10 Strange Facts for Stranger Things

I love Stranger Things. And apparently, so does everyone else.

Despite its popularity, the rampant critical acclaim of Netflix’s Stranger Things was unprecedented upon its release. The initial script produced by the series’ creators, the Duffer brothers, had been repeatedly rejected by a string of cable networks. It was simply uncategorizable. The ensemble of children at the heart of the TV show—Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will—made producers question: was Stranger Things a children’s show? Would adults enjoy it? And if it was geared towards children, shouldn’t the tone be lighter? 

Thankfully, the Duffer brothers never changed their stride, and neither did the show. It was picked up by Netflix in early 2015 and here we are: a homage of 80’s synth pop, jean jackets, and sci-fi movies later, Stranger Things now sits atop Netflix’s most-watched series list, and boasts a 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what was it that pushed Stranger Things over the edge of indie film territory and into pop culture appeal? Was it the soundtrack? The stellar casting? Steve Harrington’s hair? Maybe, but the response might also have something to do with nostalgia, and Stranger Things certainly had plenty of that.

You might have caught some of them, but here are 10 references you may have missed in Netflix’s monstrous hit.

1. E.T.

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Image from camiseteria.com

No surprise here; thematic shades of E.T. are all over Stranger Things. We see it in the cinematic shots of the series—kids on bicycles, anyone?—but it’s also stunningly prominent in the parallels between Eleven and E.T. As an “alien,” so to speak, Eleven and E.T. share a fixation on one type of food (leggo my eggo), have both dressed up in blonde wigs to blend in, and are both in hiding from shadowy government figures.

2. Dungeons and Dragons

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Image from roebeast.blogspot.com

I think we all caught this one. After all, the series opens with a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, in which Will fails to kill a popular a mythical creature in D&D lore. This scene does two things: first, it foreshadows Will’s capture, which happens immediately after and drives the entire season one plot; and second, it contextualizes the creature in terms that the kids (and us as the audience) can identify. For the rest of the series, the unknown creature from the Upside Down is known as the demogorgon. 

3. Alien

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Image from bustle.com

The demogorgon in Stranger Things has a few nods to Ridley Scott’s aliens. It leaves a lot of goo in its wake, and (spoilers!) it likes to incubate its victims with smaller creatures by forcing its victims to swallow them.

They’re kind of like…worms. Or snakes. It’s gross.

4. Stephen King

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Image from stephenking.wikia.com

I’ve listed Stephen King as a category in a vague sense, because Stranger Things has multiple horror motifs typified by King during his prolific career as a writer. Mainly, Stranger Things takes its cues from King’s novels Firestarter and Carrie. In both cases, Eleven’s telepathic and occasionally erratic powers, along with her abusive and watchful upbringing, align her with Carrie White and Charlie McGee.

5. Star Wars

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Image from heavyarmor.wordpress.com

This one is a bit more obvious, as the characters often voice the references directly instead of the Duffer brothers hiding them under cinematic quality. Eleven has “jedi powers,” Mike owns a Yoda action-figure and talks about the Force, and when Lucas thinks Eleven has betrayed the group he calls her “Lando,” after the Star Wars character who betrays Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

6. Nightmare on Elm Street

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Image from elitedaily.com

Episode 8 of Stranger Things has Nancy and Jonathan trying to go head-to-head with the monster, luring it into Jonathan’s house with a brigade of traps and eventually setting it on fire. Sound familiar? It should—the climax of the 1984 Nightmare on Elm Street played out in a similar way.

7. The Goonies

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Image from mentalfloss.com

Everyone loves a good ragtag group of misfit kids. And we see a lot of similarities in the playful and mischievous behaviour of the Goonies squad to the Stranger Things crew. The main rule: no adults allowed. (But as a lover of Stranger Things, I’m willing to point out that we do have Joyce and Hopper involved, but they act pretty autonomously for the majority of the show and are in their own separate ‘clique’).

8. X-Men

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Image from comicvine.gamespot.com

X-men also has misfits, yes, but we’ll give that to The Goonies instead. A trickier reference to the Marvel comics actually happens in the first episode, when Dustin and Will are talking about an X-Men comic; the specific issue they argue about is volume 134, in which “Jean Grey mentally snaps…and inadvertently unleashes the Dark Phoenix, a cosmic force beyond her control,” which is a tip of the hat to Eleven later in the series.

