Okay, so obviously we all like and appreciate Winona Ryder. That’s assumed. We’re all beyond thrilled she’s back, or, if that’s an objectionable phrasing, then we’re at least happy she’s here. When I first pressed play and began my own journey into the new sci-fi series Stranger Things on Netflix, her name took me completely by surprise, and in such a wonderful way. Winona Forever, right?
Honestly, I could write essay after essay on her alone, and probably already have, if diary entries count. But this is not that. (Really though, if you’d be at all interested in that, hit me up and we’ll be good friends.) Instead I’ll say what we already know: Stranger Things is an interesting show, and makes for addictive viewing. I enjoyed it a lot, and judging by my Facebook feed it’s clear other people are enjoying it as well. The series hits a nostalgic nerve for a lot of folks who grew up in the 1980s–the score and soundtrack are incredible, visually it’s right up my alley, and the cultural references aren’t too overt. Still, parts of the series come off as maybe a little bit regressive in terms of their portrayal of women and girls. In discussing Stranger Things with Alex Landers and Shanti Flagg, friends of mine and fellow writers, they expressed the same concerns. What follows is a collection of our reactions to season one of Stranger Things.
Disclaimer: If you haven’t seen the entire thing, know that this is going to have spoilers.
Second disclaimer: We’re not calling Stranger Things bad. This criticism goes beyond that, or aims to anyway. I’m personally opposed to the commercialization of feminism that’s been taking place in our current cultural environment, so I don’t necessarily need a television show to market itself as feminist for me to get on board. That said, consideration to equal representation is always appreciated. Let’s get to it.
Juliette: First, we should talk about Joyce Byers, Will’s mom, played by Winona Ryder. Joyce is a single mom, and fits right into the trope. Wikipedia even describes her as “frazzled.” Her son is missing, and then declared dead. Of course, Joyce doesn’t believe he’s dead, and searches for a way to communicate with him.
Shanti: Joyce is actually 100% on the right track, and we as viewers know it. Even so, Joyce is supposed to appear unkempt and irrational. Though Joyce should be respected for holding on to what she knows is the truth despite everyone attempting to convince her she’s delusional, it’s almost like we’re meant to believe she’s lucky the alien abduction scenario is real, because she would have reacted the same way even if her son were dead.
Alex: I mean, every woman in this series is somewhere on her journey to becoming “The Single Mom.” Joyce has already fallen prey to it, but just look at Nancy (well on her way, as the plaything of two boys), Mrs. Wheeler (a Mom who’s obsessed with getting her children to “talk to her”), and Eleven (a tool of men, inexplicably lusting after “pretty”). And then there’s Barb, our only hope for normalcy, who is eaten alive by a pool monster.
JF: The characterization of Nancy seemed unfair throughout. For most of the series, we’re presented with two sides to her: Nancy when she’s with Steve and Nancy when she’s with Jonathan. I liked Nancy for about ten minutes, and that started when she was practicing swinging the baseball bat, prepping herself for fighting aliens.
SF: Agreed! When Nancy picked up the baseball bat, I figured we were getting ready for her to be growing up and learning to rely on herself. Nancy’s character progression appeared to be headed towards her casting off the frivolities of boys and pool parties. But at the end we see her back with Steve. Maybe it’s supposed to be some kind of twist that she doesn’t get with Jonathan, and teach us that even a total jerk can redeem himself, but honestly, Steve does one somewhat useful thing in helping fight the monster for a couple minutes, and Nancy wants him back? Makes me feel like one or both of the Duffer Brothers was a teenage bully after he was a preteen nerd. I guess it would be too much to not have her end up with either Steve or Jonathan, despite the fact that both are annoying and she’d be better off not dating any teenage boy.
AL: I honestly can’t fathom why this girl is interested in either of them. Jonathan “saves her,” Steve is super cool but worthless in a hard time – why does she need to choose? This is just another aspect of the show that pulls in the 80s social construct along with its nostalgia factor. It’s boring, trite, and it’s been done a million times. And let’s be real – Nancy is a stereotype that doesn’t exist. To bring her into this neo-Spielberg universe and NOT change something about that stereotype is boring at best, anti-feminist at worst. I kept anticipating a reversal of this trope, because obviously that’s the point of setting your series in nostalgia-heavy John Hughes era mid-eighties, but the reversal never came. She (like Eleven, like Joyce, like Karen Wheeler…) is the plaything of men and boys. Her life and her choices are always dictated by them. And honestly, Nancy, STEVE’S HAIR. How can you forgive STEVE’S HAIR?
