‘Stranger Things’ nails the ’80s — except for female journalists and small towns

July 12, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

While “Stranger Things” got major props for perfecting many details of 1980s life, season three missed one big mark: the small-town newspaper journalism of that era.

In doing so, showrunners denied one of the series’ most deserving characters her moment in the sun.

Yes, there was plenty of sexism in both newsrooms and the broader world. (And racism, too, which isn’t acknowledged much in the series.) But The Hawkins Post looks more like 1955 than 1985, when women were making enormous strides in journalism.

In one of the opening scenes of the most recent “Stranger Things” season, we see Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) rushing to their jobs as summer interns at The Hawkins Post. As they argue about whether they should speed to avoid being late, we discover that their bosses love Jonathan’s photography and at best appreciate Nancy for her skills making coffee and delivering lunches.

“They don’t actually like me or respect me as a living, breathing human with a brain,” Nancy says.

In many places, small- and mid-sized newsrooms were ascending into their heyday. In 1985, the setting for “Stranger Things” season 3, the Pulitzer Prizes feted several women, several small newsrooms and even women in small newsrooms. Jackie Crosby was half of a duo at the Macon Telegraph that exposed local college athletic scams. Lucy Morgan and a partner were uncovering corruption in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Department for the then-St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns). And Michele Leslie of the Journal News in Lorain, Ohio, was a finalist for a piece on teen suicide.

In the 1980s, Edna Buchanan had arrived as a star crime reporter at the Miami Herald, profiled in this classic The New Yorker piece in 1986. Katharine Graham was the publisher of The Washington Post. Anna Quindlen was a star columnist for The New York Times. And by 1985, Barbara Walters had her own show and was the co-host of “20/20.”

In the fictional world of The Hawkins Post, Nancy delivers lunch to everyone banging away on electric typewriters in the newsroom (another inaccuracy that anyone who worked in a local newsroom ever will get a chuckle from: No one delivered sandwiches to our desks).

We follow her into what looks like a page one news meeting where eight men sit around a table. The executive editor declares, “Fellas, in six hours we go to print; I need something real.” A fellow editor cracks up the room with a joke about the size of a local beauty contestant’s breasts. Sure, a joke like that probably would have drawn a round of laughter in the 1980s (and the 1990s, and probably the 2000s).

But the room would not have been all men, even in a small town. And a print deadline of 6 p.m. doesn’t make a lot of sense.

To be sure, the 1980s were a delusional period of American life, and American newsrooms were largely a reflection of that time. The Cold War was waning. The economy was strong and newspapers were a beneficiary. Women were charging into the professional workforce in record numbers, including in journalism. We lived under the misguided impression that we’d mostly conquered the demons of sexism (and racism). All we had to do was keep moving forward in pleated fabrics and primary colors.

Instead of tapping into that zeitgeist, “Stranger Things” portrayed local journalism of the 1980s as led by men who were arrogant, uninterested in the plight of regular citizens and more invested in preserving the status quo than holding the powerful accountable.

It’s common in Hollywood to lean on the trope of journalists as bad guys. It’s too bad the Duffer brothers bought into that.

Related: Here’s our list of the best entertainment portrayals of journalists and journalism.

What does ring true? That an eager young journalist working late would answer the phone and get a big story. That an elderly woman would call journalists at the paper because she thought there was a story they should tell.

In most 1980s newsrooms, budding investigative reporter Nancy would have found a mentor who would have happily walked her through a tip that initially seemed like a long shot. This mentor would have graciously helped her develop a reporting strategy, maybe stood up to a doubting editor and certainly advised Nancy against misrepresenting herself as the sick woman’s relative. Or, maybe acting on their unconscious bias, her editors would have taken the story away from her and given it to their star reporter (always a possibility).

Let’s grant that for plot devices, the Duffer brothers needed The Hawkins Post to be both incompetent and stuck in the past. In a nod to the value of journalism in a democracy, as well as to the girl power the show celebrates at every turn, the mentor could have helped Nancy get the story to a bigger and better newspaper, and thus stick it her to jerk editors, an event that’s even foreshadowed in a tender moment Nancy has with her mom.

But the Duffers never deliver. What happened?

Nancy does finish reporting the story, albeit with an ethical lapse at the hospital. She and Jonathan, their younger siblings and their friends all save the world. In the final episode we see a variety of news headlines spinning forth to bring us three months into the future.

Why couldn’t one of those headlines have been followed by Nancy’s byline?

Supposedly season 4 is not yet written, so the Duffer brothers have an opportunity to do right by journalism and by Nancy.  It will be so much more satisfying if, after the final credits, we see a 30-years-later epilogue in which Nancy has gone on to become an award-winning editor at the Indianapolis Star.

After all, that’s the newspaper that stood up for girls when its investigative reporters exposed USA gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar, leading to his prosecution and conviction.

And its current senior news director is, you guessed it, a woman.