The new hit Netflix original series, Stranger Things, creeped us out this summer, but maybe for reasons of which we are less conscious.
From the very beginning, we are confronted with heroes who could only accurately be described as virginal. The central narrative is driven by the disappearance of the young virgin, Will. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) and his brother Jonathan (another virgin) must navigate this terror without the help of a strong father figure. We see their detestation for Joyce’s ex-husband Lonnie play out in several scenes as a mirror image of Lonnie’s own womb and vagina envy — he wants to connect with the virgins he could never himself bear. Notice the father is not introduced until after they have begun to search for answers about the monster, referred to by the Three Young Virgin Heroes as the Demogorgon. Here I argue that the Demogorgon is a complex symbol in part representing a toxic fatherhood. We will further deconstruct the symbol of the Demogorgon later on.
First, we observe the psychosexual development of Mike, who is on the cusp of the Genital Stage — that is, if we buy into Freud — which we ultimately see the screenwriters do not. He grows more and more attached to Eleven, a young virgin well beyond this cusp. He brings her Eggo waffles, which she eats only to survive but which he uses to his advantage. The lewd choice of Eggo waffles for their cavernous texture is to be taken in jest. His eagerness grows with her waning commitment to chastity, ultimately culminating in a meeting not of mouth and vulva but mouth and mouth.
Now we come to Nancy, the “most mature” virgin in the series. She brings her Vestal Virgin friend Barbara to the pool party with the popular crowd, the two of them representing the madonna/whore dichotomy. Throughout her narrative we observe a tension between whether she will stay with Steve, the jock with the kissable lips and strong tongue, or leave him for Jonathan, the virgin and nude photographer with a strong gluteus maximus. The penetration of Nancy’s orifices with Steve’s tongue is juxtaposed against the real action, Barbara’s finger bleeding into the pool and the Demogorgon, or really Lonnie, the Father, taking her away. The Demogorgon smells blood, which, dripping in the pool, can only be symbolic of a first menstruation, meaning that Barb being sexually mature may be unable to keep her vows as a priestess of Vesta. The Father senses this maturation and prepares the maiden for what is perhaps the same thing Nancy and Steve are upstairs doing. Nancy returns to the same spot later, only to find that the porthole through which the Demogorgon passed has been shut like a healing uterine wall. Steve, quite voyeuristically looking in through the bedroom window, spies Nancy doing the unthinkable with Jonathan: letting him sleep on her floor, another point in which the screenwriters poke fun at our own prudishness. Enveloped in rage and toxic masculinity, Steve scribes the word “slut” together with “Nancy” on a movie theatre sign. The movie theater, representing teenage sexual activity, is meant to alert all sexually active couples of Nancy’s supposed betrayal, which belies her almost legitimate celibacy. The resulting homoerotic showdown between Steve and Jonathan in the alleyway with the two maidens looking on is no more than gaybait for an otherwise well-written show.
Some cultures attach positive meaning to the mouth and cunnilingus, such as Hinduism, in which it could be used to reach nirvana, or Taoism, in which it can be used to conserve one’s chi and increase longevity. The negative emphasis placed on the act in Stranger Things is a post-ironic mocking of American slow-evolving puritanical values and by extension the cunnilingus-phobia experienced by the virgins is derision of male writers who glorify castration anxiety.
Many fans ask the question, why does Barbara die and Will survive, even though Will was taken first? The answer is simple: Will has no vagina, and as such he is not fit for the act of cunnilingus, which, as we all already know, symbolizes death.
The Demogorgon takes virgins to what the children playfully call the Upside-Down, perhaps a nodding reference to children’s sexual play in which a boy holds a girl upside-down in order to perform the act of cunnilingus. The Upside-Down is the id, a dark reflection of the dimension in which our virgins live , and so it is only fitting that they are brought there by the Father. The Upside-Down is a dark and slimy place, crawling with slugs, which can only be reached via interdimensional portholes – it is itself an unignorable yonic symbol. This makes sense then that Joyce and her man-friend must wear something over their mouths while inside – it would counteract the symbolism for either of the heroes to perform cunnilingus in this way. We also see that Barbara and Will, the virgin victims, cannot use their mouths either, due to the nature of their sexual imprisonment.
At the very climax of season 1, Eleven, the telekinetic virgin girl, confronts the Demogorgon as well as her own abusive father, whose libido and yonic fixation ultimately leads to patricide. Here we see the Demogorgon’s mouth: a flower which opens up into a hole with teeth, eerily reminiscent of Georgia O’Keefe’s Black Iris. We have been duped. The Demogorgon is not the Father, but the cruel scientist Brenner is! The Demogorgon is itself a yonic symbol, a woman with Vagina Dentata at what is simultaneously a mouth, the very tool used for destructive cunnilingus, and the same orifice which must be protected from the very act. We see that we have actually two enemies: the abusive father, and the promiscuous woman who will perform cunnilingus on us but won’t let us perform cunnilingus on her. Her denial of her own pleasure is what creates the deadly tension.
Our horror as an audience is in this realization: that we victims of cunnilingus will become the very monsters that perform the act.
- Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, goddesses of the hearth. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children, and took a vow of chastity to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off-limits to the male colleges of priests. The chastity of the Vestals was considered to have a direct bearing on the health of the Roman state. When they entered the collegium, they left behind the authority of their fathers and became daughters of the state. Any sexual relationship with a citizen was therefore considered to be incestum and an act of treason.