JF: Steve’s hair was as much of a mystery as the alien, tbh. It just kept getting bigger. How? Why? I half expected him to float away at the end of the series, carried away by his hair. I mean, it was cool of him to intervene during the alien-trap scene, but I don’t see the appeal of him as a boyfriend. But the show doesn’t treat Nancy as terribly capable of making wise decisions anyway, and we see this again in the situation with her friend Barbara.
SF: Barbara gets totally fucked over in Stranger Things. My gaydar went off immediately for her. “Woman gets grouchy when her female best friend gets a boyfriend” is certainly a trope straight women can participate in on screen, but IRL a much higher percentage of gay girls play this out. I can never tell how a character might come off to a straight audience, so I don’t know if Barb is “coded as gay” or not. All I’m saying is, it sure feels like the gay girl gets eaten.
JF: Seeing what happened to Barb felt like a punch in the gut. That whole storyline was skewed, honestly. First you get Nancy and her friend Barb, and they’re going to a party. And yeah, having been a baby lesbian myself, Barb definitely read as one, though I don’t think this was necessarily intentional on the part of the writers. Anyway, at the party Nancy chooses alcohol and her boyfriend over Barb, and in an uncomfortable montage that juxtaposes a teenage sex scene with Barb’s semi-violent abduction, it’s implied that Barb being taken is a result of Nancy’s negligence.
SF: I totally see what you’re saying, it honestly didn’t even strike me to analyze the scene as blaming Nancy for Barb’s abduction because I was so grossed out to see yet another horror movie do that tired juxtaposition (murder and sex.) I guess it’s supposed to be edgy but it just feels like the filmmakers have watched too much porn to even be able to separate sex from violence (why else would they think this was clever or interesting). It also IMO is just irresponsible to intersperse “arousing” imagery with violent imagery, and I wish filmmakers would stop. Our brains do actually respond to that in ways that harm us.
AL: I had two problems with that party scene. One, that it was somehow cruel of Nancy to want to have sex with Steve. She’s a teenager. They’ve been making out for weeks. Let it happen, don’t punish the girl for having hormones. Secondly, and you’ve hit on it here already, why is Barb Nancy’s job? Why can’t Barb take care of herself? Why must Nancy choose between a boy and her best girl friend? What’s the point of this 80s spectacle if we’re not going to change anything about it? It implies that the gender politics shown in movies of the time were not only correct, but something we miss. I don’t miss them. Please don’t bring them back. And yeah, I can’t speak to whether Barb is gay or not, but she’s definitely de-sexualized. Her character – and yes I sound like a broken record – is a tool for the plot.
JF: That’s such an important point! Though Barb wasn’t established as gay, I think her death functions the same was as a lot of lesbian deaths, the frequency of which has become sort of a media phenomenon. Often, when writers can’t conceive of a woman existing outside the realm of heterosexuality, they’re unable to conceive of her at all. I was so crushed when Eleven found Barb’s body, though I wasn’t immediately aware that’s what had happened. Her ‘death scene’, if we can call it that, lasted maybe a minute at most, and the mourning period felt equally brief.
AL: “Will, Will, we have to find WILL!!! Barb? Oh, yeah. We should maybe look for Barb, too. Uh-oh. There’s Barb… WILLLLLLLLL!!” (My interpretation of events.)
JF: And then when they find Will he’s thought to be dead too, but Joyce and Hopper put way more effort into reviving him. RIP Barb, we barely knew ye. (A moment of silence is taken for Barb.)
JF: So, I guess we need to talk about the makeover episode. I tried to get into the heads of the series creators to guess what they were going for. Obviously it would have been simpler to just give Eleven a baseball cap and disguise her as a boy, right? The boys wouldn’t have had to go digging through Nancy’s old clothes (and wig collection?) and the townspeople, used to seeing four boys playing together, wouldn’t have found the new group conspicuous. Was the point supposed to be that the boys themselves wouldn’t have thought to dress Eleven as one of them?
SF: As a girl who looks like a boy, I saw a child being forced into compliance with a patronizing and fetishizing concept of female. Eleven would have certainly blended in more by posing as a boy. She was hanging around with a bunch of boys and the people looking for her were seeking a girl, so she could have behaved as herself and easily be seen as a boy. But despite the fact that Eleven’s haircut and clothing are functional and neutral and her femininity required literal costuming, the viewers must somehow be manipulated into believing that “masculinity” was a costume imposed by her evil captors, and through femininity she finds freedom. Freedom is apparently to be called “pretty” by males. She smiles when Mike calls her “pretty.” She stares at herself in the mirror. In Eleven I see a deeply traumatized child stuck in learned helplessness, seeking a way to be “useful” now that she has escaped. Being raised by her captors, she has only seen herself reflected in their eyes, and usefulness is the only trait she has known about herself. Many women relate to being pretty in this same way. She is a captive again.
