The (Metaphorical) Blackface Of Stranger Things

Stranger Things 3 Has Some Issues.

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Stranger Things is no stranger to controversy. The series showrunners — the Duffer Brothers — came under fire in Season 2 after a behind-the-scenes episode revealed that child star Sadie Sink (who plays the character Max) was pressured into kissing actor Caleb McLaughlin’s character Lucas Sinclair. The kiss was allegedly unscripted, and when Sadie Sink expressed her disinterest in doing the scene, the showrunners doubled down on it. As Ross Duffer said to Sadie on television:

“You reacted so strongly to this — I was just joking — and you were so freaked out that I was like well, I gotta make her do it now… that’s why I’m saying it’s your fault.”

Many fans were outraged by this comment, and the Duffer Brothers have not only been criticized for their poor handling of gender, but also of race. The series has been accused of treating its black characters ineptly. The character Lucas is one of the series’ only men of color. Critics have routinely highlighted the underdevelopment of his character, as well as the erasure of racism from the 80s in general, as signs of the show’s inability to illustrate issues of race.

In the show’s latest outing, Season 3, Stranger Things continues this tradition by making one of its youngest characters, Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson), perpetuate what essentially amounts to market fundamentalist propaganda. Erica is Lucas’ sister, and this 12-year-old’s full-throated defense of capitalism arguably amounts to a form of metaphorical blackface. The Duffer Brothers use this black actor as a prop to perpetuate an institution inseparably tied up with white supremacy.

A Stranger Synopsis

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For the uninitiated, Stranger Things is a show about the strange happenings in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The US government opened a portal there between our world and the mysterious “Upside Down,” and this consequently let in a whole bunch of baddies that want to take over the planet. These evil creatures are all named after Dungeons & Dragons characters (e.g., The Mind Flayer, Demogorgons). These retro naming conventions are one of many ways the show taps into its audience’s nostalgia for the 1980s. The show is all about making dated references, be it to Ghostbusters or The X-Men.

The 80s was more than cultural products, however, and in the third season, the Duffer Brothers tackle the Cold War. For those Generation Z’ers who have stumbled onto this article through their parent’s tablet, the Cold War was an ideological divide between the Capitalism-loving United States and the Communist-supporting Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The government entity opening the portal this time around is the “commie” Russians. In between battling Spider Monsters and references to 80s blockbusters, the third season attempts to have a conversation about the merits and drawbacks of Capitalism.

We see this conversation unfold first with the town’s mayor, Larry Kline (Cary Elwes). Larry has undermined the economic health of the shops downtown by allowing developers to open up a nearby mall called Starcourt. He calls the decision “just good old fashioned American Capitalism,” and we are meant to think he is an asshole. He betrayed Main Street for money and power, and he turns out to be a minor antagonist.

We also see anti-Capitalist sentiment from character Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman). Murray is a quirky conspiracy theorist who we are supposed to like because he gets many of the show’s one-liners. He doesn’t like our Capitalist system, and at one point tells a Russian friend the reason for his distaste, while they are at Hawkins’ 4th of July Carnival:

MURRAY: It doesn’t get more American than this, my friend. Fatty foods, ugly decadence, rigged games…They have been designed to present the illusion of fairness! But it’s all a scam, a trick, to put your money in the rich man’s pocket. That, my dear friend, is America.

These criticisms become muddled, however, when we learn that the Russians are secretly backing both the mayor and the mall. American business is never truly at risk of being criticized. The show both narratively and textually revels in materialism: every scene feels like an advert for a product or brand. In one painful scene, Lucas describes the benefits of New Coke as the camera pans on him drinking the beverage for over a minute.

In another, child telekinetic El (Millie Bobby Brown) recovers from a breakup with Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) by buying glitzy 80s attire from Starcourt Mall. The song Material Girl by Madonna plays in the background, as she gets an entirely new wardrobe. The show never truly questions if El should or even can find happiness through consumption.

After all, happiness through consumption is what Stranger Things is all about.

