The Women of ‘Stranger Things’: Tired Tropes or Progressive Heroes?

Netflix’s new series Stranger Things is the hot topic of discussion this week. You’ve probably heard the comparisons – a mix of E.T./Stand By Me/Alien and with music by John Carpenter and/or Daft Punk, Stranger Things is so nostalgic that it feels as if you’ve been watching it your entire life. Which, in a way, we have.

In the patchwork quilt of ideas, narrative and style, we really have seen Stranger Things before. Not that this is a bad thing, but what does it say about our need for familiarity? It’s this that I found so interesting throughout watching Stranger Things – this and how it treats its female characters. I mean, I have to comment on the female characters – it’s the reason I do this!

Starting slowly, but gaining momentum towards the end, Stranger Things drip feeds us into a world we are already immersed in. Predictable, yes, but Stranger Things is so slick I actually didn’t care that I already knew most of the plot. The characters are all cliches of the genre; hysterical mother, nerdy best friends, small town cop with a tragic backstory…there’s even a teenage love triangle. It’s addictive, which is just as well because there are only 8 episodes. Spoilers ahead!

The latest Netflix original series is brought to us by the Duffer Brothers and combines every 80s cliche you could ever imagine. Small town USA, a “good girl” is dating a jock, four nerds play dungeons and dragons, working mother is accused of bad parenting and there’s some sort of weird supernatural monster on the loose. Yes, it’s quite possible that by now this type of film/tv show should have spawned it’s own genre: mid-80’s-small-town-scarefest.

The story initially follows a group of boys, outcasts from their peer group on account of their passion for playing board games and having bad haircuts/a lisp. In the first episode Will Byers, one of the boys, goes missing on his way home. His mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) is absolutely distraught, and the implication of bad parenting on her part (she was out at work and is a single mother) doesn’t go amiss. Strange events begin to happen that lead both Joyce, Will’s brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Will’s friends to all independently conclude that Will might not be dead. Rather, he is existing in some sort of alternative world. Throw into the mix a young girl, escaped from a nearby government lab who harbours powerful telekinetic abilities (and who knows what else), Stranger Things is a rollercoaster of a ride.

Joyce Byers

The first thing we really do need to discuss is Joyce Byers. Obviously, Winona Ryder is an absolute queen, there are no debates about that here. Whilst predominantly playing the part of hysterical mother who absorbs all guilt for her child going missing, Joyce does have a few moments of triumph throughout the series. From the beginning, we know that Joyce is a single mother to Jonathan and Will and that she has a somewhat fraught relationship with their father – Lonny. We also know that Joyce had a previous relationship with Hopper.

This piece of information is revealed to us early on in the series with the expectation that it may lead somewhere specific but any chemistry or potential narrative concerning Joyce and Hopper fizzles out to nil. We can see Joyce as a character in her own right, or we can see her as the mother of a missing child and the ex lover of the cop who needs to find Will to get his life on track. Whilst there are some moments where Joyce seems to have her own motivations, for the most part she is defined by her relations to the men (and boys around her).

Joyce also plays directly into stereotypes about single motherhood and bad parenting. If Joyce had been home looking after Will instead of out working to support her family (aka if she had been doing her motherly duties instead of trying to be both Mum and Dad) then Will may not have gone missing. It’s no accident that it wasn’t Mike who went missing, son of a family which has a very Brady bunch feel about it. It feels as if Joyce is being punished for trying to support her family alone. This is especially true later in the series. Joyce, since the very beginning, has suspected that Will has not been dead and is obsessed with the idea that he stuck in some ‘other world’. It is not until Hopper witnesses the gate for himself that Joyce’s theories are justified – or taken seriously. Before Hopper, and also her son Jonathan, confirm her beliefs – Joyce is just a hysterical woman, stared at and looked down on by the people of the town.

Joyce does get her moments of baddassery – talking to the fairy-lights was probably the highlight for me. The thing that was pretty cool about Joyce throughout was her conviction in herself – she believed she was right and no-one was going to change her mind. When Hopp and her enter the Upside Down through the gate, we get real Alien vibes watching them in the hazmat suits (intentional of course). Joyce is reminiscent of those strong female characters (Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor etc) who first came to our screens in the 1980s. When Joyce meets El in ‘The Bathtub’, you can see a mother-daughter connection starting to emerge between them. It’s not entirely unbelievable – Joyce is grieving for a child she may have lost forever, and El has never had any parental love and reacts to the comfort that Joyce is giving her.

