Stranger things have happened than authentic women existing on the TV screen, but I might have struggled to realize this until I watched, well, Stranger Things. And I’m not totally living under a rock. I watch a lot of TV – some of it provides moments where I’m proud to be female and some of it makes me cringe at how poorly my fellow women are portrayed. I grew up on TV and movies that didn’t try too hard to fight the system of masculine stereotypes of women. Shows like I Love Lucy or Green Acres – they were funny, had their good moments, but mostly they reminded me that women were irrational, overly emotional, and incapable of basic things like handling a budget or knowing that a pound cake doesn’t weigh just one pound.
Today, in contrast, I’ve watched a fair amount of shows that attempt to be progressive about their representation of women, with varying degrees of success. In high school, I devoured One Tree Hill (I’m team Peyton, in case you’re curious), and I remember things like Brooke starting her own business in high school, Karen Roe rocking her role as a single mother, and Peyton opening her own record label. It’s clear the show was trying and somewhat succeeding at empowering women to be their own agents. But in the moments of tragedy (the school shooting, when Peyton was drugged at a college party), the guys almost always came to the rescue of the helpless women. Now, I’m currently in the midst of the CW’s Riverdale, which can be commended for making women active, not damsels in distress. But I really struggle to take any progressive storylines seriously in theory, when in practice the women are perfectly made up, clad in skin tight clothing, and wearing high heels while doing the dirty work – which can be both objectifying and unrealistic.
Stranger Things is different, and I want to talk about why it inspires me to be a woman. Instead of being caricatures or one-dimensional objects that exist to be looked at or to embellish the plot, each woman is alive. Each woman is her own agent, not a mockery of typical female traits or some idealistic depiction of what men want, but a real, living portrayal of humanity. I’m not saying that the Stranger Things women aren’t cooler than your average Jane, but they aren’t so inhumanely awesome (maybe except Eleven) that a female audience can’t relate to them. They are flawed, natural, beautiful, and powerful.
While on the base level, Stranger Things is about fighting monsters and exposing the terrors of uncontrolled scientific experimentation – the show begs to be analyzed for what it says about gender and the power of women to claim their humanity – their right to be imperfect agents of their own lives. I’m used to wanting to be a female character in some show because of whatever guy she gets to date, and I’m used to wanting to be a male character because of how smart, strong, or funny he is, but Stranger Things is the first time I’ve seen a woman and confidently exclaimed, “I want to be her!” because she’s strong, intelligent, and not waiting for male validation to save the world.
FOR THOSE UNFAMILIAR
I have to take a little detour for a second to make sure everyone’s with me. I don’t know why you wouldn’t have watched Stranger Things yet, but in case you have yet to dedicate 14.3 hours of your life to this sci-fi-meets-heartfelt-coming-of-age-drama, filmed to make cinematography nerds drool (analyzing the fantastic cinematography is for another day), here are some things to keep my argument from being a meaningless jumble of words you’ve never heard before.
The Plot With Minimal Spoilers
The small town of Hawkins, Indiana is a quiet, peaceful place in the fall of 1983. Parents are raising their kids, teens are falling in love or playing with tech in AV club, All the Right Moves decorates the marquee at the local theatre, and the worst thing that has happened in recent past is an owl nesting in a child’s hair that looked particularly nest-like (according to Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper). Then on November 6, 12-year-old Will Byers vanishes on his way home from playing Dungeons and Dragons with his posse of lovable nerds, the first on a trail of tragedies that ultimately reveal dark secrets of a scientific experiment gone very wrong in the mysterious government-run Hawkins National Laboratory.
The Characters You Need To Know – from youngest to oldest (approximately)
WILL BYERS (Noah Schnapp): Middle school aged son of Joyce Byers and Lonnie Byers (total loser ex-husband of Joyce), and younger brother of Jonathan. Thoughtful, artistic, and creative. Gets “taken” by the Demagorgon. Tiniest of all the little children. First and best friend is Mike.
MIKE WHEELER (Finn Wolfhard): Middle school aged son of Ted and Karen Wheeler (both pretty out of the loop the whole show) and younger brother of Nancy Wheeler. Quick, talkative, and assertive. Best friend of Will and pretty much all the children. Love interest of Eleven.
