“Whatever's Happening, It’s Spreading”: The Stranger Things Legal Paratext

Curator's Note

How has convergence culture collapsed the boundaries of entertainment brands? Where can our networked media seek new avenues for expression? Stranger Things is, fundamentally, a text that crosses borders. The show trades in the motifs and mythology of the analog 1980s, but owes its popularity and existence to contemporary digital media strategy. The show’s success lies in binging and digital consumption, yet tailors its physical media release for nostalgia, utilizing the appearance of worn VHS cassettes to move DVDs through store shelves and internet carts.

For Stranger Things, it’s essential to provide nostalgic comfort, which explains why Netflix chose to utilize the show’s jargon and iconography in an August cease-and-desist to the owners of a bar themed for the show. The letter—arriving weeks prior to the show’s second season debut—demanded the bar close and seek permission before reopening. Standard stuff, but more attention-grabbing wereNetflix’s efforts to brand the letter to the show. “My walkie-talkie is busted,” the letter opens, before continuing with winking references to the letter’s punitive role (“I don’t want you to think I’m a total wastoid…”) and threats about the company’s legal team (“”the demogorgon is not always as forgiving”).

Netflix’s cease-and-desist is an intriguing cultural object for our heavily-surveilled media landscape. Netflix surely considered the possibility that the letter—an intentional, actionable legal demand—could escape its intended context and circulate among fans, pushing the network to refashion the document into a paratext that, above and beyond its effectiveness as a demand for specific action, also functions as a suitably “on-brand” expression of the franchise. The network is therefore able to position themselves as keepers of the “cool” parts of the brand, while publicly distancing themselves from the “demogorgon” lawyers the network employs—the implication being that the company—and by extension, the brand—is no longer the simple object of affection, but an active participant alongside its audience in cultivating the show’s cultural impact. The Stranger Things cease-and-desist reveals how convergence and networked culture now insists upon an “always-on” strategy for brand management, up to and even now including the very documents that keep the cultural order. 

 

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