9. The Thing

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Image from culturecreature.com

The 80’s horror movie The Thing makes a few appearances in Stranger Things. This one is a bit like Star Wars, in that there are a couple of casual mentions you can spot if you’re looking for them. In Mike’s basement there’s a poster for the movie on one of the walls, and when Dustin calls Mr. Clarke for information on how to build a sensory deprivation tank (which is the most awkward and amusing thing on the show), guess what Mr. Clarke is watching? That’s right: The Thing.

10. Minority Report/Fringe

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Image from movle.blogspot.com

Last but not least, I’m going to throw in a debatable one. When the characters on Stranger Things make a sensory deprivation tank for Eleven to heighten her telepathy and enter the Upside Down, some people got flashes of the 2002 movie Minority Report. Specifically, the scene when Spielberg’s pre-cogs lay in their own sensory deprivation tanks to get flashes of the future.

Now, as it’s Spielberg we’re talking about here (whose other movies are a big influence on the show), it’s probably a homage to him. But! For anyone who watched the hit TV series Fringe—did you not get flashbacks of psychic Olivia Dunham concentrating in a sensory deprivation tank? I did. I really did.

So, did we miss anything? Let us know if you caught something strange that we missed, and bonus points for the more obscure the reference is!

-Contributed by Lorna Antoniazzi

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Speculative ASMR

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Image from YouTube channel AsmrArtistsRead

Speculative settings are known to enchant and exhilarate. Whether you’re flying through space and time, or surrounded by magicians and dragons, speculative works create an overpowering sense of adrenaline and excitement. What proves fascinating is the way in which these worlds and characters are also capable of lulling the audience into a peaceful, sometimes trance-like state; and all with the help of a little science.

Many people mention feeling a tingling, goosebump-like sensation when they’re asked to describe a state of relaxation or calm. Frequently this feeling arises from seemingly insignificant things: whispering barely above a murmur, the sound of water droplets, or thunder. Over the past decade or so, science has come to classify this sensation as autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR. A person can enter a euphoric state upon hearing sounds or seeing things that stimulate a tingling sensation, which starts at the scalp and moves down throughout the body.

For insomniacs or anxious people like myself, there is a large and growing ASMR community on YouTube. Users called ASMRtists make videos where they do anything from playing with crinkly tissue paper and tapping on various surfaces to roleplays and personal attention/positive affirmation videos that engage the viewer. While most videos are rather mundane, using everyday objects or referring to regular scenarios such as a trip to the spa, some users have decided to get creative and refer to the speculative realm for help.

One of the first ASMR videos I’ve ever watched was a simple whispering video by a user called Whisper Crystal, in which she layered the reading of Tolkien’s elvish poetry, in Elvish and in English, with music from the movie. Though the video has since, sadly, had its settings changed to private, I still remember the way in which the breathy pronunciation and laments for the evening star made me feel safe and lulled me to sleep, once again sobbing at the unfortunate twist of fate of not having been born an elf.

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Image from YouTube channel Heather Feather ASMR

These videos have only gotten more popular over the years. There are those like Heather Feather’s “It’s Dangerous to Go Alone!” roleplay, in which the viewer feels like a character in the beginning of a video game. The viewer is presented with a variety of weapons from well-known games like the dagger of time from The Prince of Persia. These videos play with pop culture and incorporate existing details or languages, like one read in Valyrian, a language from Game of Thrones.

One channel in particular has become a personal favourite of mine, a channel by the user ASMR Rooms. Each of her YouTube videos is called a “room” because of the way in which it incorporates sounds that one would hear at a specific location. One can listen to the low humming and tinkering of the dwarves of Erebor, or the sounds of the waterfalls of Rivendell with the gentle singing of the elves. Many of her videos focus on the world of Harry Potter, capturing locations such as the Three Broomsticks. The best by far are the four videos dedicated to each of the four houses, among which Hufflepuff is the best. Situated near the Hogwarts kitchens, the Hufflepuff common room is sunny and breezy, with the sound of birds chirping and a pleasant spring breeze blowing through the windows, while the occasional chatter of students or the shadow of a stranger pass by.