The most vocal proponent of capitalism is also one of the most sympathetic — Lucas’ sister Erica. Erica just so happens to be a brilliant math whiz and nerd, who again, is chock-full of funny one-liners. She is also the only character to identify as an out-and-proud capitalist. In Episode 4 of Season 3 (The Sauna Test) Erica tells a crew of series regulars asking for her help:

ERICA: Know what I love most about this country? Capitalism. Do you know what capitalism is?…It means this is a free market system. Which means people get paid for their services, depending on how valuable their contributions are.

The problem, which we shall go into greater detail later, is that black people, in the aggregate, have not been paid for their “contributions” to our free market system — a fact the show ignores. The Duffer Brothers were the principal writers of this episode (as with all of this season’s episodes). They choose to use one of their most promising black characters to advocate for a system that hurts most black people, and has for most of our country’s existence.

This show is not the only one to ever do this: the trend of making black faces say white things has a long, painful history.

White Words, Black Faces

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From the 1830s to the 1900s (and kind of now), Blackface Minstrelsy was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States. This type of performance involved actors who pretended to be “black” for laughs.

The origin of the medium is often accredited to performer T.D. Rice, though blackface had been popular decades beforehand. According to one disputed account, he saw an elderly black man who was shuffling his feet and thought the dance would be good “inspiration” for a new routine. The reason this African American was dancing so “strangely” was that, at the time, parts of America criminalized black slaves dancing their native dances in public. Black people had to dance in a way where their feet never left the ground.

T.D. Rice “mimicked” (i.e. stole, probably from a black performer) this style and combined it with the Irish Jig to create a dance that soon became known as the Jim Crow. The routine became so immensely popular that it quickly spread to the rest of America, and even across the pond to London. The dance was accompanied by a song called the “Jim Crow Jump” (also probably stolen) with lyrics that are cringe-worthy by today’s standards:

“I sit upon a hornet’s nest, I dance upon my head; I tie a wiper round my neck an, den I go to bed. I kneel to de buzzard, an, I bow to the crow; An eb’ry time I weel about I jump jis so.”

This song portrays the character of Jim Crow as dumb, and reckless (i.e., sitting on a hornet’s nest, praying to birds, etc.) — a comforting thought to slave owners who wanted to believe their slaves were too dumb to be independent. The outlook that “slaves wanted to be enslaved” is how many white people viewed black people in order to avoid responsibility for white supremacy. As Bishop Wipple wrote in his diary over a hundred years ago:

“They seem a happy race of beings and if you did not know it you would never imagine that they were slaves.”

This narrative allowed whites to ignore black peoples’ cries for help, and instead focus on the words of fake black people. The Jim Crow Jump was the beginning of a cottage industry where white actors would stereotype the African Americans around them for comedic effect. This is an industry that has never really gone away if current Instagram feeds are any indication. There soon would be a myriad of different caricatures performed in front of cameras and on American stages, including the Mammy, the Jezebel, the Sambo, and so many more.

It cannot be overstated how harmful this stereotyping was to future generations of black people. Blackface Minstrelsy used exaggerated stereotypes that portrayed black people as inherently lazy, stupid, savage, and oversexed.

For some groups of white people, these stereotypes were their first and only exposure to people of color. Consequently, Jim Crow quite literally became a justification for oppressing black people for centuries to come. If you don’t know (hi again Gen Z’ers), Jim Crow Laws were a group of policies that enforced segregation. Policies included barring black Americans from white schools and other facilities, preventing interracial marriages, and a host of other discriminatory things (see more here).

In retrospect, the reason the most oppressive segregationist laws in the United States were named after the Jim Crow caricature is obvious. Stereotypes from Blackface Minstrelsy informed a lot of white people’s primary mental model for blackness. Blackface was both a tool and a coping mechanism that white people used, and arguably continue to use, to validate their mistreatment of their black slaves, servants, and subordinates.

To this day, there are still people that categorize African Americans as primarily lazy, violent, and hypersexual. That image doesn’t just come out of the blue. There is a history behind these flippant and untrue claims, and it did not die with the golden age of Blackface Minstrelsy.

