A Feminist Critique of Netflix's Stranger Things

A Feminist Critique of Netflix's Stranger Things

Does anyone care about Barb?


I started watching Stranger Things with this past week with my boyfriend. Together we watched the first episode of the Netflix original series and even though its premise, soundtrack, and cinematography were all interesting and eye catching, I couldn't help but be wildly upset over the female characters. We later watched the nest three episodes which let us halfway through the first season and left me with some serious complaints. For those of you who don't know the plot of the show, it takes place in Hawkins, Indiana (a fictional town) in the fall of 1983. The first episode introduces us to Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin, four twelve year old boys who like Dungeons and Dragons, science, radios, comics, and their science teacher. Will, at the end of the first episode, goes missing, presumably transported to another dimension by a faceless monster later referred to as "The Demogorgon". Also in the first episode, we meet two of the four recurring female characters: Nancy Wheeler, Mike's high-school age sister, and Karen Wheeler, Mike's mother.

In the second episode we are introduced to the last two recurring female characters: Joyce Byers, Will's distraught mother, and Eleven, the young psychic with PTSD from her days being experimented on in a government funded laboratory. None of these woman have any sort of personality or agency. All of them are either tied to the domestic sphere, tied to men, or, in Eleven's case, almost completely unable to speak for herself and forced to rely on twelve year olds for sustenance, protection, and shelter. But making simple declarations aren't enough to suffice here; let me show you what I mean by "crappy female characters with traditionally sexist designs" and why it bothers me.

Let's start off with Nancy. Nancy Wheeler is a high school student, studious, naive, and what some would call a "goody-two-shoes". She's also smart and hard working enough to have a "3.9999 GPA" (quote her smarmy boyfriend, Steve Harrington,) yet she apparently has no interests or hobbies other than studying and Steve. While her brother's introduction to the show is as a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master, the first scene with her in it is her on her bed, talking about Steve. Every single scene she is involved in up until the episode when she realizes her best friend is missing is, in someway, connected to her relationship with Steve. The first four episodes, instead of establishing her character or personality (seeing as she'd turn into a major player in her own way by about the half-way point of the season), were spent establishing her as a blushing, bashful girl enamored with the high school's hunk. We literally know nothing about this girl except who her best friend is, how her grades are, and who she is dating, with the emphasis being put very heavily onto her romantic relationship with Steve. And truth be told, the whole Steve Harrington subplot is completely unnecessary.

From what I can tell, Steve is just a generic, spoiled rich kid with a cute face, and the only reason he is in the show is for Barbara to go missing behind his house (and die in some nether-world version of his pool while Nancy loses her virginity), which leads to Nancy and Johnathan teaming up to figure out what is going on. This could've been accomplished in number of ways that completely eschew romance and sex while satisfying a critical audience way more than Steve's slimy charm, but because Nancy is a high school girl, no one could resist writing her this way. The whole scene where Barbara is taken by the monster focuses way more on the death of Nancy's "innocence" (that antiquated notion that keeps girls shaming themselves for any sort of sexual activity before the age of, say, thirty when they're allowed to have children and evolve into a mother), than it does on the actual death of a character. Dramatic cut scenes between Barbara screaming Nancy's name and Nancy moaning and clutching tightly to Steve's hand let us know that what is important isn't Barbara dying scared and alone, but that Nancy wasted her precious first time on an asshole instead of on the man who she will eventually marry and make sandwiches for and because of that Barbara had to die. Once the whole sex thing blows over and Nancy realizes that Barbara has vanished, the show focuses on what's actually important: solving the mystery of the faceless monster and Barbara/Will's disappearance. Nancy and Steve waste so much of the show's time and needlessly so, but not because the writers of the show suck. They do so because the writers of the show suck at writing females who go beyond traditional sexist roles and tropes.

Next, we have Karen. Karen is just a common, stern mother who also seems to be completely inept at parenting (Eleven lives in her house for three whole episodes and she never realizes). Most of her lines are split between some expression of how she wants her children to trust her and telling them what to do. Just like Nancy, she's got no personality. Mothering is her personality. Just as Nancy is defined through her adolescent femininity, Karen is just an ideal mother, caring but blind enough to let all sorts of shenanigans go on under her roof while providing casseroles to soother Joyce's grief. When she finds out Nancy was with a boy when Barbara went missing, instead of trying to console her daughter for the loss of a close friend, she gets on her case about having sex, shaming her daughter for something that shoudn't even matter in the context of their conversation. Karen is only shown in her house or Joyce's (and once at Nancy's school, but still solely as a supportive mom). It is impossible to detach her from her role as a mother, and if one attempted to, one would find very little left of her.

Moving on, we have Joyce Byers. Joyce is a stressed out, cigarette smoking, single mother at her wit's end. She relies heavily on her oldest son to help keep the house together, and it becomes clear that her ex-husband is some flakey guy who lives in the city and wants very little to do with his children (especially since it took him three whole episodes to even drive out to be with his old family once his youngest son went missing). From the moment Joyce enters the show she borders on hysterics, and as the series progresses she is in some constant state of emotional instability. Joyce is a hard character to commiserate with because, even though you realize that her son is missing and she blames herself, she is always so disheveled, so unkempt, so off-kilter that you can't help but get tired of her wild eyes and wailing. All we know about her is that she had a bad marriage and is hard working, similar to how all we know about Nancy is that she is hard-working and has a scumbag for a boyfriend and a missing best friend, which is also similar to how all we know about Karen is that she has two children, tries hard, and is in a loveless marriage. Are you starting to see the pattern here? All of these three females are defined by some facet of traditional femininity: maidenhood (and loss of innocence) or motherhood (and failed motherhood). Nancy is a young girl who wants to fall in love with a stud, a typical high school, doe-eyed dream that goes so badly it leads to her best friend being kidnapped by a monster. Karen is a caring mother.... and that's it. Joyce is batty, but she is also a single mother at the end of her rope.... and that's it. While the male characters are off having back stories, running AV clubs, experimenting on children, being gruff lawbreaking cops, and generally existing as active characters, these three women just kinda sit there doing nothing (unless you're Joyce, then you're waiting for lights to flash or the phone to ring while smoking a cigarette and once again accomplishing nothing).

Eleven, some would think, is a special case, because she has cool powers and a shaved head. However, she also has no motivations, and can barely speak for herself. All of her flashbacks are of her being forced to use her powers to complete various tasks for a man, Dr. Martin Benner, who she refers to as Papa. The first person she comes in contact with after escaping the facility she was kept in is another man, Benny Hammond. After Benny is murdered by the only woman so far who is neither domesticated or feminized (in fact she uses her "feminine" unassuming nature to trick Benny into letting down his guard), Eleven runs into Mike in the woods during a storm and goes home with him. For the most part she says nothing, eats food, and asks questions about basic nouns in the English language.

The only real reason she is important is because she has the power to find Will. The only reason she is interesting is because everyone wants to know how she is connected to the freaky faceless thing that's killing everyone. She has literally no personality, and yet somehow it's implied that she and Mike like each other. She is treated like a tool, commonly verbally abused by Lucas, and blown up on by Mike for "lying" when she doesn't even have the communication skills to express herself properly. Instead of teaching her to speak so she could maybe have a little more agency in her life, the boys preoccupy her with finding their missing friend. Also it is painfully obvious that using her powers is not safe for her because she gets a nosebleed every time she does, yet the boys keep pushing her to do so. What makes all of this mess almost laughable is the fourth episode when the boys give her a makeover so that she can pass as a girl, even though she is androgynous enough to pass as a young boy with no issue.The writers couldn't resist feminizing her, as if she wasn't a flat enough character already. She is central to the plot, yes, but she is not a real, fleshed out, person that can stand on her own. None of the woman are. They need the male characters to give them something to do, and that's just bad writing. Why make characters who are one dimensional to the point of being cardboard?

Now, I know some of the die-hard fans out there are raving about how the boys need mother characters because their literally children, or about how it's an 80's show so of course it's going to be tropey, but they are wrong to the nth degree. Yes mothers are necessary, but they can be characters outside of their motherhood. Neither of these women are. Also, Stranger Things is not an 80's show. It is a show set in the 1980s and it emulates the style of 80's genre television, but it was released in 2016. Sexist television would've been acceptable 33 years ago, but today it's just unbearable.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.

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