Netflix’s latest original offering, the eight-episode series Stranger Things, is difficult to describe, because it is of a different breed than anything the company has produced so far. At once heavily referential and totally original, the callbacks to the great sci-fi and coming-of-age films of the 1980s work to establish expectations, only for the Duffer Brothers, the creators of the series, to turn them on their heads by seamlessly incorporating something new. Encompassing elements of science fiction, horror, thriller, crime drama, teen hierarchical drama, and coming-of-age buddy comedy, the show’s genre mish-mash is one of its best features. It’s what allows Stranger Things to feel fresh, even while recalling highly recognizable moments ‘80s film history. And the incorporation of these disparate elements creates a complexity in the world of the show that is always exciting to see in any creative work.
Much has already been made of the use of ‘80s movie references in Stranger Things. As evidenced by this video, there are many, ranging from Alien to the Goonies. And I would argue that there are even more, less obvious comparisons to be made; the resemblance of Nancy’s pre-“the upside-down” arc to John Hughes classics like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, for example. But while watching Stranger Things, what resonated most with me was not the obvious direct homage to one of my personal favorites, a shot of four children walking down train tracks that begged a comparison to Stand by Me. The element that I noticed above everything else was the show’s conspicuous feminism.
I call it conspicuous because many of the Duffer Brothers’ reference points for Stranger Things are lacking in this particular department. There is, of course, valid criticism to be made about the treatment of women in Stranger Things. There is in almost every cultural work. But I’m here to respectfully disagree with the notion that the show has given us a group of clichéd female characters with no agency, like many of my favorite ‘80s movies did.
First, let me be clear; I love ‘80s movies, and I always have. I was one of those kids that, after watching The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and their ilk, wore denim jackets with patches on them and aggressively bright costume jewelry in an effort to will myself into the decade. One year I dressed as Mikey from The Goonies for Halloween, and the adults skipped me when handing out candy because I was basically wearing this outfit. I saw Wil Wheaton’s character in Stand by Me wearing white Chuck Taylors, so I bought white Chuck Taylors. I was even avid enough to fish the likes of Weird Science and Soul Man (yes, that one where C. Thomas Howell uses tanning pills to turn himself black to get a college scholarship) out of the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. I was living for those movies. And I still do. Only now, of course, I’m critical of them (especially Soul Man. I mean, seriously?).
I’m critical of them in the way that I am critical of all movies and television and books now, which is to say that I understand now how few spaces there were for minority groups. And (even though Soul Man is terrible and the racial diversity in Stranger Things is a worthy discussion), for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus on the minority group that I’m a part of: women. Of all those movies I loved, all those adventures that I wanted for myself, almost all of them were for boys only. Some token girls might be involved, but never really because they wanted to be, or never really in a serious way. There was a reason why I didn’t dress up as Stef from The Goonies for Halloween when I was twelve. It’s because, who cares about Stef? Stef wasn’t the point. She was Girl #2. Girl #1 was Andi, the pretty cheerleader/romantic motivation, and she wasn’t the point either.
In Stranger Things, Joyce, played brilliantly by Winona Ryder, is the point. The casting of Winona Ryder in itself acts as one of the ‘80s references of the show, simply because her work in films like Beetlejuice and Heathers is so iconic. But Ryder has never seemed interested in those token girl roles I mentioned. Almost without deviation, her career has been made of female characters who are fully realized human beings on the screen, both great and terrible, complicated, damaged, and still wonderful. Joyce is no exception. Stranger Things does not judge Joyce Byers. It does not make her a joke. It does not punish her for making mistakes. In another show, she would be relegated to the background, a grieving mess of a mother who gives Officer Hopper the motivation to investigate what’s going on. In Stranger Things, she’s the one who does the work, even when everyone else assumes she is losing her mind. She grieves, and then she puts on a hazmat suit and jumps into oblivion to search for her son. And she can do both of those things, because she’s a real human, not a chalk outline of a feminine tragedy.