Just Make Black People Do It

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Blackface remained a popular facet of our media well into the 20th century. Famous American actors such as Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway (1941), Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942), and Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) used it during the height of their careers. Many offensive TV shows such as Little Rascals (1920s+) enjoyed syndication decades after their original airdates. For example, Little Rascals (also called Our Gang) memorably had characters named “Buckwheat” and “Sunshine Sammy” who, among other things, bugged out their eyes.

Less than 50 years ago, it was common for Americans to see blackface in the media. We can point to many infamous examples where current white Americans have had to admit to dressing up in Blackface for fun during their youth (e.g., Megyn Kelly, Gov. Ralph Northam, etc.).

To them, Blackface was normal.

For many good reasons, however, (e.g., the Civil Rights Movements, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, etc.) the sensibilities of America started to shift. The cultural and political power of black Americans increased, and it became less acceptable for white America to show such portrayals in film and television. This did not mean blackface died — it still exists. As representation of blackface lessened in media, however, a different form of stereotyping took center stage: making black people lampoon themselves.

Black people have been involved in Blackface Minstrelsy since its infancy. There were few avenues for black actors to become successful, and so some entrepreneurial individuals used the technique to appeal to white audiences (see performer Bert Williams). In the words of professor Eric Lott from the Graduate Center at CUNY:

The mask, I think, says to white audiences, ‘You have nothing to fear. Go ahead, enjoy yourself.’

Black people who did blackface were symbolically providing consent for white audience members to find the routine enjoyable. When blackface started to become more taboo, black actors were employed to provide that same consent for white stories. Black actors replaced white roles so white viewers would feel less guilty about consuming the same stereotypically offensive narratives they had always consumed.

A classic example of this is the TV show Amos ‘N Andy (1951). This title was originally a top-rated radio show voiced by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll during the 1920s. There were no black actors or writers for the first radio show, and it remained a white person’s stereotypical conception of how black people acted. Gosden’s Amos was a hardworking family man. Correll’s Andy was an “overconfident shifter” who was more than happy to let Amos do most of the work.

The 1951 TV show cast two black actors — Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, Jr. — for the roles of Amos and Andy respectively. Some critically praised the show for portraying a diverse black community in Harlem. It was, at the time, the only major piece of representation on TV that depicted black lives. The reboot tweaked some casting and wardrobe decisions to update it to 50s sensibilities, but ultimately, the TV show was still rooted in Gosden and Correll’s original portrayal. In the words of Todd VanDerWerff from AV Club:

“…Amos ’N’ Andy is the rare controversial TV program that’s maintained its allure of controversy for more than 60 years since its initial broadcast. The reason for that is simple: It relies extremely heavily on racist stereotypes that we’ve since realized are harmful.”

The NAACP protested the decision to adapt the radio program to TV almost immediately. The show’s reputation regretfully ruined the careers of black actors Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, Jr. They would be paid nothing for the syndication of these episodes in the decades to come.

Amos ‘N Andy would not be the only show to generate this reaction. Over the years, we would see the same stereotypes from Ministresly creep over to the silver and smaller screens from the lips of talented black actors.

In 1996, the TV series Homeboys in Outerspace — a campy Star Trek parody with characters Tyberius Walker (Flex Alexander) and Morris Clay (Darryl M. Bell), starring a predominantly black cast — drew ire from multiple black rights groups for its regressive portrayals. The jokes on the show were always on the Homeboys as they made dated black references. The Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP likened the show to precursor Amos ‘N Andy, and it made Ebony’s 2013 list for The 10 Worst Black TV Shows of All Time.

Likewise, in 2004, the show Method and Red had hip-hop stars Method Man and Redman playing fictionalized versions of themselves in a fish-out-of-water tale in a white, New Jersey suburb. Though the concept of whiteness was rightly criticized on the show, the jokes were often about the two hip-hop stars’ “strange” behavior. Method and Red also made Ebony’s 2013 list. The show sits at number.

In 2019, this pattern sadly continues with Erica of Stranger Things.

Back To Erica

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Erica fits into this tradition. Much like with Andy, she is cast initially as opportunistic and overconfident. Her first few interactions in Season 3 have her abusing an ice cream store’s free sample policy. She is abrasive, and continuously calls Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and his friends “nerds” for liking the products beloved by the show’s audience. It’s only when she embraces market fundamentalist dogma that we narratively see her character brought into the fold of white nerdom.