ELEVEN (Millie Bobby Brown): 12-year-old girl imprisoned and used for psychokinetic experimentation in the Hawkins Lab. Called “Eleven”, presumably because that was the number experiment she was. Abused through overwork and isolation in a prison-like cell by senior research scientist Martin Brenner, who she calls “Papa”. Escapes the lab at the start of the show. Brave, powerful, woman of few words. Can move cars, trains, doors, people with her mind. Can also make bullies pee themselves. Love interest of Mike. The opener and closer of the gate to the Upside Down.
MAX MAYFIELD (Sadie Sink): Middle school aged daughter of Susan and stepfather Neil Hargrove. Season two addition to the Hawkins community. Known for her mad skills at Dig Dug, the child gang’s favorite arcade game. Tomboyish, angsty on the outside, sweet on the inside. Not friends with Eleven, as of the end of season two.
NANCY WHEELER (Natalia Dyer): 16-year-old daughter of Karen and Ted Wheeler and older sister of Mike. Pretty, smart high school girl who’s dating the cute, popular boy. Studies for chemistry test while listening to Toto’s “Africa”. Best friend of Barb, until she ditches Barb to sleep with a boy and then Barb gets killed by the Demoagorgon. Resourceful, quick-witted, and confident. Love interest of Jonathan.
BARB HOLLAND (Shannon Purser): 16-year-old best friend of Nancy. Gets killed by the Demagorgon after Nancy ditches her at a party to sleep with Steve. Loyal friend and very not into the party scene. (Probably) not a huge fan of Demogorgons.
JONATHAN BYERS (Charlie Heaton): 16-year-old son of Joyce Byers and Lonnie Byers and older brother of Will. Introvert, photographer, into “cool” music. Very sensitive and emotionally in tuned to himself. Reads Vonnegut and listens to the Talking Heads for a good night. Has been called “a pretentious creep” by other high schoolers. Love interest of Nancy.
STEVE HARRINGTON (Joe Keery): 17-year-old boyfriend of Nancy. Begins the show as an immature, self-absorbed douchebag with rich parents. Grows up throughout the show and becomes pretty cool in season two (I’m not going to talk about this transformation – watch the show to understand). Cocky, suave, athletic.
KALI PRASAD (Linnea Berthelsen): Teenaged “sister” of Eleven – not biological, but through shared experience. Raised in the Hawkins Lab and used for experiments. Lives in Chicago with a band of hoodlums who hunt down people who wronged them and administer justice (kill them). Spends an episode with Eleven, exposing her to a different life than a life in Hawkins.
JOYCE BYERS (Winona Ryder): Mother of Jonathan and Will. Hardworking single mother who believes Will is still alive while everyone doubts her. Has never called in sick or missed a shift in ten years at the local general store. Determined, strong, caring.
A Few Things That Might Still Be Really Confusing
THE UPSIDE DOWN: The alternative dimension on the other side of Hawkins – literally upside down from it. A creepy, slimy, dark version of the town, filled with toxic air and weird creatures. (Need this alternate dimension thing explained more? Watch here.)
DEMOGORGON: A faceless monster, about the size of a tall man, that lives in the Upside Down. Enters Hawkins once the gate is opened and takes Will to the Upside Down. Feasts on humans and animals, attracted by blood. Lights flicker when it’s coming.
THE GATE: The opening between the Upside Down and normal Hawkins, located within Hawkins Lab. Accidentally created by Eleven during a forced and traumatizing trip to the sensory deprivation tank within the Lab.
THE SHADOW MONSTER: The dark, all consuming force from the Upside Down that controls the Demogorgons. Also known as the “Mind Flayer”. Has the power to possess humans.
AND NOW THE REAL STUFF BEGINS
On International Women’s Day, the Stranger Things Twitter account tweeted a list of fifteen women in the show. I’m only going to talk about three – for the most part. I chose them because they’re main characters and each represents a different age group, a different battle, and different manifestations of strength and humanity.
Joyce Byers: the fierce, protective mother
“Maybe I’m a mess, maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m out of my mind. But, God help me, I will keep these lights up until the day I die, if I think there’s any chance that Will is still out there.”