AL: I went back and re-watched the first two episodes, and Eleven is never tipped off by one of the boys as to what “pretty” is. She simply looks at a photo of his sister and says it. “Yeah,” Mike says, “that’s my sister.” Then he shows her how to work a recliner. WHY DOES THIS GIRL KNOW ALL ABOUT PRETTY BUT NOTHING ABOUT RECLINERS? She’s coming out of a facility where she’s connected to mechanical devices all day long. She’s clearly stunted, sheltered (only from regular life, not monsters), and abused. But she can talk (when she wants to), she’s incredibly intelligent, and she knows a hell of a lot more about what’s going on than anyone else in this show. Yet her main source of fulfillment has somehow been boiled down to being made “pretty.” I have to honestly believe this is a typical male misunderstanding of what it means to feel female. I see Eleven as her number, a child without a name, without a purpose of her own, and without prescriptions of gender. If she’s been holed up in this room with Dr. Matthew Modine (aka skinny Santa Claus) for the last ten years, where in the world did she even get the concept of “pretty” from? (I promise you, guys, we don’t come out of the womb knowing what this concept means) It’s a problem. A big one.
SF: Viewers are supposed to relate more to Mike than to Eleven because Mike is normal and she is a super-powered traumatized government experiment, but what male filmmakers rarely realize is that living while female makes you into a sort of traumatized experiment yourself. Eleven’s use of her powers causes her a romantic amount of pain, in the sense that she’s strong, but shows weakness often, so Mike can take care of her. She’s a girl who looks like a boy, but not in the way that’s uncomfortable (the gay way.) She barely speaks, even when insulted to her face. Her romance with Mike is mechanical–when he lunges forward to kiss her, after not explaining his feelings for her, she has clearly indicated she doesn’t understand what he means. She looks shocked, and doesn’t have a chance to say anything before the next crisis. And then she dies, though I’m still holding on to the idea that she’s not really dead. I guess I’m supposed to be happy she got her first kiss in before she died, but I can’t say I buy that she wanted it. I imagine she was more preoccupied with discovering herself to be thinking about love or sexuality with Mike. Outside the reach of her captors, she has the freedom to eat what she wants, sleep where she wants, decide where to look, and simply not be physically tortured. Though it was her victimization that caused the opening of the gate to the Upside Down, she blames herself and her power. Eleven died without ever experiencing the freedom of knowing her true self. She could escape the government lab, but she couldn’t escape being used by males.
AL: Additionally, and probably most importantly, Eleven’s biggest cinematic influence in terms of character is E.T. It’s obvious from the moment she shows up, looking and behaving alien, and is cemented when Mike locks her in a closet. She also makes that ultimate E.T. sacrifice, sending herself “Home” at the end of the ordeal. In the E.T. story, that sacrifice is necessary for catharsis. When you choose to make E.T. a little girl who saves the world, you’ve accidentally made her a tool for mankind. That’s gross.
JF: I feel you on that–and though I do hope Eleven isn’t actually dead (and didn’t entirely understand why she needed to die in the first place–was that the only way to defeat the alien?), I wonder if she might be better off than if she were to remain in Hawkins and have a weird sister/girlfriend relationship with Mike. I wish the series delved more into Eleven’s upbringing, as well as the conditions surrounding her birth. I made my girlfriend explain that part to me a couple of times, but am still having some trouble with it.
SF: The handwave here is hilarious. LSD + pregnancy = telekinetic super girl. But I’m not surprised; vulvas and birth canals are all over the place in this series, and the creators are clearly terrified of them and their mysteriousness. The gates to the Upside Down are supposed to be gross, so obviously they just look like vulvas. The monster literally has a toothed vulva face. Then again I can’t remember the last time I saw a horror movie that didn’t feature a blatantly vaginal alien. It offends me but I find it pretty funny overall. Men are so scared of vulvas.
AL: Vaginas are the scariest. Holes are frightening. Don’t fall in.