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Image from YouTube channel ASMR rooms

Though the sounds used in these videos are simple, and similar to what one might hear on a regular basis, they are successful in stimulating the imagination by creating a sense of setting and atmosphere. It becomes easy to choose your appropriate House video and imagine oneself as a student in Hogwarts, sitting and studying for your O.W.L.s or simply taking a nap between classes. While other videos can include speculative characters or props, they focus much more on calming the viewer down—though some, like the few roleplays of Nurse Joy, are worthwhile to watch/listen to because of their cuteness.

One of the greatest pains for an avid reader is being unable to slip into the pages of the book and exist in whatever world one is reading about. While movies are capable of bringing these stories and characters to life, they do so in a way that makes one want to run headfirst into battle or do something reckless, like ride a dragon. ASMR videos offer a different side to these beloved characters and places, letting them become something each person visualizes and understands differently in a vivid, sensory fashion. It becomes much easier to make the experience personal and enjoyable, a “mundane day” in a fantastical world.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Just Peace: Ambitious Politics in Doctor Who

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Illustration by Stephanie Gao

Yes, in this post I will be discussing specific scenes. Yes, there will be spoilers.

Doctor Who is an awesome show; you don’t need me to tell you that. Full of action, sci-fi, and a dash of romance, it has captivated viewers over many generations. Even if you aren’t interested in any of these aspects of the show—which I honestly can’t imagine to be the case—Doctor Who also provides a different angle of interest. It is a clever show that uses elements from history and gestures towards real world political tensions with relevance and tact.

At the heart of the show lies the figure of the Doctor: a powerful, mostly benevolent, and ageless (no, really, the production team has messed up the details of his age frequently) Time Lord. The Doctor is arguably the most important symbol created by the franchise. He roams freely across the universe, engaging in conflict with various malevolent alien species and humans who seek to do harm to others.

One of the Doctor’s most formidable enemies is also one the show’s greatest political statements. The Daleks are aliens that see themselves as a superior race and seek to exterminate other species. They originated in the 60s, borne out of a decade where the tensions of World War II were still resonant and frightening. The characterization of the Daleks as having an ideology comparable to Nazism allows the viewers to breathe a sigh of relief when the Doctor destroys them to protect humanity. Confrontation between the Doctor and the Daleks also represents the destruction of one ideology at the hands of another. This political statement that has its roots in the Cold War, and the strong message that the United Kingdom wanted to send to potential aggressors.

Vigilantism often falls within the patch of grey between clearly defined categories of good and bad. Though the Doctor doles out justice without authorization, he mostly manages to lean closer to the good. Before the Doctor condemns the villainous groups, he listens to eyewitness accounts of the horrors committed and uses historical and factual evidence. He also attempts to rehabilitate the villains before using irreversible force, as seen in his actions in the season 4 finale, “Journey’s End”, where he attempts to engage the Daleks in dialogue before blowing up their spaceship.

The Doctor is representative of the reality of how politics can and often does play out. Even in our world, states with more power and resources engage in treaties of protection with states lacking in these things, similar to how the Doctor offers protection to alien or human societies and the universe as a whole. Before engaging in combat or war, the Doctor insists that every measure be taken to minimize causalities and engage in peaceful mediation. The aforementioned episode was written in 2008, a time of fierce combat in the Middle East, which the United Kingdom, through NATO, participated in.

Doctor Who is also highly political in its treatment of sex and race. It features Captain Jack, a multi-sexual character with varying interests, and Martha Jones, a black female character who challenges viewers to face Britain’s troubling racist past when the character journeys to the Victorian era and encounters an obvious lack of basic human respect, to say the least. Doctor Who brings issues of race and sexual identity to the forefront when it features these characters in important roles within the Doctor’s life and allows for positive discourse on their unique qualities through the Doctor’s unquestioned acceptance of them.

While watching the show, I’ve often been fascinated by the nature of this fictional world. It depicts a version of our world that is resilient, as it is constantly assailed by species beyond human understanding, and yet manages to maintain its dignity, hope, and the will to fight. In light of the recent attacks on societies by terrorist and extremist groups, these are qualities that we should adopt and remember as our own. While I’ve seen no evidence of the Doctor being present in our world, may the political ideals of justice and peace that he embodies live and thrive.

