‘Stranger Things’ Still Doesn’t Know What To Do With Its Women
Stranger Things 2 is largely a delightful season of television; the second installment of the Netflix original series takes us on a deeper dive than ever before and allows characters to take center stage, and manages to be funny and frightening all at once. A lot can be said about what the series has accomplished in its mere seventeen episodes in total, but there is one glaring issue with Stranger Things that has carried over from its first season to its second: its portrayal of women. While the women of Stranger Things may steal the show with their performances and brief moments of glory, they are still evidently defined by their relationships to the central male characters.
The first season of Stranger Things prioritized plot over characters; it’s an entertaining season of television, sure, but there’s a lot more bells and whistles than there are genuinely nuanced moments of personal development for any of the main players. Luckily, Stranger Things 2 makes an effort to rectify this, and the show is better for it – there are some moments of genuine emotional weight and much more interesting relationships in the mix during the second season, but the female characters are still neglected as a general rule. They function as aids to storylines of the men and boys of Stranger Things, as overplayed 1980s tropes that the show should improve on rather than indulge in.
The easiest (and quickest) example that can be made here is the disposable nature of Barb (Shannon Purser) in Season One. She’s only ever present to serve as a catalyst for what’s to come – we literally only know her for a couple episodes as Nancy’s no-nonsense best friend before she’s dragged by the bloodthirsty Demogorgon into the pool. Barb isn’t there to be a fleshed-out character. She’s there to serve the plot. And therein is where the issue lies.
From the very first time we are introduced to Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), we only ever really know her as she relates to her sons and the men around her. The grief-stricken mother of missing Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) is pitied by her peers, seen as crazy and as something of a nuisance. All of her actions and apparent emotional inclinations are motivated by her sons Will and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). It’s not to say that Stranger Things doesn’t do a good job at articulating just how devastating it would be to have a child go missing, but while characters like Hopper (David Harbour) and even Steve (Joe Keery) are created with layers and we’re given glimpses into their realistically-shaded lives, all we ever really understand about Joyce is that she’s frantic to find Will.
The second season doesn’t do much to improve on this; Joyce has returned to work and is attempting to return to a sense of normalcy, but she still spends her days worrying about Will and finding some kind of contentment with her new boyfriend, Bob (Sean Astin). There’s never really any opportunity for Joyce to grow; she’s always going to be a frantic mother, whether that be to Will and Jonathan or eventually in a maternal role to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Men don’t believe her, but she continues to rely on them anyway and function as a piece in their puzzles rather than her own. Why? She’s far and away one of the most exciting characters to watch – the tenacity, sensitivity, and humor of this woman is fascinating (and Ryder KILLS it, to put it simply). So why not give her more depth? While it’s worth making the argument that the adults aren’t really the heart of the show anyway, if the series is able to give Hopper, Dr. Brenner, and even Bob Newby well-rounded characters, they should be able to give Joyce more to fight for than just her children.
Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) meets a similar fate to Joyce; she’s only ever defined by the love triangle she falls into with Steve and Jonathan, and later, how she treats her brother Mike’s (Finn Wolfhard) friends. This begins in Season One and somehow manages to get even worse in Season Two while developing under the guise of giving Nancy more screen time. Almost everything that happens to Nancy is designed to bring her closer to a male character; Barb’s death brings her closer to Jonathan, Jonathan brings her closer to the boys to help fight the monster, and in the second season, her and Jonathan embark on a bonkers detective storyline that manufactures some faux chemistry (and eventual sex) between the two of them after she realizes she might not love Steve. She’s somehow redeemed for treating the younger boys negligently by helping them defeat the monster in the first season and dancing with Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) at Snow Ball in the second. Nancy has the potential to be a wildly interesting character, but we never even find out what she really does in her spare time besides hang out with Steve or Jonathan or lie to her parents about where she is. (Speaking of her parents, Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono) gets the short end of the stick as well, yearning for more closeness to her children and coping with her deadbeat husband, because apparently that’s all she has going for her).
It’s clear that Eleven receives the most attention from writers, and that’s what makes her character so frustrating. She’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, but once again, she falls victim to the same plight as the rest of Stranger Things‘ women – she is there to be Brenner’s lab rat, to push the boys closer together, to act as a surrogate daughter to Hopper, to save the day when no one else can. It’d be one thing if she was doing all these things and there was still some depth beneath it all, but she’s relegated to being more of an alien form for us to marvel at more than a young survivor fighting her way through a hellish life and emerging triumphant. In Season One, she becomes hooked on the idea of appearing “pretty” to Mike once he’s dolled her up in dreamy fashion, rather than her unique abilities and burgeoning personality. If it’s not her superpowers, it’s how surprisingly *cute* she looks in a blonde wig. Her experiences and emotions don’t matter, but male perceptions of her do.
From the very beginning, the show has loved throwing her around for our viewing pleasure, to the point of it being difficult to watch. How can we torture Eleven? Let us count the ways. Even the much-maligned “Lost Sister” episode, in which she gets to meet another one of Brenner’s experiments, Kali, throws away any of the limited character logic we’ve come to understand and instead allows Eleven to slip into a conveniently naive position that puts her through the emotional (and physical) ringer yet again. She’s here to save Will, here to slip into an envious rage when she sees Max (Sadie Sink) with Mike, here to be taken advantage of in whichever way needed. Rather than allowing her the opportunity to strike up her first potential real female friendship with Max (who is also left behind narratively), Eleven’s sucked into an overtired trope of female jealousy. She’s stuck between being Brenner’s perfect subject, Mike’s big crush, Hopper’s faux daughter, and savior of Hopkins. It’s a helluva lot of pressure to put on a little girl who never really gets the opportunity to boast any personality traits of her own.
There is a lot to love about Stranger Things – the show is an undeniably good time, armed with stellar performances and moving storylines doused in a healthy serving of nostalgia. It would be much more enjoyable, however, if it stopped using women as plot devices and crutches and started treating them with the same respect and nuance that they do the male characters. This might come as a surprise, but women are just as interesting (if not more so, in some cases!) as men, and their experiences are just as valid. So why not give them a chance to live their own lives for a change? Stranger things have happened.