Last week Ace reviewed Stranger Things, the runaway Netflix hit. It’s a fabulous sci-fi show quickly gathering what should in time turn into a cult following. The sci-fi-horror-mystery story follows the mysterious disappearance of young Will Byers (and others), the efforts of his family and friends to rescue him, and the mysterious government authorities that want to keep everything covered up. It’s a show that truly pays homage to the spirit of 1980s television and movie tropes, without making the show feel cheap. Most of the time, when a story utilizes a lot of tropes, it’s not a good thing. Usually tropes mean that characters are flat and stereotyped, plots are predictable and boring, and more often than not anyone outside the “straight WASP male” gets shafted. What I find truly remarkable about Stranger Things is its ability to (for the most part) navigate the divide between using familiar tropes and not indulging in sloppy, harmful stereotypes. Take, for example, the way the show treats its female characters.
Spoilers for Stranger Things below.
On the surface, Stranger Things is about as stereotypical as you can get. Will, a white preteen boy (who certainly seems too good for this world), is captured by a monster from another dimension (the “Upside Down”) and it’s up to his best friends to save him. Our focus shifts to the rest of Will’s friend group: Mike, our new white protagonist, Lucas, his Black best friend, and Dustin, his funny fat friend. Will’s mom Joyce seems to be the hysterical mother, and his older brother Jonathan a freakish loner. Mike’s sister Nancy is a sugary ice queen, and their mom Karen is pretty oblivious. Nancy’s best friend Barbara is a shrinking violet, and Nancy’s boyfriend Steve is troubled but cute. I could write for days about all the tropes, but for now we’ll focus on the major female characters.
By all accounts, Mike should be our main character as soon as Will gets taken by the monster. Instead, as the episodes progress, it’s abundantly clear that if anyone in our ensemble cast is the primary protagonist, it’s Joyce. As Joyce deals with the grief over losing her son and the denial that comes with it, she also witnesses Will’s attempts to communicate from the other side. Her deep obstinate refusal to accept his death could have easily been written off as merely natural Mama Bear behavior. Joyce is a mother, of course any mother would react that way! Except they don’t, not in real life. When she perseveres in her search for ways to communicate with and find Will, her constant refrain for why she keeps going is not “I’m his mother!”—it’s “He’s my son!” Winona Ryder’s acting chops are more than up to par. Joyce refuses to let anyone write her off as a hysterical woman, and her tenacity is rewarded when she and Sheriff Hopper venture into the Upside Down and find Will’s nearly lifeless body. The fact that Joyce is a mother strengthens Joyce as a character; the writers don’t make us rely on our own ideas of what a mother is to understand Joyce.
When we meet Nancy, we could probably swap her with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and get the same movie. It’s clear that Nancy is one of those teenage girls to whom puberty is extra kind: she’s incredibly conventionally beautiful, scrunchy and all. Her childhood best friend Barbara has all the hallmarks of a late-blooming nerd. Barbara warns Nancy against going to Steve’s party (because sex might happen, and Nancy may not be ready), but begrudgingly tags along with Nancy anyway when Nancy invites her to come too. After Nancy goes up to Steve’s room to make awkward teenage love, Barbara sulks by the pool, understandably annoyed with and concerned for her best friend. It’s here that Barbara gets eaten by the monster. It’s tragic: Barbara is merely in the wrong place at the wrong time (somewhere she never wanted to be in the first place) and is killed. Her death shows that the monster is a real hunter, and doesn’t discriminate between the innocent and the sinful. If this were really a traditional stereotypical show, we’d indulge the virgin/whore dichotomy with Barbara surviving and Nancy getting eaten. This murder also shows us what may have happened to Will, because at this point we don’t know if he’s dead or alive.
