115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Pathology of Netflix: Viral Bingeing and Stranger Things

Heather Freeman, Florida Polytechnic University

During the last decade, media consumption has been framed in increasingly pathologized terms. However, the rise of Netflix as a cottage industry for “binge-able” shows has arguably rendered “binge-watching” a dead metaphor. Their excessive production has normalized excessive consumption. However, the viral success of Netflix’s Stranger Things suggests a shift toward excessive critical reaction that has yet to be normalized. 

Proposal: 

During the last decade, media consumption has been framed in increasingly pathologized terms: from the “binge” to the “viral” meme, the language used to describe an audience’s engagement with visual texts frequently alludes to addiction, disorder, and disease. The critical trope of stigmatizing textual consumption is hardly new, and my paper will briefly discuss the 19th-century roots of comparing serialized reading to drug addiction. However, while the origins of “binge-watching” remain problematically tied to a particularly Victorian idea of guilty addiction, I would argue that its current usage (over the last 3-4 years) has rendered it a dead metaphor, uncoupled from its pathological meaning.  What was once considered wildly excessive and disordered (comparable to binge-eating), is now normal, average, and, in some cases, even ideal. My paper will explore how the rise of Netflix as a cottage industry for binge-able shows, released in “season dumps,” is in large part responsible for this shift both in critical discourse as well as audience self-identification.  In a sense, excessive production has normalized excessive consumption.

            However, I would argue that this rapid normalization has not extended toward critical and fan reception, and I will explore this idea further by taking the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things as a case study. Stranger Things is, conveniently enough, a series focused around literal pathologizing, both physical and mental. From the physical evidence of the infection Will Byers brings back from the Upside-Down to the accusations of hysteria that meet his mother Joyce’s insistence that her son is alive, this is a show about the failure to correctly diagnose symptoms in a fundamentally altered (“upside down”) world. Of course, one of the main draws of the show has been its lack of uncanniness, as an escapist 1980s nostalgia-fest.  The way the show deals with mental health, medical experimentation, and infection bridges this gap between the canny and the uncanny as well.

            As Stranger Things became an unexpected success, though, minor character Barb emerged as a rallying point for pushback against the show. Given only a handful of minutes on screen and a grotesque death, Barb’s character generated an excessive amount of “think pieces” and surprise for the creators, who saw the character as essentially a functional throwaway. In traditionally released series, showrunners have historically been able to take this kind of pushback into consideration by saving beloved characters or tweaking romantic pairings.  Netflix shows, of course, release simultaneously, resulting in a product that is particularly suited for binge-watching but completely un-adaptable, content-wise.  The first season of Stranger Things’ self-contained nature, coupled with the voracious way its audience consumed it, created an imbalance and resulted in a different kind of excess: a glut of think pieces and reddit posts whose very volume came to serve as a viral meme.  In other words, this kind of excess is still culturally noteworthy. Netflix seems to have calcified the “binge” in terms of consumption, but it seems to have trigged a new excessive critical production—viral series begets viral reaction—that has yet to be normalized. 

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