Joyce enters the Stranger Things scene as a single, working mother, bustling around the house looking for her younger son. For most of season one, she deals with Will’s disappearance with emotional and chaotic behavior. She cries a lot, she yells a lot, she slams the phone on the hook a few times (remember it’s the 1980s. People used to do that). When she first claims Will is still alive, people treat her with the type of patience reserved for a loved one who’s gone a little crazy. Then, as her stories get more incredible, even her own son basically mocks what she’s saying (of course, this all stops once everyone learns she’s been right the whole time). Remember that time in Pirates of the Caribbean when Elizabeth Swan is trying to convince the British lieutenant that the pirates on the Black Pearl can’t be killed, but he makes fun of her and locks her in a captain’s cabin? It’s kind of like that with Joyce – she’s making the same kind of incredulous claims. Except she screams a little less and she’s too headstrong to get locked up.
And it’s not like she’s not oblivious to the craziness at all – “I know it sounds crazy. I sound crazy. You think I don’t know that? It is crazy!” – she yells at Jonathan when he confronts her about her claims that Will isn’t dead, but is communicating with her through the lights in their house. She knows that people aren’t taking her seriously. She wants them to listen and believe, but their lack of belief doesn’t keep her from trusting herself and fighting to save her son alone. This raw, maternal instinct is beautifully portrayed through Joyce’s single-minded dedication to bringing Will home, her erratic behavior only emphasizing her humanity.
Now, I don’t think that looks are everything, but I need to talk about Joyce’s appearance. She goes days with scraggly hair, wrinkled clothes, and no make up. When TV shows persist in showing women waking up with make up on, hair falling perfectly after a fight in the woods, going out on rescue missions in heels and skin tight clothes (see Veronica Lodge and Toni Topaz in Riverdale for this one), they subtly communicate to female audiences that no matter how physically or intellectually significant women are to the plot, their sexually objective status is at least a tad more important. Now I’m thinking of Hermione Lodge in Riverdale, working to earn money for her daughter in a skin-tight waitress dress. Though Hermione is a shrewd and authoritative woman at times, her perfect appearance in every scene detracts from whatever the show could be doing to empower her through her actions by making her first an object to be admired. I’m not at all trying to say that women can’t be sexy on screen. I’m just sick of them being sexy as their primary role, or to fulfill some male fantasy.
Winona Ryder is a gorgeous woman. I know she’s gorgeous from other movies, from Golden Globes photos, from a quick Google search of her name. She has all the base “material” needed to make her a sex icon. It would be easy to dress her up in tight clothes, do her make up, curl her hair, and let her sit there on the couch, axe in hand, the hot and dangerous male dream icon. But if you’ll consult the picture of her at the start of this section, you’ll see she’s not like this.
In Stranger Things, Joyce’s sex appeal is not an object for the audience. She is active – both in her brain and in her body – defying the male gaze that could objectify her. Her sexuality, though not a major part of her character at this point in the series, is human and authentic, seen through the fire in her eyes and her fierce loyalty to those she loves. Joyce reminds me that sexuality isn’t just wearing the hottest outfit, and that claiming humanity means claiming that sexuality along with it.
Enough about sex; let’s talk about Joyce as the mother I hope I can be. In the times of peace, Joyce makes Will’s favorite meal, draws him a bath, dances with him, and encourages his creativity through artwork. I love when she recounts how she bought him a giant box of crayons – “120 colors” – and with them he drew a spaceship from his own imagination, which she pinned up at the grocery store where she works. She’s gentle and supportive, raising her sons on her own to the best of her ability.
But then there’s the moment where she hacks her living room wall through with an axe to rescue Will from another dimension. Or the time when she sacrifices her own comfort and Will’s present comfort to literally burn the Shadow Monster out from inside him. (The Shadow Monster “likes it cold”, so when it possesses Will, Joyce decides to make Will’s body hot, an uninhabitable host). As Jonathan cries and begs her to stop, watching 12-year-old Will writhe in agony, she fights her own pain with rock solid determination to do what needs to be done. She’s willing to bring her son to the brink of death if it means ultimately saving him. At the point where the traditional narrative would have the woman turn away because it’s “too much”, instead Jonathan cries on Nancy’s shoulder, while Joyce turns up the heat. Joyce is a woman who embodies a dynamic emotional sensitivity along with a terrifying strength of will power.
