Free-Range Kids: Stranger Things Happening With Gen X

Stranger Things has captured the imagination of viewers across a multitude of generations, but its portrayal of families and issues during the 1980s put it squarely in Gen X territory. This is what the panelists discussed Saturday at 8PM on “The Latchkey Generation: Stranger Things Themes” on the virtual stream for X-Track. Jenny Byrd-Peterson moderated her fellow Gen  X compatriots Jen Woollen, Roxanne “Rox” Henkle, Leigh Bennett-Conner, and “Mighty” Bill Price talking about Gen X themes in Stranger Things.

Jenny started the chat by mentioning the nostalgia the show invokes and the online debates viewers have been having about what the show gets right and wrong. The “free-range” children, meaning the kids often running around without adult supervision, was one of the things the showrunners definitely got right. Each of the panelists could remember coming home to an empty house and having homework and chores to do before going to play or hanging out with their friends. They would have to call to let mom or dad know they made it home safe and sometimes, like Max, would have to start dinner. On the extreme, one panelist remembered being home alone until 9 or 10 at night and having to feed themselves dinner. Everyone agreed that we can’t do something like that nowadays.

Other items the Stranger Things showrunners got right were the Dungeons and Dragons portions along with middle school and the transition to high school. The muscle cars, the clothes (does anyone remember the popped collar Polo shirts?), two working parents, and even Wynona Ryder’s single mom character were all well done. Building on Ryder’s character of Joyce, the discussion turned to the family unit and class differences. The 80s saw higher divorce rates and the fall of the nuclear family. Joyce’s family unit was still strong, but you could see the class disparity. After Billy’s death, you saw the fall of Max’s family. They obviously had money since Billy had his car, but afterward, we see the family living in the trailer park.

The believability of the kids was also appreciated. Unlike shows on Nickelodeon and Disney that portray kids as being too put together, the kids from Hawkins seem more realistic. They curse, they don’t really know what they’re doing, but they’re trying to figure it out on their own. It’s the epitome of Gen X; we see jocks, preppies, nerds, and burnouts in all the kids at Hawkins High. Seeing Robin and Steve working brought back a lot of memories. It was even mentioned that show feels like a mix between The Goonies and Friday the 13th.

Diving deeper into the show and the formative events of young Gen X-ers, the panelists found it a little surprising that the kids still had so much freedom. Will’s disappearance and Barb’s death happen in the first couple of episodes, and none of the adults seem overly concerned. Nobody takes Joyce seriously, mainly because of her status as a divorcee.

All of the panelists can remember the “Do you know where your children are?” campaigns, the Atlanta missing and murdered children tragedy, and the advent of the show America’s Most Wanted. Around that time parents started to lock down where the kids were and what they were doing, especially in large cities. As an explanation of how and why the Hawkins kids might have still had their freedom, the panel remembered that the 24-hour news cycle hadn’t become widespread in 1983, which is when the first season of Stranger Things is set. Very few households had cable television then, so the news spread much slower.

The conversation next turned to Robin and both her sexuality and her ADHD. First, addressing her ADHD, it was noted that how she acted was just how it was in the 1980s. Kids weren’t diagnosed with ADHD back then, and there was no medication. Today she would likely be heavily medicated. Next, when Robin and Steve talk about Robin liking girls, Steve just kind of goes with it. He didn’t have much of a reaction. It was pointed out, however, that the show allows the kids to be kids and is not sexualizing any of them, which is nice. They briefly touched on Will and mentioned his feelings for Mike. There have been online debates that Will might be gay, but it may just be that he is still a traumatized kid dealing with PTSD in the only way he can and without therapy. He also lost a year of his life during a time when his friends were still growing and changing.

Before wrapping up, the wide-ranging discussion landed on the Hellfire Club and how the town perceives the club and its members to be evil. That was a reality of the time. Some of the panelists could remember the “satanic panic” brought on by Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s. Many parents wouldn’t let their kids play with other kids if they thought they would play with Ouija boards, tarot, and yes, D&D. In small towns, it was even worse.

It will be interesting to see where the next season of Stranger Things takes us.

Author of the article

Colleen Callahan is a freelance content writer and social media consultant specializing in food and beverage, writing blog posts, newsletters, and managing social media accounts. She recently sold her house and most of her possessions and moved into an RV with her two doggos. They live the full-time nomad life, traveling the US and chasing 70 degrees. Starting with A Wrinkle In Time and never looking back, Colleen is a huge fan of science fiction, fantasy, and the supernatural. Favorite time burners are anything by Joss Whedon, the entire Outlander universe, the occasional Neil Gaiman rant, and as many geeky TV shows as she can lay her eyes on. Recently, Colleen has decided to go back to her first love - writing. Since the third grade, creating neighborhood newsletters with a typewriter and copying them with a mimeograph machine (remember those?), the writing flame has been kept alive through short stints in industry magazines, copywriting for marketing projects, and writing on her blog, Volunteering for the Daily Dragon was the first stepping stone in a journey towards her Destiny. Colleen can also be seen on her YouTube channel, Sunrise 2 Sunset RV.