-Contributed by Molly Cong

The Lows and Highs of Fifteen Dogs (Part 2)

Click here for Part 1

Andre Alexis’ novel, Fifteen Dogs, has its moments of elevated hopefulness. Before diving into the storylines of two dogs whose intelligence leads them towards meaningful lives, I must pause to reflect on what I feel is a major weakness of the novel, a tragedy wrought by the author’s hand.

Among the dogs there are five females, only three of which live much beyond the initial escape and the first twenty pages of the novel. Yet the narrative perspective never enters the minds of these female dogs. They are described only externally by the narrating voice or by the male dogs. Given the philosophical tone of the story, a huge absence is felt of the female voice responding to the moral and social issues the dogs face.

Two of the dogs, Bella and Athena, bond almost as sisters. So why is this relationship, this unique sense of loyalty, never explored in first-person narration? Without the female voice, we’re not even sure how the females refer to themselves or one another. When Atticus, alpha of the pack, develops a confusing attachment to Rosie, a German Shepherd, the question of “could it be love?” cannot be answered because we never get to look into Rosie’s mind, and never attain her opinion of their relationship.

Where is the character of the female philosopher, who explores her sense of self, endures through sadness, and engages in meaningful reflection? It’s a point of angst and disappointment that she was mute throughout this novel.

If this crucial missing character is at all redeemed, it is through the relationship that Majnoun, the black-haired poodle, forms with a human woman, Nira. Rescuing Majnoun and tending to him after a serious injury, Nira proves to be a respectful master. After the initial surprise of realizing his intelligence and ability to mimic some English words, she thoughtfully communicates with him. She has the magical opportunity of being able to speak with her dog and have them understand one another, and through their dialogue she shares her views on stories, god, power, and love. As Majnoun’s understanding of the confusing nuances of human language deepens, the two develop the intimacy of confidants. As the best of friends do, they learn about each other on their own terms, respecting the differences in their values, and share a strong sense of loyalty that weaves their fates together.

In my eyes, Majnoun’s story represents the pinnacle of fulfilling social integration, finding a sense of belonging and friendship, while the story of Prince, a mutt who composes poetry, exemplifies meaningful introspection, a mastery of language, and the achievement of self-affirmation: deeply-felt satisfaction in recognizing your own value.

As someone who enjoys poetry, I became particularly fond of Prince’s storyline. The novel is interspersed with his playful experiments in the dogs’ new language. The poems generally depict what you would expect a dog to value: visceral illustrations of the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of nature, but with the self-conscious touch of his new awareness of time and death.

As another treat, each poem contains a hidden message. Initially, a message only stood out to me in one poem, and it wasn’t until I reached the novel’s endnote, which describes the genre of the poems, that I went back and searched through each poem more thoroughly. To give away only a hint, I’ll tell you about two effects that made this treasure-hunt fun. The first is that uncovering the message requires you to read the poems aloud, drawing out the syllables until the words blend and lose their individual meaning. To eavesdroppers, my recitation must have sounded like growling and as incoherent as the language of dogs. The second effect is that the hidden words reveal an endearing quality of the poems that underscores the connection Prince feels to his pack-mates despite the tragedy that befalls them.

When the dogs are eventually separated from one another, and Prince finds himself alone near the end of his life, he begins to worry that his way of speaking and his poetry will die with him. He believes that he will leave no legacy, and yet Prince nurtures a sense of self-affirmation, recognizing that his unique identity, perspective, and poetry are dear to himself. Dogs can be a source of unconditional love, and with that same affection, Prince is an example of how someone can come to find value and love in themselves.

In Fifteen Dogs, life is sweepingly depicted as violent, chaotic, and tragic. Yet the potential for happiness that human consciousness nurtures is so precious that even the gods are captivated by it. I’m willing to wager that you will be captivated, too.

Contributed by Sonia Urlando

Between Gods and Dogs: A Fable about Human Nature (Part 1)

Fifteen Dogs
Illustration by Alexandra Portoraro

Have you ever wished you could speak with and understand your dog? With their sympathetic eyes and joyful energy, dogs can be uplifting companions through the toughest times and the worries of every day. When our minds are preoccupied with regret and anxiety, dogs can bring us into the present moment and make us feel loved just as we are.