If Stranger Things were to just defy gender stereotypes by making Joyce more masculine – she doesn’t ever cry or she’s into sports or she never wears dresses, they’d succeed in reminding women they don’t have to be “girly”, but they’d make a crucial error. Such decisions communicate that being a strong woman means being more like a man. The show doesn’t need to make Joyce less feminine to make her strong, because masculinity does not equal strength. Joyce represents a strong femininity, concerned not with overpowering and castrating men, but with authentically loving and fighting as a woman can.
Nancy Wheeler: Nancy Drew-esque smart and tough fighter
“You still wanna do this?” – Jonathan
“Let’s burn that lab to the ground.” – Nancy
The first we see Nancy, she looks like the typical 80s schoolgirl talking on a corded phone with her best friend about her new boyfriend, Steve. Her room is decorated in pastels, little trinkets like music boxes, a poster of young Tom Cruise – a perfectly feminine environment. She buys a cute shirt and goes to a party to impress Steve, and kisses him in her girly bedroom. Though Nancy pretends that she doesn’t – and literally says, “Is that supposed to impress me?” when he shotguns a beer – she likes Steve’s bad boy persona. It’s an honest portrayal of an innocent high school girl’s first relationship and all that goes along with that. But soon she drops the boy-pleasing act and takes charge of her own life.
One night, Nancy forces Barb (the best friend) to go to a party at Steve’s house and then ditches her to sleep with Steve (something Nancy promised wouldn’t happen, by the way), and while doing the deed, an abandoned Barb gets killed by a Demagorgon. Barb’s death isn’t exactly Nancy’s fault…but it basically is, and she feels it. She doesn’t actually admit it until, a season later, in a drunken state she blurts out, “We killed Barb, didn’t we?” to Steve. But from the moment she realizes Barb is missing, her love for her best friend and her sense of personal responsibility motivate her to uncover the truth.
After returning to Steve’s house to look for Barb and catching a glimpse of a creature in the woods, Nancy is confident to argue that her intuition about what happened to Barb is valid. She wants to convince Steve, but decides that his support is not necessary. When she realizes Steve’s main worry is that his parents will find out he was drinking, Nancy is disgusted: “Barb is missing, and you’re worried about your dad?…I can’t believe you right now!” He’s skeptical of her theory about a “man without a face” in the woods and a little too concerned about himself, but she doesn’t need his validation to know what she saw, and that the situation is a lot more serious than a couple high school kids getting in trouble for drinking alcohol. So she looks for Barb without him.
After that, Nancy continues to be assertive both in words and actions. When in season two, she and Jonathan take their excursion to find Murray Bauman, an investigator and conspiracy theorist, who spent season one looking into Hawkins Lab for corruption, she demonstrates her agency through how she offers her expertise without asking for permission. “Your timeline in wrong,” she bluntly tells Murray when she sees his wall of research, detailing the events of Barb’s disappearance. (If you’re wondering what happened here, Nancy and Jonathan, also suspicious of the Lab’s role in Barb death, recorded a tape of the new head research scientist literally saying that the lab was responsible for what happened to Barb and brought it to Murray as evidence.) Nancy is the first to speak up at Murray’s place and the first to understand the strategy Murray suggests for disseminating the incriminating evidence.
Back in season one, Nancy seeks out Jonathan to help her find Barb because she thinks he might have seen the “man without a face” too and might actually believe her, not because he’s a man. Of course, the show takes advantage of this “unlikely alliance” (as Netflix’s episode description calls it) to build romantic chemistry, but in this relationship, Nancy is a key driver of action, not just Jonathan.
