that is particularly evil. They did hunt other animals for food and survival but so did Eleven when she was lost in the woods. And so would you if you had no other choice. It's not like demogorgons were going around eating humans while they had access to supermarkets with all kinds of vegan food, is it?
For fuck's sake, we're even shown a hunting supplies store where humans use the bodies of other animals as props.
The only other thing the nonhumans were guilty of was being mind-controlled by the "Shadow Monster," which they are clearly not to be blamed for. Yes, they do weird evil stuff while they're in this hypnotic state, but then so does Will. And yet, the humans do everything they can to refrain from harming Will because they understand that he is a victim in that situation. So are the demadogs.
The Shadow Monster is the only nonhuman who does anything resembling evil. He goes around conquering ecosystems with no regard to sentient life. Do you know who else does that? That's right, we do!
The real monsters were far more dangerous and far more human.
Dr. Bronner and his scientist pals kidnapped children and opened up the portal to the other world. They go around killing humans. They started this nonsense in the first place. There would be no demogogons breaking into human homes if not for those assholes. And yet, the scientists are not reduced to "monsters." Deals are made with them instead of full-on attacks launched. And how about Steve who goes around publicly slut-shaming his girlfriend? We give him a chance at redemption, just like the humans should have done with the nonhumans.
"Fuck /Them Cause They Are Not Us"
Dart is the only being from the other dimension who is shown any sort of compassion and Dustin is the only one who proves to be capable of such compassion. We are shown glimpses of Dart's story and we can't help but feel for him. Predictably enough, Dustin benefits from his friendship with Dart who does not harm him when they come across each other after their feud. Dustin not only recognizes Dart but is also quite sure that Dart wouldn't harm him. This proves that Dart is both a recognizable individual and is capable of compassion.
Dustin's encounter with Dart provides a very simple solution to the demodog attacks - give them some food. Dart seems quite happy when given a bar of chocolate and leaves the humans alone. Why not give all the demodogs chocolate? I mean, who doesn't like chocolate? I'm quite sure the Demogorgon person would have enjoyed some chocolate too. The humans should have dumped some of that stuff into the interdimensional hole and that would have been the end of it.
Another easy solution that comes to mind involves drugging the "monsters." Shoot them with tranquilizers, maybe? Or use drugged food as bait? Why does the answer always have to be the extermination of nonhumans? Wouldn't it make more sense to capture a demodog and study them to understand what was going on?
Not So Strange After All
What some humans and nonhumans do to others in ST, we do to nonhuman animals on a daily basis.
Just like humans do with the demogogs and the Demogorgon, we view foxes, bears, alligators, and other animals as dangerous monsters for engaging in natural predatory behavior to survive, and we make elaborate plans to exterminate them.
Like Dr. Brenner imprisoned Eleven and a cat to experiment on them, we enslave hundreds of millions of animals and torture them in the name of science.
And like the "monsters" go around creating fear among potential prey animals (humans, mostly), we terrorize trillions of animals for food. What makes our behavior even more despicable is that, in most cases, we don't even need to engage in it. We CHOOSE to eat pigs, chickens, fishes, cows, lobsters, and others, not for survival or health, but for something as trivial as taste.
So What Now?
Nothing much, really.
This isn't supposed to be a social-justicey callout of Stranger Things but is rather the articulation of my observations as an animal liberationist. Halfway through Season 1, I stopped rooting for my own species and switched sides. The Netflix series was still a lot of fun to watch and I am excited for Season 3. If you are one of those people boycotting the show based on the shit you've been reading about Eleven's punk makeover, Barb's death, or ST's political subtext, don't! It's a brilliant show that everyone should experience. You can criticize it later all you want.
Speciesism pervades every facet of human society. Consequently, it finds its way into our entertainment media as well. Netflix shows, unfortunately, are not immune from being influenced by this form of oppression either. Stranger Things simply exploits the fear that other species will do to us what we do to other species. While Hopper prances around shooting demodogs and playing hero, he is the villain to the animals he eats. While Dustin punishes Dart for eating a cat, he eats pigs and cows.
Although we humans have a right to defend ourselves in a Shadow Monster attack, there is absolutely no justification for the suffering we inflict upon the trillions of nonhuman animals we exploit for food, clothing, entertainment, and science. To them, we are the monsters.
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** Did you know that the word "underdog" was first used in the 8th century to refer to the "beaten" dog in a dogfight? Gross.