Andre Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs gives you that chance to see humanity reflected back at you through the minds and senses of dogs.

The novel is highly commended; this November it was awarded the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It’s also a fairly short read despite covering a great scope, and it’s sure to leave a lasting impression.

With this novel in your hands, your viewpoint as a reader (and as a human) is a very privileged one. You get a glimpse of a ‘high’ realm of the gods and Fates: their whims, conflicts, and interferences in the world; as well as the ‘down-to-earth’ perspective of the lives of dogs. But the real subject under the microscope is the nature of human consciousness.

Is the gift of consciousness always coupled with misery? Such a heavy question is handled playfully when Greek gods Hermes, a notorious trickster, and Apollo make a bet on whether an animal would be just as miserable as humans seem to be if they were given human intelligence. Apollo takes the pessimistic point of view, while Hermes stakes his wager on happiness at the end of the animal’s life. By their divine intervention, the lives of the visiting dogs at a veterinary clinic are radically altered.

When the dogs are granted human intelligence, their language expands and becomes more complex. They invent concepts, they self-reflect, and they analyze all that was once familiar and instinctual. Through their enlightened perspective, humanity’s existential questions are made strange and amusing. Almost immediately upon escaping the veterinary clinic, Majnoun, a black-haired poodle, suggests that the dogs resist their impulse to run free and chase squirrels with the spontaneous creation of the question: “why?”

Here’s where Fifteen Dogs innovates its genre. Subtitled as “An Apologue”, the novel draws from this age-old storytelling method, which features animals whose traits serve as a metaphor for human behaviour. However, since the characters are animals, the genre usually addresses the instinctual side of our nature. The animals run themselves into the thick of trouble in order to convey morals about how we should curb our impulses to achieve our goals.

Seeming also to borrow from the genre of the parable, this novel devises a platform for the animals to explore the elevated questions that plague the human mind: What does it mean to fight for a principle? What power does language carry? What does it mean to be ourselves? What is our purpose in the world?

Morality isn’t clear-cut, however, as the dogs face major points of contention. They become divided into those who fully embrace their changes, and those who desperately try to recreate their old state of being and become, dare I say, dogmatic. Those who consciously try to act out what it means to be a dog and force this upon their pack-mates encounter more philosophical quandaries. Tragically, they also enact an analogy for war, violence, and fearfulness that humans witness too often.

Things look grim for Hermes’ chances, but through these dark events, two of the dogs in particular offer some hope that their intelligence will bring them happiness. Through creativity and friendship, these two remind us of the things in life that we hold precious. Come back for part two—it’ll end on a brighter note, trust me!

Contributed by Sonia Urlando

Jessica Jones: Feminist Noir

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In my line of work, you gotta know when to walk away. But some cases just won’t let you go…”

Jessica Jones, Marvel’s second outing with Netflix following Daredevil, arrived on November 20 at 3am EST. Needless to say, an hour later I had finished the pilot, and a day later, I dried my eyes as the credits rolled on episode thirteen.

There is a lot to unpack here. Jessica (Krysten Ritter) is the culmination of almost a century of noir detective stories. She’s a hard-boiled, keen, alcoholic sleuth, giving monologues about cases over the sounds of smooth jazz and a glass of whiskey in the dead of night in New York City. Even the opening lines, “New York may be the city that never sleeps, but it sure sleeps around,” would have felt at home in such films as The Maltese Falcon or, indeed, City that Never Sleeps. But this is more than a classic detective story.

For one, Jessica has superpowers. She’s super strong, a little bit fast, and can fly (badly, or as she calls it, “controlled falling”. This works to the advantage of the show’s budget). Jessica isn’t showy with these powers—she isn’t dressing up in a costume and beating up thugs, but she isn’t really hiding either. She uses these gifts when the situation calls for them, and that’s it.