In the scene where Nancy and Jonathan target practice with their newly purchases weapons (refer to the photo at the start of this section), Nancy expresses her agency in action by taking the gun from Jonathan (who isn’t a great shot) and hitting the target head on – showing that her commitment to save Barb is backed by a very real, physical danger. It’s always cool as a female audience member to see a woman on TV succeed in a traditionally male dominated arena, but the significance of this scene goes beyond just the gunshot. While shooting, the two bond over their parents’ unfortunate relationships. Nancy claims her mother was young and her dad was rich, so they got married and “started their nuclear family.” Jonathan recalls his relationship with her own father: “My dad took me hunting on my birthday and made me kill a rabbit…I guess he thought it would make me into more of a man or something. I cried for a week.” In this dialogue, the show critiques gender norms and traditional familial dynamics. The background for Nancy’s display of physical power is a commentary on how the previous generation understood and demonstrated their gendered selves.
For me, a huge part of Nancy’s strength is the authenticity of her character – particularly in this targeting practicing scene. In a recent episode of Riverdale, Cheryl Blossom, the ultra-intense, red lipstick wearing, stone cold goddess of the show, donned a bright red cloak, and grabbed her bow and quiver to defend herself against a serial killer. The thing is that she had just been chased through her house and barely took a second before she majestically stood before her chaser, bow drawn and ready to maim. She’s beautiful, and I’ll grant the cloak fits a certain gorgeous heroine aesthetic of the show. But it’s also comical and incredible, because no person being chased would actually take the time to put on the picture-perfect garb. Probably the show is trying to emphasize her power by saying, “And she even had time to look the part!” but that’s honestly not helpful to me. When Nancy shoots the gun, I first notice her concentration. Then I notice she’s pretty. And she is nicely dressed, but in her case “nicely dressed” means casual jacket and black pants, not medieval runway model hunting gear (if this exists). Cheryl is a vision in red, but not for a moment does she seem authentic – she is a character on screen. Nancy, on the other hand, feels like a real woman that I could be.
Though her personality is less emotional than Joyce, Nancy is not without fear or feeling. After Nancy’s first terrible encounter with the Demagorgon, she asks Jonathan to stay with her, so that she is not alone at night. In the season two final, when she sees one of her brother’s best friends crying because he has no dance partner at the Snow Ball, she comes to his rescue and dances with him. And the fundamental drive behind her commitment to uncover the truth about Hawkins Lab is a deep love and responsibility towards Barb and her family. These elements of Nancy’s personality remind me that true humanity involves sensitivity and strength. In the same way that Joyce demonstrates her agency through gentle care and fierce fighting, Nancy shows hers by admitting weaknesses, and pushing herself to empathize with those who are struggling, whether through dancing or detective work.
Nancy also shows a sort of weakness by assuming that people are willing to except truths they might not like. This happens with Steve and the case of the missing Barb, and it happens with the tape of evidence from Hawkins Lab. She believes that the people of Hawkins should care about and recognize the truth about Barb’s death – whatever the consequences. But what she learns through Murray is that “people like the curtain” or they don’t want to hear something that disrupts their comfortable ignorance. Her innocence about human nature could seem like a “feminine” naivety, but it’s actually a weakness that shows her humanity and ultimately leads to strength. It’s what drove her to look for Barb, and to record the conversation at Hawkins Lab in the first place.
By making Nancy the primary brains behind the search for Barb in season one the “burn Hawkins Lab to the ground” operation in season two, the show empowers her, while simultaneously humanizing her through her empathy and growth in understanding how to be persuasive to persuadable people. If Joyce is the mother I want to be someday, Nancy is the woman I want to be right now – committed to seeking the truth and saving the people she loves, whatever the cost.
Eleven: the hero
“There’s nothing for you back there. They cannot save you, Jane.” – Kali
“No, but I can save them.” – Eleven (Jane)
Eleven is the superhero every little girl wants to be. Well, maybe that’s not true, but she’s definitely the superhero I’ve always wanted to be. (Apparently I want to be all of these women.) Plus, beyond just “superhero” status, Eleven’s character development and integral role in driving the Stranger Things plot are two of the strongest aspects of the show. Eleven transitions from imprisonment in a lab as a number (literally), to being named by a friend (“El”), to claiming agency to seek her identity as “Jane”, to ultimately choosing for herself who she is going to be.