SF: And the way they treat Eleven’s mother continues the disrespect. Joyce and Hopper doubt every part of that narrative – except for the part where Eleven’s mother’s brain is said to be fully zapped. Wouldn’t it make just as much sense that her muteness and obsessions are a result of the trauma she went through, more than the result of a physical or chemical injury? Joyce and Hopper didn’t even consider telling her that she wasn’t crazy, or that her daughter was alive.
JF: I sort of hoped that wasn’t just an oversight of the creators–that maybe they planned to address it next season. But yeah, the fact that Joyce and Hopper knew who Eleven’s mother was and didn’t mention anything to either one just reinforced the view of Eleven and her mother as objects.
AL: The only genuine moment? Winona Ryder’s Joyce showing the only real ounce of caring this girl has received in the entire series. It’s not that she’s a female figure, either. She’s a parent–a real one.
SF: Joyce is the only person to show her tenderness. (I had a hard time relating to Mike’s treatment as tenderness or kindness.) However, Joyce is in the role of Eleven’s torturers when Eleven is in the sensory deprivation tank. She’s kinder, but she is using Eleven just like the men. This is something plenty of women with abilities have experienced.
JF: Agreed. Both actors really transcended the material in Chapter Seven, after Eleven tries to reach Will using the tank. The actor playing Eleven even reminded me a little bit of a young Winona Ryder, and their connection seemed genuine. But yeah, like Shanti said, it’s important to remember Eleven is still being used, though it does feel drastically different because Joyce treats her as a child and not just an instrument.
AL: I will say, Winona really and truly rises above the trope. Perhaps because she’s played the type so many times before, and her range is one that’s capable of nuance even in the shrillest, craziest role. I think the story and script pandered to her, but she often was able to mine her own moments. Especially in her scenes with Eleven (there is a real feeling of mother/daughter bonding there), and the way she delivers her line when she needs a phone, an advance, and a pack of camels. She’s frazzled and over-the-top and managed by the men around her (including her own son!), but she’s right. I think Winona pushes that aspect of the character through.
JF: I noticed the casting director was a woman, which is nice, though a woman in a creative (or even consulting) role would also be appreciated. Stranger Things felt like a definite throwback to the 80s, where ‘no girls allowed’ was an actual rule of many literal boys clubs. I definitely enjoyed the series (and I’ll sure as hell watch season two), but it clearly forgets that a work can pay homage to a time period without reinforcing the beliefs and practices of that time period, in regards to sex representation, race representation, and so many other things. With the Ghostbusters reboot fresh in our minds, girls shouldn’t have to settle for anything less than equal representation. We’re done with being an afterthought.
AL: Beyond my problems with the women, which are just so glaring they take up thewhole review, I have to talk from a screenwriting and storytelling perspective about WHY this time period obsession is an issue. Nostalgia is a fun, and often powerful reminder of where we’ve come from and where we’re going. If you look at the Ghostbusters reboot, you see what I mean about how a memory of how things were, and how they are now, can really make a strong statement. And if you’re a Tarantino fan, you know that a well-placed homage to Sergio Leone or any Blaxploitation film can elevate the material to transcendiary status. But this? This to me reeks of fanboy filmmaking (#sorrynotsorry). If I were sitting in a writing class with The Duffer Brothers and reading this script, my very first question would be WHY the 1980s? What are we learning about that time period? What does it uniquely offer the story? All I see is a desire to recreate the scenes from our favorite Spielberg, Romero, and Wes Craven films (if you’d like a full list of references, the internet is currently chalk full of them at the moment). If the only purpose is to bow down to previous mastery, we move quickly from nostalgic visit to full on pastiche. And if they’re trying to show us just how many films they’ve seen – guys, we get it. We saw them, too. I’m going to go with what John Carpenter recently said on WTF with Marc Maron: “Horror is due for a new beginning. It’s due for a resurgence. They have to change it. We have to change it up.”
Shanti Flagg studied studio art at NYU. Today she is the studio manager for The Monument Quilt, an art activist project for empowering sexual assault survivors. She loves drippy monsters and super girls. Her art can be found here.
Alex Landers is a playwright and visual artist working through themes of obsession, nostalgia, femininity, and excess. With a BA in film studies and MFA in writing for the stage and screen, she is dedicated to cultivating a conversation between filmmaking and film criticism. Currently, she occupies the title of One Critical Bitch, blogging weekly about the best (and worst) of film and television.
Juliette Faraone studied digital media and film at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College before earning her BA in comparative literature. She is a staff writer for ScreenQueens and current editorial intern with Ms. Magazine. In her spare time, Juliette watches Youtube clips from old musicals and misses her girlfriend and cats. Her musings on women and film can be found here.