But her powers are of secondary importance to the show. What is given the real emphasis is her relationship with her adopted sister Trish (Rachel Taylor), love interest and fellow defender-to-be Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and her neighbour and friend Malcolm (Eka Darville). Each of these relationships are nuanced and interesting, particularly the chemistry between Jessica and Luke. It has the benefit of neither one ever really being in a true position of power over the other; it fluctuates as needed. You know, like it would with real people.

However, it might not be her friends, but rather her enemy that this show will be remembered for. Kilgrave (Doctor Who’s David Tennant, looking like he’s having the time of his life), is the most terrifying villain Marvel has ever given us, topping Daredevil’s Kingpin and leaving Loki whining in the dust. The fact that Kilgrave is so compelling and frightening, coupled with how magnificently David Tennant plays him, is essential, considering almost the entire show is focused on the villain’s story.

From episode one onwards, Jessica is almost entirely focused on finding and stopping Kilgrave (with the occasionally side step to set up Luke Cage’s story).

With Jessica Jones, we get the first conflict between hero and villain that is truly a personal fight since Loki in the first Thor movie.

Before she was a P.I., Jessica was kidnapped and held against her will by Kilgrave. The show doesn’t say for how long, but it is implied that it lasted for months. Kilgrave has his own power: mind control. People are forced to do whatever he asks. He forced Jessica to be with him, just as he forces others to commit acts of violence or even murder or suicide if he feels like it.

Jessica escaped from Kilgrave, and this is how we meet her in the show. She is a survivor of rape and abuse, of having her agency stripped away from her, and of having her mind and body violated. Jessica suffers from PTSD because of her time with Kilgrave, and more than anything, this struggle is what the show is about.

Kilgrave is used to force a discussion on serious issues. Through his evil, the show explores the issues of consent, agency, and male entitlement. What might be most genuinely upsetting about his character is that Kilgrave doesn’t think that he’s done anything wrong. He takes no responsibility for the things he makes other people do.

Kilgrave, who repeatedly forces people to kill, genuinely believes that he didn’t kill anybody—they did it themselves. When, in episode eight, he is directly confronted by Jessica about her rape, his first reaction is to say, “I hate that word,” and claim that it wasn’t rape.

In fact, after everything he put her through, Kilgrave really believes that he loves Jessica and that he can make her love him back. He believes he’s done nothing wrong. One of the most unsettling moments is where he attempts to be considerate, telling her: “You were the first thing, excuse me, person, I ever wanted that walked away from me.” It’s terrifying, because you really know how proud of himself he is for that tiny consideration, even while threatening to kill a building full of people if Jessica doesn’t do what he says.

Kilgrave is the embodiment of a type of misogynist that has long gone unchecked in society. A man likes or is attracted to a woman, so she must reciprocate this attraction. Kilgrave wants Jessica, and so in his mind she has to want him back. It’s this unnerving sense of entitlement that carries the character and his understanding of the world, and it is terrifying.

Jessica Jones rejects that this is a normal or a forgivable way of thinking. Instead, it puts it front and center as evil, and on the way it creates the most terrifying on-screen presence since Heath Ledger’s Joker. When Jessica finally wins the day, you have to cheer just a little, because this battle was so personal, and her victory is completely earned.

Which is good, because Jessica focuses on almost nothing else. While the supporting cast is strong, and several secondary characters have their own plotlines, none of them manage to compete with the interest in the main story. This is unfortunate, because not every episode can be centered on the main villain. Jessica spends several episodes hunting Kilgrave without him ever appearing.

The only secondary character with a satisfying arc is Luke Cage. Apart from this also turning out to be about Kilgrave, and being defined by his relationship to Jessica, this sets up Luke’s own Netflix series for next year.

Jessica is an amazing character, and she’s put sharply on-screen. It’s just a pity that in thirteen episodes, Kilgrave is the only real case she focuses on, and everything else falls to the wayside. It would have been nice to see her take on some more P.I. work, to stop the show from focusing almost entirely on Kilgrave.

But that is one complaint in a sea of compliments. If you haven’t seen Jessica Jones yet, go and do so. You’re in for a wild ride.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

Hypermasculinity in the Jedi Order, or Why the Prequels Don’t Actually Suck All That Much

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I’d like to preface this by saying that a large majority of this analysis is just my interpretation. I frankly doubt that George Lucas, paragon of feminism (heavy sarcasm), actually considered feminist discourse while writing the Star Wars prequels, but it’s nice to imagine that he did.