Because she was raised without social interaction, El isn’t vocal like Joyce or Nancy. She has quiet strength – or very loud strength – depending on whether she’s showing her support of Mike with a soft smile or screaming as she closes the gate to the Upside Down. In season one, Eleven is learning how to operate in a world outside of Hawkins Lab, where she has been effectively genderless. The humorous moment where she almost removes her clothes in front of her new middle school boy friends (Mike (refer to the name list), and his besties Lucas and Dustin) emphasizes her ignorance to “how the world works” in the area of gender.
I have to take a second to talk about how the kids deal with gender norms, because it’s really interesting. When the boys discover Eleven wandering around the woods in Hawkins, her head is shaved and she’s wearing a unisex hospital dress. A few people saw Eleven before they did and all thought she was a boy because of her appearance. After befriending Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, the boys decide to take her to school in hopes that she can use the ultra-high powered Heathkit Ham Radio Transceiver to find Will. But first she needs a makeover – “We can’t take the freak to school!” Lucas lovingly says. One blond wig, old pink dress of Nancy’s, and some light make up later, Eleven is ready to fit in.
Up until this point, my experience with makeovers in TV and movies were things like Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, Allison Reynolds from The Breakfast Club, and Sandy Olsson from Grease (let’s not even get into how problematic this one is). In different contexts, these makeovers all served to “wow” some guy. Eleven’s makeover is for necessity, not the “wow” factor. By including this, the show is emphasizing society’s expectations about gender – it’s not that the show itself says Eleven is not a girl unless she looks like one, but it recognizes that people need her to conform to be accepted. The boys are fine with short hair, but they know everyone else will ask questions. Eleven’s appearance morphs a lot over the course of the show, each time changing to make her fit into a specific environment. In this case, that environment needs a middle school girl look.
I suppose it’s important to note that Mike does call her “pretty” once she’s dressed up like a girl. I see this less as Mike affirming she has to have long hair and a dress to be desirable (he says she’s still pretty without the wig later), and more as him seeing her as fully female for the first time. He liked her before, but now he feels he has the right, based on societal expectations, to like her as a girl. The show is reflecting a middle school boy in 1983, not saying attraction has to work this way. Because Eleven doesn’t keep this look, she ultimately doesn’t allow Mike or the other boys to define what her appearance should be.
Eleven’s mysteriousness and supernatural power help her carve her way into the boys’ “party”, as they call it. At first, Lucas and Dustin accept her because of Mike’s crush on her, but eventually they see her abilities and view her as a friend – even if they are a little scared of what she can do. She’s a force, the self-proclaimed “monster”, the protector of her party. “She’s our friend and she’s crazy!” Dustin exclaims when she saves Mike from falling into the quarry and breaks the arm of his bully (one of the best scenes of all time!).
If Eleven were only a psychokinetic child who can throw vans in the air and make a space ship toy hover, she could seem robotic – a science experiment who does not feel emotion (She’s a little like ET, isn’t she?). Yet the show uses her softness for her friends and even her love of Eggo Waffles to argue that the lab could not strip her humanity away. Her nosebleeds when she uses her powers are the physical sign that all power comes with consequences and that even heroes are not without weaknesses.
When Eleven tries to find Will in season one by first using a normal radio transceiver and then by entering the Bath (sensory deprivation tank), she recognizes Joyce’s concern and feels the burden of the search herself, her young eyes scared but resolute as she prepares to explore the dark, empty world she was forced to enter many times back at the lab. It’s beautiful to see how Joyce comfort’s Eleven while she uses her psychokinetic ability to look for Will in the Upside Down. In contrast to how “Papa” – the horrible scientist who abused her treated her – Joyce holds onto her arm, and eases her with words of assurance, “I’ve got you! Don’t be afraid,” echoes in Eleven’s mind. Making Joyce a caring mother figure for Eleven, while Eleven acts as the savior of Joyce’s son, demonstrates the power of women supporting one another when they meet limitations on their own.
