The inevitable Stranger Things 2 backlash is a cautionary tale for anyone trying to salvage a scrap of joy out of this unbelievably terrible year. The Netflix phenomenon began as a pure pop-culture confection; a thrilling piece of pastiche that starred some cute kids and Winona Ryder. Now, over a year later, Stranger Things fans are learning the hard way that nothing good can ever stay. Stranger Things 2 has arrived and so has the end of our communal innocence, between Charlie Heaton’s cocaine bust and the first wave of tepid reviews. The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon acknowledged that the second season of the Netflix original was faced with “monstrously high expectations,” and concluded that the latest Duffer brothers offering “doesn’t live up to the hype.”
But while Stranger Things may not be immaculate, it’s still a feel-good series—as evidenced by the adorable cast of kids who can now be spotted grinning in formalwear on red carpets. Watching the real-life Stranger Things gang adapt to their whirlwind fame was one of the purest joys of 2016—so I guess we should have known.
This season of Stranger Things culminates at a Hawkins Middle School “Snow Ball” dance. The wintery wonderland apparently proved a rich source of inspiration for the Duffer brothers, who decided to add a last-minute, unscripted kiss between Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and new addition Max (Sadie Sink). While a relatively chaste kiss might seem like fair game for two professional child actors, the circumstances surrounding the scene, which were openly discussed in an episode of Netflix’s Beyond Stranger Things after-show, has raised red flags on social media.
In the relevant clip from Beyond Stranger Things—itself a gimmick that’s only accelerated Stranger Things’ inevitable overexposure—the 15-year-old Sink sits down with her fellow middle school dance attendees and Duffers one and two. Ross Duffer opens a discussion of the kiss by telling a visibly worked-up Sink that the scene was “all [her] own fault.” Sadie points out that “the kiss was not written in the script.” She recalls, “I get there, the first day of Snowball… one of you, I think it was you Ross, you say, ‘Ooh, Sadie, you ready for the kiss?’ I’m like, ‘What! No! That’s not in the script… that’s not happening.’” She continues, “So the whole day I was like stressed out, I was like oh my god, wait, am I gonna have to… and it didn’t happen that day, but then the second day of Snow Ball.” At this point, Duffer explains, “You reacted so strongly to this—I was just joking—and you were so freaked out that I was like well, I gotta make her do it now… that’s why I’m saying it’s your fault.” And no wonder Sink was so “stressed out”; as she goes on to describe, the kiss was filmed in front of a full room of extras, plus “their parents, and the crew, and my mom.”
The entire conversation, in which Sink repeatedly recalls feeling caught off-guard while the Duffers giggle, strikes an odd tone, particularly in light of ongoing conversations in Hollywood regarding the exploitation of underage actors and issues of consent. The Duffers’ response to Sink’s initial pushback against the kiss—to insist upon the unscripted scene and then mine it for laughs during their after-show—feels deeply insensitive, grown men essentially bragging about their decision to ignore a 15-year-old girl’s justified discomfort. As Teen Vogue noted, “Many are now taking to social media to discuss this decision and question why the director didn’t comfort the actress, leave the kiss unscripted, or work with Sadie to capture the scene in a way that was comfortable and worry-free for her.”
Making matters worse—or maybe just more embarrassing—is the fact that Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard recently left his agency after sexual assault accusations surfaced about his now-former agent. (Representatives for Sink and Netflix did not return requests for comment.)
Of course, this strange interlude isn’t happening in a vacuum; as the entertainment industry continues to be upended by sexual assault and harassment allegations, Netflix in particular has come under scrutiny.
Earlier this week, Netflix announced that House of Cards will end after its upcoming sixth season following accusations of sexual misconduct against its star, Kevin Spacey. In an official statement, Media Rights Capital and Netflix expressed that they were “deeply troubled by [the] news concerning Kevin Spacey,” describing Star Trek: Discovery actor Anthony Rapp’s harrowing accusation of sexual misconduct as a “revelation,” adding, “executives from both of our companies arrived in Baltimore this afternoon to meet with our cast and crew to ensure that they continue to feel safe and supported.”
That statement did not age well; CNN reported Thursday that “Spacey made the set of Netflix’s House of Cards into a ‘toxic’ work environment through a pattern of sexual harassment,” according to eight current and former employees. A former production assistant alleged that Spacey sexually assaulted him: “The alleged sexual assault came months after the production assistant had, he told CNN, complained to a supervisor that Spacey was sexually harassing him. The supervisor’s solution was to never let the production assistant be alone with Spacey while they were on set, the production assistant says.” CNN also quoted a former camera assistant who “said the touching largely occurred in an open space and that ‘everybody saw.’”
Additionally, many are pointing out that while Netflix was quick to respond to Spacey’s high-profile case, the streaming giant has yet to comment on the multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault against actor Danny Masterson, who currently stars in The Ranch.