Let’s take a look at the most iconic tragic hero of our age, often referenced in high school English classes in a futile attempt to relate to the Millennials: Anakin Skywalker. What was his fatal flaw—hubris? Jealousy? A lust for power? These ideas have all been looked at extensively, so let’s look instead at what pushed him over the edge: the Jedi Code. We constantly see Anakin agonizing over the rules that he is expected to follow—“I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he says.

Jedi are taught to control their feelings; they are taught that emotional bonds make you weak. They are forbidden to fall in love, and they are forbidden to feel anger or grief. And Anakin, the Chosen One, is expected to embody this philosophy. The inner angst that consumes Anakin is the fear that he’s not a good enough Jedi simply because he doesn’t reach these ridiculously high standards. He’s human! He can’t be expected not to feel emotions, to never feel anger or grief or love—no one can. It is clear how toxic it is for him to suppress these emotions—how it culminates in brash fits of rage and violence, and how it begins his descent into darkness. Really, it’s the Jedi Code’s narrow set of expectations that push Anakin over the edge.

When I think of these unattainable standards, this suppression of emotions that the Jedi are expected to achieve, the first things that come to mind are: “Be a man.” “Real men don’t cry.”  The similarities between the expectations of the Jedi Code and the standards that societal gender norms place on men are alarming.

There’s this toxic notion that a man isn’t supposed to be emotional, that he’s supposed to be strong and solid while a weepy woman cries on his shoulder. As if crying and being emotionally vulnerable make you “less of a man.” Hypermasculinity imposes a strict definition of how men should behave; this can result in pent-up anger and violence, and has a real effect on the mental health of men.

I would argue that hypermasculinity plays a role in the reception of the Star Wars prequels as a whole. These films are notorious for their bad reception, and are considered a bit of a joke among hardcore Star Wars fans.  But I would say that part of this negative view is due to the fact that they’re films in a genre that is traditionally considered a “man’s world,” and yet they focus on traditionally feminine ideas and themes.

Compared to the original trilogy, there is a clear narrative difference in the prequels. The original trilogy is very much centered on friendship and adventure, and revolves around interpersonal relationships—the most prominent being a father-son relationship. The conflict is external, with a force of evil that is eventually defeated by the hero. These are traditionally “masculine” themes.

In contrast, the prequels are much more focused on internal conflict. The main character frequently shows emotional vulnerability, which is a rare sight in male protagonists. Compared to Han Solo, that personification of bravado and manliness, Anakin’s character really does challenge gender norms. How often do you see the male character in a sci-fi being the romantic and sensitive one in a relationship? And yet Anakin is often interpreted as whiny and overdramatic.

The original trilogy is about adventure and comradery—this belongs to men. The prequels are about romance and heartbreak and vulnerability—this belongs to women. According to society, at least.

For a man to admit that he enjoys these types of films would be to admit to being “unmanly.” This is the same perception of masculinity that has categorized an entire genre of movies as “chick-flicks”—as if movies have genders. So men are more inclined to scoff at the prequels. People laugh at the mushy dialogue (I wouldn’t disagree with you there, but let’s look at the bigger picture) because that’s not what they expect from a male protagonist. It doesn’t help that, on top of this, a huge demographic of the prequel fandom is teenage girls. Of course anything that teenage girls enjoy is automatically looked down upon. There’s that wonderful fragile masculinity again.

So people are just inclined to hate the prequels. And I will admit that there are honest and valid critiques of the prequel trilogy. However, say what you will about the cringe-inducing dialogue, Hayden Christensen’s acting, or the entirety of Jar-Jar Binks, the prequels did one thing right. Returning to the Jedi Code’s black-and-white views, the prequel trilogy is interesting because it introduces complexity into the Star Wars universe. Is the world really split between good Jedi and evil Sith, as the original trilogy would have us believe? If the Jedi are enforcing a toxic philosophy allegorical to sexist gender norms in our world, if they are what push Anakin to the Dark Side, are they truly the perfect force of benevolence? Whether George Lucas intended it or not, the prequels call into question just how good the Jedi really are.

 

 

 

-Contributed by Komal Adeel