In the climactic scene where Eleven closes the gate (pictured at the beginning of this section, but I highly recommend the video), her humanity and heroism make their ultimate beautiful union. She is so strong, yet so vulnerable. While she extends her arms toward the glowing wall of fire and slime, the Shadow Monster snaking toward her, she summons every terrible experience, every powerful thought, lifts off the ground and screams an inaudible cry of emotion toward the prison that robbed her of her childhood. The last sliver of the gate closes, fresh blood runs down her face, and she falls into Chief Hopper’s arms. Here, Eleven does something incredibly powerful, and then needs help. As a strong but not invincible woman myself, I’m not interested in seeing invincible women on TV. I’m interested in women who are totally badass, but who are also willing to admit weaknesses.
Eleven’s depth of character extends beyond her displays of power. In season two, Eleven follows her own storyline for most of the season, hidden for her protection in a secluded cabin in the woods before she runs away to find her birth mother and discovers that her given name is Jane Ives, not Eleven. Though she’s young, she feels a depth of pain at the loss of a normal childhood, so finding a mother and her birth name call her to question her identity. When she discovers her mother has permanent brain damage from her own experiences in Hawkins Lab, Eleven feels a real weakness: someone she cannot save. Then, she discovers Kali, her “sister” who suffered as she did. For an episode, through Kali, Elevens gets exposed to other ways she could be living her life. Kali’s band of Chicago hoodlums gives her another makeover (to make her look “bitchin’”), trying to define her like others have.
But Eleven returns to Hawkins, and it’s so important that no one makes her do this. In the lab where she grew up, “Papa” controlled her life. Once out, she constantly had to hide – at Mike’s house or in the cabin Chief Hopper used to protect her from those who would misunderstand and mistreat her because of her powers. When she found her mother living with her aunt, she could have stayed with them, and gotten the care intended for her as Jane, her mother’s child. She could have stayed with her sister, and the Chicago gang would have really loved having someone who can move train cars with her mind on their vigilante-esque team. In Eleven’s search for home, she finds her aunt’s house – what her home should have been, Kali’s warehouse – where her home could be, and she probably realizes that, with her powers, her home could be anywhere. She has the agency to leave Hawkins and never return.
But when she chooses to go back, what she is choosing is to protect the people she loves. This choice is not a sign of weakness; it’s the difficult choice. The choice to sacrifice herself and what would have been easy for her, to help the people who don’t have the same ability to run away and save themselves. It was crucial for me to see this, and it’s crucial for all audiences to see this type of sacrifice. Not a sacrifice made to stifle Eleven’s strengths – certainly not a move that inhibits her because she is a woman – because it shows the power of using everything you have to protect people who cannot protect themselves. Eleven is the hero because she continually comes to the aid of the powerless, draining all she has to save them.
WHAT TO DO BETTER
But nobody’s perfect. Though I wasn’t immediately aware of the problems with the female representation in Stranger Things, I know there are things that could be better – and hopefully will be better in the coming third season. It is important to note that no show is ever going to succeed in every single aspect of plot and social implications. Life is much too complex and there’s no way to satisfy everyone. That being said, if Stranger Things wants to inspire women to embrace their agency, it needs to let these strong women interact with each other, not just each be the sole woman in their male-populated spheres.
The first issue is that while Joyce and Eleven had that beautiful moment of bonding in “The Bath” near the end of season one, they don’t really get to interact again. Because of the plot logistics in season two, Joyce and Eleven don’t even share the screen until the final episode, where they hug briefly and say a few words. The moments of connection in season one create a dynamic of support for both women that reminds me of how powerful love between women can be. In season three, I want further interaction that complicates and explicates this mother-daughter relationship so that female audiences realize they can turn to one another – regardless of age – for care and support.
I also note that there is next to no relationship established between Joyce and Nancy. Both of these women demonstrate intelligence, loyalty, and assertiveness, all traits that could be explored in collaboration, but they haven’t really done this yet. While in season two they do occasionally share the screen, they’re never alone together. Their most significant moment happens when Joyce, Jonathan, and Nancy exorcise the Shadow Monster from Will’s body. Here the two women are resolved to do what it takes to save Will, both fighting Jonathan’s urges to turn off the heaters. I loved seeing them work together here, and I really want them to be allowed to join their strengths and develop a stronger relationship in season three.