DUSTIN: You’re a nerd…Let’s examine the facts, shall we? Fact one: you’re a math whiz, apparently….Fact number two: you’re a political junkie…Fact number three: you love My Little Pony…Ergo, you, Erica, are a nerd.

The show moves her character from being depicted as grating to likable. Her individualism is no longer annoying, but self-sufficient and smart as she gleefully learns how to work an electric taser and navigate a Russian underground bunker.

The problem with this shift is that her support of unadulterated capitalism erases a lot of damage this worldview did to black Americans during the 1980s and beyond. The actual 80s, not the nostalgic daydream of the Duffer Brothers’ memory, was one of austere fiscal policy that hurt people of color across the United States.

The 1980s was when a new political alignment stabilized in America — the Reagan Alignment. Decades prior, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal instituted government intervention actively. This was the generation that put millions of people, mainly men, to work through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The government built hundreds of infrastructure projects we still use to this day such as the Lincoln Tunnel and the Hoover Dam. It was also when long-standing programs such as Social Security were established.

In the 80s, government action was rebranded. Americans, according to Reagan, needed less government, not more. Conservative politicians started to advocate more forcefully for the orthodoxy that Erica depicts in the show: one that idolizes the marketplace.

This change meant less government oversight and taxes in the hope that such a hands-off approach would “trickle-down” to the rest of America. “Reaganomics,” as it would soon be called, led to cuts on government safety net programs. These cuts to programs such as Medicare as well as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) act (the precursor to TANF) would go on to disproportionately affect people of color.

Reagan’s political alignment was not really about economics, though. These cuts were used as an excuse to perpetuate racist and discriminatory policies. As consultant Lee Atwater explained in 1981 (two years before Stranger Things 1 takes place):

You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”

Atwater was describing how Republicans used a racist backlash against the Civil Rights movement as well as the dismantling of Jim Crow to electorally capture white Democrats who used to belong to the Democratic Party. This electoral strategy is commonly referred to as “The Southern Strategy.” Atwater didn’t believe that Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 electoral bids were a part of this strategy, but he also used the n-word over six times in a single paragraph so he might not have the best perspective on the issue of race.

Ronald Reagan was a fervent racist. The National Archives recently released a tape of a phone call where Ronald Reagan tells then-president Richard Nixon that leaders of African countries were monkeys. During his election campaigns, Ronald would use dog-whistling tactics to insinuate African Americans abused the welfare state. He conjured images of “welfare queens” who existed solely to take advantage of the system.

His term as president would see the introduction of the “War on Drugs,” which was a policy that tried to stop the trade of illegal narcotics by ineffectively jailing users and low-end dealers. This policy would disproportionately jail black people. Yet because the War on Drugs satisfied the white perception that black Americans were criminals — an understanding we just demonstrated is rooted in Blackface Minstrelsy — it continued for years.

In the current day, we are experiencing the legacy of these discriminatory policies. The economic divide between black and white Americans remains wider than ever. The Economic Policy Institute has recently published research that claims that the wage gap between black and white workers has grown steadily since 2000. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland has likewise found that:

“The average wealth of white households has been 5–10 times that of black households over recent decades, while the average earnings of white households has stayed around 2 times that of black households.”

The Reagan Alignment of the 80s has been the dominant political and economic philosophy for the last 40 years, and it has exacerbated, not reduced, these trends.

This history is why Erica’s depiction this season is particularly frustrating. To make a black girl living in the height of Reagan’s America your primary advocate of 80s capitalism is, at best, naive. This character decision is colorblind in the worst possible way. The Duffer Brothers are having this young black actress perpetuate racist propaganda, and they are oblivious to why this decision is offensive.

That is metaphorical blackface.

The showrunners are using Erica’s black body to defend a white ideology. She isn’t the worst example of this trend, but Stranger Things is one of the most popular shows in the world right now. During the height of its popularity, the Duffer Brothers are advocating for a policy that harms those who they think it should protect.

Very strange, indeed.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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