Stranger People

Season 4 of Stranger Things took a detour inside an exotic world it had never explored before: a Latter-day Saint home in mid-80s Utah. While Stranger Things is a fine show, it doesn’t really understand any location outside the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. This includes Utah, and it very much includes LDS families. Consequently, just like the Soviet gulag in the first 8 episodes, the foreign setting is played for laughs.

The show doesn’t quite know how to set the scene for an LDS family home. Suzie, the teen hacker long-distance girlfriend of one of the main characters, has two BYU posters on her wall. Otherwise, the show tries to indicate “LDS family” by showing a household filled with a lot of children doing interesting things – producing and acting in a homemade movie, playing Indian dress-up with a bow and arrow, repairing a rooftop TV antenna, or (in the case of the oldest sibling) swearing and seizing the chance to smoke marijuana. The father, like all the fathers in the series, is an oblivious killjoy, while the mother is mysteriously absent. So the show opts to depict the LDS family setting not as oppressive, but as “lots of kids doing interesting things.” Thanks, I guess? In a media landscape where my faith is only allowed to exist either as a backdrop for jokes or as a pathology to be overcome, I guess I’ll take the humorous option.

Some details were off. Suzie’s devotional literature isn’t from Deseret Book, but general Christian lit instead. Her father has confiscated her computer for dating an agnostic, rather than the actual transgression: underage dating (and Dustin, her main character boyfriend, is anything but agnostic; he has a perfect knowledge that the supernatural is real).

But the real sin of Stranger Things is having Dustin’s friends Will and Mike lie to Suzie about what they’re really doing. Because in mid-80s Utah, you can go ahead and say out loud that you’re fighting an evil demon – especially one who’s in league with the Soviets and a cabal in the U.S. government – with a combination of firearms, battle axes, and a mysterious supernatural power. Suzie, her family and her neighbors are ready to believe you. Give them time to make a few calls, and they can probably have a battalion ready to set out for the Nevada desert in station wagons. Or if your party is limited to four members, I’d go with the 13-year-old Eagle Scout, the 7th Year camp counselor, the level 1 elder unsure of his powers, and the slightly deranged survivalist uncle. That’s a show I could watch for 10 episodes.

And that’s the problem with not taking LDS characters and environments seriously. You waste the narrative potential that’s sitting right there, just waiting for you to do something with it.

12 comments for “Stranger People

  1. You have to pause it in just the right place to see, but when the dad’s computer unexpectedly loses power, he’s reading a quote on his screen by Pres. Hinckley about not dating non-members. It seems to be meant as a little foreshadowing for the subplot of the stoner pizza guy suddenly liking his rebellious daughter. I googled the quote, and it was legitimate, if a little out of context.

  2. I agree that the depiction was “off” in many ways. Thanks for sharing. One point I’d love to discuss more, though:

    > Her father has confiscated her computer for dating an agnostic, rather than the actual transgression: underage dating

    When did the “16 before dating” policy actually begin (or begin in earnest?) I think emphasis may have begun in the 80s, but I’m not sure exactly when? Just wondering out loud on the actual history and emphasis of that policy.

    Also, many LDS homes (like ours) made some distinction between merely having a boyfriend and “dating” (i.e., going out on single, exclusive dates with one another). Occasionally I would have a “girlfriend” before I was 16 (these usually lasted hours or a few days), but I wasn’t really “dating” (i.e., we never went out on a date). I don’t care to argue whether that was “okay” or not, merely that it was a common occurrence among Latter-day Saints, and it undermines this criticism of the show, perhaps?

    Finally, right around this time there was some significant emphasis on dating and marrying *members*. For instance, Benson in October 1986:

    > Our Heavenly Father wants you to date young men who are faithful members of the Church, who will be worthy to take you to the temple and be married the Lord’s way. There will be a new spirit in Zion when the young women will say to their boyfriends, “If you cannot get a temple recommend, then I am not about to tie my life to you, even for mortality!” And the young returned missionary will say to his girlfriend, “I am sorry, but as much as I love you, I will not marry out of the holy temple.”

    Belief in God and/or the supernatural was beside the point—the emphasis was on whether they were members of the Church (and it goes without saying that Dustin was not a member of the Church). In all my time as a youth and leader, I feel like the emphasis was on dating *members* specifically. An upstanding person who believed in God but wasn’t LDS still couldn’t take you to the temple to be sealed for time and eternity, so from the LDS perspective their belief (or not) in God or the supernatural really didn’t matter much at all.

    Thanks for considering.

  3. [update to my comment from July 25, 2022 at 2:51pm above]

    I’ve since heard feedback that the 16 year old dating policy started in the mid 1970s. Would love to find a source on that. Thanks!

  4. As a person who grew up in the 80’s (born in 1970) I can vouch that the no dating until 16 was well esablished. My older sisters fought it in the late 70’s. So, while I don’t have a direct source, my own lived experience is that it was very much a thing. The musical Debbie, Diary of a Mormon Girl from 1978 has a whole plot line about the lead, Debbie, turning 16 and being able to date.

  5. Utah Valley 360 has some excerpts from the original 1965 edition of For the Strength of Youth, including this.

    “There should be no dating before the age of sixteen. Up to this time, social life should be limited to group activities. Variety in dating is desirable.”

    I wasn’t perfect in following this rule.

  6. When I was 14, I was asked to a girl’s choice dance by an older girl (but not yet 16) who was the daughter of a GA. It was officially a double date and the other boy was 16 (at least) and provided transportation. Perhaps it qualified as a “group activity.” I never thought twice about it–16 was meaningful to me only in the context of transportation.

  7. Though I have some gripes with how LDS characters are depicted in Stranger Things, it’s still leaps and bounds better than the LDS caricatures in Under the Banner of Heaven. In Stranger Things, we’re eccentric, but normal (mostly). In UTBOH, we’re deluded fanatics in a Church with sinister origins. I’ll take an eccentric depiction over a libelous one anyday…

  8. jimbob: Thanks for the reminder – I did pause at that point, but I didn’t take notes.

    bwv: I think we’ve established that dating before 16 was definitely already a thing, but you’re right that the nonmember aspect is an issue. Maybe the writers chose “agnostic” to replace a specialized term like “nonmember”?

    S. Saint: I agree, eccentric is better than deluded fanatics. I just wish those weren’t the only two choices.

  9. My mother’s bishop (in 1968) warned her that her agnostic / heathen boyfriend might not have the capacity to join the Church, based on the way he played football – not giving an inch. Fortunately, he did not say to stop dating him. Eventually he did come around (her parents’ testimonies and examples helped) and he was baptized and they married in fall 1969. (He had to wait until he turned 21.) They were sealed the following August. That bishop was Henry B. Eyring.

    My in-laws started dating around the same time, and she wasn’t a member either. Eventually he baptized her, they were married, and sealed not long after.

  10. I got a kick out of the unexpected excursion to Utah, which partly resembled the 1980’s Wasatch Front of my teenage years. I lived next to a family with 10 kids and the chaos and ineffective priesthood leadership seemed about right. Those were the days before programmed activities or homework, at least in my socio-economic neck of the woods. Stranger Things made a mistake not letting the whole neighborhood into the act because there were many kids from every house and we kids went from one house to the other and back again. Stranger Things also made a mistake by having the LDS kids indifferent to having non-Mormons from out-of-town show up unannounced. That would have been interesting to see non-Mormons or non-Utahns show up in my house. I would have noticed and felt sorry for them.

  11. One call to the Stake President would have resulted in him declaring “President Benson has prepared us for this day” and the whole Stake would have been ready to go by the end of that days commute.

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