In reading articles about the women in Stranger Things, I’ve discovered a lot of anger over Max (the one who shows up in season two) and Eleven’s relationship. Basically, the issue is that Eleven refuses to befriend Max and apparently hates her because she saw Max and Mike laughing together once. The concern is that the show is perpetuating a “jealous girlfriend” stereotype – that even though Eleven grew up isolated in a lab, it’s still in her DNA as a woman to be irrational about her boyfriend’s interaction with other women.
I get this argument. But the rift between the two girls is less about Eleven’s romantic relationships with Mike (remember these kids are supposed to be about 13), and more about her protectiveness of the first person who treated her with love and acceptance. When she sees Mike interacting with Max in the same warm way he interacted with her, she becomes concerned she will be betrayed and replaced, and that the trust she wearily placed in a friend – after years of mistreatment by someone she was instructed to call “Papa” – will prove destructive to her. It’s a natural instinct for anyone to want to be valued and irreplaceable, regardless of his or her gender. However, what the show does need to do in season three is to give Max and Eleven an opportunity to form a friendship once Eleven understands that her best friend has not betrayed her. Millie Bobbie Brown, who plays Eleven, really wants Eleven and Max to become friends, telling Variety, “Most of all, I want a relationship with Max [in season three]” This is a case where the show creators definitely need to listen to the actors.
One quick thing I must do: I need to complicate my requests for more female interaction. If you’ve watched Stranger Things, you know that there is one episode (“The Lost Sister”) filled almost exclusively with females interacting with each other. When Eleven meets Kali, the show took that opportunity to write an episode that passes the Bechdel Test (the test for works of fiction that asks if there are at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.) A super great idea – except everyone hated it. A quick Google search of “Stranger Things The Lost Sister” returns a list of incriminating headlines (“What Went Wrong in ‘The Lost Sister’” and “’The Lost Sister’ takes a detour and gets Stranger Things lost” are a couple). The Hollywood Reporter also ranks it the worst episode, claiming that, “Without a doubt, it’s the biggest swing of the series, as well as the biggest miss.”
Why so much backlash? Clearly, a huge part of it’s because the episode takes one main character and throws her in the mix with a bunch of strangers that no audience members like yet. We also leave beloved Hawkins, and all the characters and stories there. I’m afraid that, while they tried to make good things happen, it was too many risks to take in one episode. Season three needs those female relationships developed between already established female characters (and I’ve just made three suggestions for this) if people are going to respond positively and fully benefit from female interaction.
WHY DO I EVEN CARE ABOUT THIS?
TV is just TV and the Upside Down doesn’t exist and no one can really open the gate to another dimension with their mind. I get it. But the truth is that TV isn’t just TV and it doesn’t really matter if none of these fantastical things exist, because regardless of the fictional worlds, what people see acted out on the screen tells them how they should be in real life. When I was a kid, a lot of parents were scared that playing with Barbie’s would make their daughters have unrealistic expectations about their bodies. I don’t think my Barbie’s did this for me, but One Tree Hill and Friends and Hannah Montana and High School Musical did. And that was when I had my guard up for body image. I was totally unaware that TV women were also shaping the way I talked and acted.
I got really frustrated when I wasn’t the type of girl to get a boyfriend (meaning I was too opinionated, too outspoken, not skinny enough, not moldable). I would learn to second-guess myself and not share my ideas because they’d probably just get laughed at. I would decide it was a waste of time to learn the drums, because as a woman, I probably didn’t have a good enough sense of rhythm (traditionally, women are not the percussionists in TV shows). It’s not that I never took risks, but I hated myself a little bit for being strong-willed, and at my soul level I believed that guys were better than girls and there was no way around that. That lie has taken a long time to work through, and it’s been treated with a stronger medicine than TV. But TV can help.
A show like Stranger Things tells me that guys aren’t better than girls. It also tells me that girls aren’t better than guys. I was never looking for a battle of the sexes; I was just looking for women to challenge me to embrace womanhood, not be ashamed of it. Looking past the Demagorgons and alternate dimensions, I realized that TV was doing a lot with gender and I didn’t give it enough credit. Even if people don’t watch a show to learn about gender, it’s in this time of supposed “tuning out” of the real world that people are actually listening the most.