Warning: some spoiler alerts follow.
UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK and without WiFi, you’ve heard of Stranger Things. The über-Eighties homage has taken the world by storm. What’s more, the women’s perspectives in Stranger Things continue Netflix’s burgeoning legacy as a hub for great, woman-friendly television.
Let’s be honest: the ’80s weren’t exactly the most feminist decade. Twenty years after the Sexual Revolution, Western culture had swung back toward conservatism, with Reagan and Thatcher at the helm. Movies and TV attempted to scare us all straight by presenting sex and drugs as one-way tickets to HIV/AIDs, teenage pregnancy, social isolation, and death.
Stranger Things doesn’t shy away from the decade’s faults. As The Advocate points out, “the monster [characters] encounter most frequently is homophobia.” Anyone different or socially outcast — including our party of plucky heroes — becomes the target of homophobic slurs, and the casual way they slip off bullies’ tongues strikes a chord for those of us who have become accustomed to the progress U.S. TV has made.
Admirably, Stranger Things presents us with varied women’s perspectives, in spite of its small female cast. Three fourths of the heroes are male, but Eleven and Will Byers — the psychic experiment and the missing child at the heart of Stranger Things — subvert our preconceived notions of heroes and victims. The series’ women and girls react to small-town horror with a broad range of emotions, all while juggling the tiny dramas of their private lives.
Before we delve into this primer on the women’s perspectives in Stranger Things, it’s worth noting that there are valid criticisms of the series’ treatment of women. I’m focusing on the positives here, but I highly encourage you to read this conversation between filmmakers on the show’s flaws.
The Mothers: Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler
Joyce Byers is a single mother of two latchkey boys, who works for minimum wage and lives in a rundown house on the edge of town. Even though Stranger Things never addresses the issue directly, you can’t shake the feeling that the Byers are outcasts, thanks to their financial and family situations.
Karen Wheeler is a married mother of three, living a materially-comfortable life at the end of a cul-de-sac. From the beginning, she’s overbearing, and not afraid to invade her children’s privacy. Her husband is ineffectual, and it’s clear that, despite being part of a two-parent household, Karen feels alone in raising her kids.
After Joyce’s son disappears, she responds by losing her mind — at least as far as appearances go. She strings Christmas lights through her house and swears that Will uses them to communicate with her. It’s sometimes difficult to watch Joyce, but she rallies strength when it’s needed to put someone in their place, going from grief-stricken to Mama Bear in 0.3 seconds flat.
Karen comes across as relatively clueless, by comparison, but don’t let appearances fool you. She masterfully accesses and stores information and uses it to protect her family, even when we think she’ll give them up to the evil folks at the government lab. Karen’s overprotective parenting is a response to both her husband’s disconnection from his wife and children, and the disappearances of two neighborhood children. Although we don’t see much of her interior world, it isn’t difficult to understand why she acts the way she does.
The Teenagers: Nancy Wheeler and Barb Holland
Best friends Nancy Wheeler and Barb Holland are growing apart. Good-girl Nancy has her first boyfriend, Steve, and bookish Barb feels snubbed. When the two attend a party at Steve’s house, Barb — left alone while Nancy and Steve have sex for the first time — falls prey to the monster that took Will. Although Barb might be a victim of the Bury Your Gays trope, her death subverts the ’80s movie trend of killing off sexually active teenagers.
That’s not to say that Nancy goes on with her life as normal. She isn’t impressed by her first sexual encounter. After Steve spots her with Will’s brother, he and his friends vandalize a theater marquee to publicly slut-shame her. When she learns the details of Barb’s disappearance, she must sort out her guilt over leaving her friend alone in favor of having sex with Steve, which ultimately results in her training and planning to take down the monster.
The Tykebomb: Eleven
Finally, there’s Eleven: the child of a government project. Undoubtedly the token abused female character in Stranger Things, the wunderkind is more hero than victim. She saves boys, trashes bullies, and generally acts with awesomeness.
In Eleven, we see a girl thrust into a brave new world in which she may define herself. She’s simultaneously “not like the other girls” that her nerdy guyfriends know, and exactly like them: she wants to be pretty, and thinks the guys are sort of silly. Like her fellow female characters, Eleven is all of us.