Likewise, Nancy Wheeler is far from that wishful Girl #2 caricature. She displays none of the wilting fragility of those girls who unintentionally get caught up in the conflict. She opts into the adventure. Natalia Dyer portrays Nancy with a thoughtfulness that is missing from most of the ‘80s movie teen heroines of whom she is reminiscent. Nancy has found a place between total obscurity and high school stardom, being shunted into the latter by the romantic interest of Steve, a mainstay of the popular crowd. Much like Molly Ringwald before her, she struggles with balancing his affections with the other things that are important to her: school, her friends, her family. But that’s where John Hughes’s modus operandi falls short; the procuration of the boyfriend is the ultimate goal. In Stranger Things, Nancy’s story only begins there. Over and over, Nancy shows herself to be one of the most realistic and complex teenage characters on television, in any decade. When she has to decide whether or not to have sex with her boyfriend, there is no equivocation; she wants to, so she does, and she doesn’t regret it later. When Steve is more concerned with his own petty troubles than the fact that her best friend has gone missing, she tells him off and leaves him. And she makes the effort to team up with the only other person who understands what she is going through to find her friend. She is not the romantic protagonist of John Hughes, and she is not one of the Goonies girls, whose major contributions involve “bad feelings about this” and hesitant assertions that “we should go back.” She drives the plot, rather than being along for the ride.
Back in the day, when I pulled that Weird Science DVD from the discount pile, I bought it without question, confident in that John Hughes stamp of approval and the presence of Anthony Michael Hall, first in a long series of nerd-boy crushes. This is what that movie is about: two boys use a computer and a Barbie doll to create a woman in the image of what they believe she should be. When she comes to life, she has super powers that are mostly used to conjure up expensive cars for the boys. She serves her purpose to them (i.e. getting the popular girls to break up with their boyfriends and date the nerd boys instead), and then leaves them, to inexplicably become a spandex-clad PE teacher being ogled by high school boys. That was what a female lead in a classic comedy looked like in the ‘80s. And that’s what I saw when I watched it at the age of thirteen; two teenage boys debating on how large the perfect woman’s breasts should be, and whether or not she should have a brain at all.
In Stranger Things, arguably the most central female character is Eleven, played with astounding skill by Millie Bobby Brown. She has been treated like a science experiment for what appears to be most of her life. She also has powers, to move things with her mind. She is also trying to help a group of boys with their ultimate goal – to find their missing friend, rather than to find pretty girls to date them. And those boys also make some attempts to mold her to be more helpful to them, more like what they want her to be. This is true. The thing about Eleven is, she’s not what anyone wants her to be. And the crux of her character arc is her own realization that despite that, there are people who care about her anyway. This is why, even though Eleven has been so traumatized by fear of her captors that it’s hard for her to communicate with anyone, she keeps asking Mike about this concept of friendship. She has spent her life being told what to do and how to be, and being punished when she can’t follow those guidelines. So when she takes off the wig she was wearing to pass as a ‘normal’ girl, she asks Mike if he thinks she is “still pretty.” Not because she needs her appearance validated, but because she knows she’s not what he wants her to be, and she needs to know that that’s okay. Because so far, for her, it never has been. And Mike says yes. Of course. Because that’s what it means to be a friend. Yes, Eleven is a badass. She saves the boys countless times by using her powers. She helps them find their friend Will. She flips a van in midair, and it is so cool. But that’s not what she’s there for. Her vulnerability is so much more important than her strength. And her exploration of herself is so much more meaningful than the life-sized doll of Weird Science happily catering to the whims of insufferable teenage boys.
In Lindy West’s memoir Shrill, she writes, “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.” This is the feeling I have every time I re-watch a movie that I was obsessed with in childhood. When I revisit how useless the girls in The Goonies really were, or that Sixteen Candles scene where Jake casually invites Farmer Ted to go ahead and rape his unconscious girlfriend. Even the ones that aren’t openly misogynistic hurt me a little bit; Stand by Me was my hands-down favorite, and now I realize that there were no women in it at all. I’m glad that I dressed as Mikey for Halloween; I’m glad I could see myself as a leader, even though leader equals boy. It sucks that I had to. That I couldn’t come up with a girl I wanted to be.
Stranger Things was made in the image of the things that I loved, the ones that hated me. But Stranger Things doesn’t hate me. It loves me, and it celebrates me, and it wants me to be anything I want. And it makes me so ecstatic that twelve-year-old girls won’t have to try to figure out how to make a Mike costume or a Dustin costume in October. They can be Eleven for Halloween. And they will.