But what Barbara’s death primarily does is give us insight into Nancy’s character. Normally when women are fridged in sci-fi it’s to give our male hero a tragic backstory. Instead, Nancy seems to be the only one concerned about finding Barbara, and it motivates her to team up with Jonathan to find and kill the monster. Nancy goes from potential prom queen to monster hunter, because she lost her best friend. Nancy would probably make Sam and Dean Winchester proud, as while she’s monster-hunting she trades in her feminine outfits for more practical drab clothing and develops a serious, no-nonsense attitude. It’s wonderful that we get to see her courageous side, but it runs the risk of sending the message that one can’t be both girly and badass. After a terrifying experience in the Upside Down, she and Jonathan retreat to her pink and frilly bedroom. On one hand, this could mean that Nancy can only be a monster hunter when she’s masculine-presenting, and frilly feminine things belong in a world that doesn’t have such horrors. On the other hand, it could mean that Nancy is a complex character who can move between pseudo-masculine badassery while maintaining her taste for the traditionally feminine. Which message are we supposed to get? It’s unclear.
What is clear is that this change in Nancy is brought on almost entirely by the disappearance of her best friend. Nancy really is the only one who seems to care that Barbara is gone; we don’t even meet Barbara’s family. Normally when a woman is fridged it’s to create very sad feelings for a male protagonist, and so to avenge her death he goes out and kills the villain. That’s not what happens here. Nancy is inspired to hunt down the monster, but for all intents and purposes her relationship with Barbara is platonic. Some fans have suggested that Barbara may have had feelings for Nancy, but it’s hard to make an argument for queer representation from silence. I think it’s more powerful and subversive that her and Nancy’s relationship is platonic, because most of the time the fridged woman is a romantic interest.
But above Joyce, Nancy, and Barbara, the most interesting female character is 011, aka El. El was raised in a lab and has supernatural powers. We don’t understand how her powers quite work or her full backstory (yet), but what we do see of El’s character development speaks to some of the most basic assumptions about femininity. When we meet El, she’s wearing a leotard and has a buzz cut. The first “regular” guy she runs into even mistakes her for a boy. There’s nothing about El that is particularly feminine. The boys find her one of Nancy’s old pink frilly dresses to wear, and El wears it with a blonde wig, but both are a bit ill-fitting. When El runs away, she gets rid of the wig but keeps the dress. In one sense it’s a sign that she’s acknowledging that she’ll never quite fit in, but it can also be interpreted as her eschewing traditional social codes for femininity. Mike and El share their first kiss, but it’s mostly motivated by Mike’s crush, while El seems to mostly want friendship and acceptance. On the surface, El seems like she’s sweet and vulnerable, but in reality she’s deadly powerful, and she’s the only one capable of truly eliminating the monster from our world. El is the girl who refuses to be boxed in by anyone else’s ideas. She breaks out of the lab because she refuses to be anyone’s science experiment or killing machine. Less maliciously, when the boys find her an outfit to wear so she can pass for a “regular girl,” she doesn’t keep the wig. It acknowledges that she doesn’t fit into their box of what a girl should be, either.
While the major female characters do get enough screen time to subvert their tropes, not all of them do. The most significant of these is Karen, Nancy and Mike’s mom. I’ve rarely seen a character like Karen played so convincingly on TV: she’s the mom who wants her kids to feel comfortable talking to her about their problems, but the moment they show any signs of doing so, she flies off the handle. She’s the overbearing mom who almost has some depth, but it seems like those scenes may have been left on the cutting room floor. In many ways she serves as a foil to Joyce, but because Karen doesn’t get her own complexity, the fact that she seems so out of touch unfortunately contrasts with Joyce’s intuition. Karen comes across as shallow, and she didn’t have to.
Furthermore, in many ways Stranger Things completely fails in terms of real diverse representation. Part of me thinks this may have more to do with giving homage to the tropes of the past (straight white male leads, tragically beautiful heterosexuality, etc). But all our women are white and straight—why can’t we meet Lucas’s mom and give her a larger role? Why not include a queer character and explore some of the issues of being queer in the 80s? Or, even more progressively, we can acknowledge that at the end of the day it’s a sci-fi universe, and when you have monsters from alternate dimensions any “realism” excuse flies out the window. All in all, Stranger Things is an excellent example of how to pay homage to the ideas and concepts we know and love in our cult classics, but it has room for improvement. With Season 2, I hope we see that improvement: give us new characters from diverse backgrounds and bring some depth to the characters already in the show.