Eleven

Moving on to El, played the extraordinary Millie Brown. I realised the other day that Eleven probably has less than 20 lines of dialogue within the entire show, yet her presence is probably the most affecting. We’ve had to infer a lot about Eleven’s childhood and upbringing because in true 80s horror/sci-fi style, the Duffer brothers give very little away. We can guess that she was born to a woman who had been undergoing scientific experiments by the government, and that she has never met her mother. We do know that she was brought up in the lab facility and trained repeatedly in psychokinesis by the big bad, Dr Martin Brenner.

What we don’t know is the extend of Eleven’s powers – although we have seen her kill and seriously injure people using her mind. She’s an incredibly smart and astute kid that has been bought up essentially as a lab rat who has no real understanding of how to talk to other humans.

There is a slight feeling of Smurfette syndrome; El is the only female child that the boys come across in the entire series. I understand that the Duffer brothers were trying to recreate the Stand By Me scenario with the four friends, but to what end? In Stand by Me, the boys go through a irreversible change – a metaphor for the transition between boyhood and manhood. In Stranger Things , the boys (minus Will) seem to come out of it not having changed very much at all. Well, apart from deciding that girls are no longer icky. The nostalgia of the four male friends playing dungeons and dragons is clearly an important part for the Duffer brothers – I just can’t help feeling that we have moved on a bit.

Regardless, El joins their group and lives in the basement of Mike’s house whilst the boys dress her up in Mike’s sister’s clothes in order for her to appear less androgynous and more ‘normal’. There’s a bit too much there to unpack, maybe we’ll save that for another post (it is weird when you say it like that though…) El’s androgyny itself is pretty interesting. She joins the ranks of Furiosa, Ava and other recent robotic-type female characters. Fighting a patriarchal society. It is important that Eleven is female and that her main captor (Dr Brenner) is male. She is quite literally enslaved in  male dominated world because as far as El knows, the laboratory is the entire world. She is weaponised and her power of psychokinesis, which is traditionally linked to feminine traits such as intuition, is used for the patriarchy. El manages to free herself from that institution by killing not only Dr Brenner but also the monster. Instead of using traditionally masculine techniques (punching, kicking, physical aggression) to kill or maim, Eleven uses her mind.

Sadly, El doesn’t get to have her own arc like the boys do. She sacrifices herself to allow Will and the others to survive, making her seem more like a tool than a developed character. She seems to exist mostly to appear in situations where Mike, Lucas and Dustin may be in danger and save them (which is subverting gender tropes to be fair), and also as a link between the other characters and the Upside Down/the Monster. Eleven had so much potential and Brown was incredible in the role but ultimately, the Duffer brothers totally wasted a fantastic character. What’s even sadder is that Eleven isn’t even mourned. When Lucas, Dustin and Mike excitedly tell Will all of the cool things that Eleven did, they talk about her as some sort of fictional superhero. She becomes a trope, not a real girl who existed.

Nancy

There’s only two other notable female characters in Stranger Things are Nancy and the wonderful Barb. Unfortunately, Barb is lost to us by episode three after gaining the fiercest internet following I’ve ever seen. Barb has to die in order for Nancy to become involved in the hunt for Will and the monster, which is a huge indication of how the show treats its women. Whilst Will survives the entire series in the Upside Down, Barb is brutally killed off and seemingly missed by no-one except for Nancy. Perhaps this is why the internet has flocked to Barb – her death seems abrupt and seems to pass by relatively unnoticed. 

The issue with Nancy’s character is that she is stuck in a John Hughes film and despite everything we’ve learnt since the 1980’s, none of this is instilled within her or the other in Stranger Things. Often when we watch series that are set in the past (distant or near), we can watch with a smug sense of hindsight where characters replicate and reiterate modern ideas about teenagehood, independence, feminism and equality. Stranger Things does none of this. Nancy, despite being written in 2016, has the character depth of a female rom-com star in the 1980s. That is to say, not much. Her story is typical to the point that it is uninteresting; she’s a geek girl with a jock, who realises that the nerdy guy she’s friends with is actually super awesome.

A massive deal is made out of her losing her virginity to Steve, which might have been worthwhile if it served some sort of purpose to the plot (think Carrie or It Follows) but in Stranger Things, there was absolutely no need to focus so much time on Steve and Nancy’s first time together. Or to hammer home the point that nice girls shouldn’t have sex with bad guys because slut shaming. I think the real issue with Steve slut shaming Nancy is that once he has later on saved her from the monster, Nancy forgives him for her slut shaming her, humiliating her and generally being incredibly abusive.

Despite all of this, I really, really liked Stranger Things. Sometimes you have to give in to the guilty pleasures and I’d say Stranger Things falls into this category. Due to it replicating and reworking every known storyline, character and narrative arc – it’s already a cult classic. It feels familiar and safe, which is sometimes just what we want. We won’t let it off the hook just yet, but maybe there’ll be a chance for progress in season 2...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *