Stranger Things, Or The Same Old Things?

Does "Stranger Things" limit its female characters?

I may have jumped on the “Stranger Things” train a little bit late ― it’s been out for over a month now and Netflix and sci-fi fanatics alike probably binged the whole thing within the first two weeks. Science fiction is not usually my go-to genre, but I was immediately impressed by how the Duffer brothers were able to reincarnate the nostalgia of the 80s through believable characters, an exciting plotline and glamorous, yet subdued, cinematography. Even right down to the fonts used in the opening credits, the Duffers’ show was screaming 80s appeal. But even with all that, the brothers were breaking ground with a powerhouse young girl as probably the most impressive actor on screen, both visually and characteristically defiant of that age-old, male centric, misogynist stereotype of women.

Eleven was so fascinating and dynamic that I could almost forgive the Duffers’ demonization of the vagina, flat clichéd roles of the other female characters and the punishment of the strong ones. Almost. But the Duffers gave in to the pressure of their own sex, the precedents that the media is most guilty of ― misogyny is so contagious in our culture that it can infect even the most harmless or most promising forms of entertainment.

                So let’s start with one of the earliest introductions to conflict in “Stranger Things” ― the cave-like portal to the Upside Down hidden within the Hawkins lab. A dark hole, upon close inspection that has a membranous interior that eases open to swallow the male-scientist-sacrifice whole. Covered in curling vines, reminiscent of pubic hair shielding the vagina, the portal oozes, and in the darkness for all we know it could be, blood. Anyone who enters wears a hazmat suit because what’s inside could be poisonous.

                We discover later that it’s Eleven who opened the portal and one could argue that she opens it with the loss of her innocence. She comes across the dreaded gorgon and, for the first time, feels genuine fear and mistrust of her “papa” ― the only male figure currently in her life. Her scream creates the energy that rips open the portal and ultimately unleashes the gorgon. Thus the typical loss of innocence of a young girl ― that of discovering her own vagina ― is replaced by Eleven’s discovering and releasing evil.

                Not to mention, this particular evil is a walking barbed vagina. That’s right: the gorgon that plagues Hawkins, Indiana, attracted by blood and leaving blood in its wake, is a visual representation of the folktale of the vagina dentata, or the “toothed vagina” that will cause injury and emasculation. The gorgon is described as a “human with no face.” Instead, it has a head of fleshy flaps that open up to a gaping, toothy hole that will swallow you up much like the vaginal portal from which it was birthed. And everyone is afraid.

                But what about the females that were featured in the show? You mean Nancy, Joyce, Barb, and El herself? Nancy, the shallow, bad-girl-wanna-be. Nancy, who after the only badass thing she ever does, goes back to Steven, the boy who insults her sexuality and who never listens to her (not when she says she needs to study, not when she asks to be alone, and not even when she holds a gun to his head!) because he is popular and successful. Because he can take care of her as he proves with the phallic baseball bat he uses to beat down the vaginal demon. And then there’s Joyce whose only purpose is to be the worried mother. She has no other character development than sniveling about finding her son ― her words, actions, thoughts, even her backstory are all driven by being a mother.

                So we’re left with Barb ― smart, loyal, and independent. She’s killed ― ushered through to the Upside Down by a barbed vagina and killed for her lack of femininity. Because let’s remember that the Duffer brothers have defined femininity for their viewership. Eleven admires Nancy for her long-haired, sexually-alluring beauty. Joyce’s manic behavior is excused because she is the damsel in distress. And it is Nancy and Joyce who are allowed to live.

                All of this may have been possible to overlook if it had not been for what the Duffers did to Eleven. Eleven defies expectation. Throughout the show, characters comment about how she looks like a boy with her shaved head. Not only that, but she acts like one, too. She fights back and she has considerable power. El saves her boy counterparts again and again. She is almost the first unsexualized female superhero if it hadn’t been for Mike and his gang dressing her up as a “pretty” girl in order to present her to society. But El can’t keep up the ordinary appearance of a little girl ― she sheds her wig and continues to conduct herself with immense power. Which is why she has to die. The Duffers trade in an invaluably strong girl for a weak and weakly characterized boy because anything is better than a girl who breaks the long engrained societal bondage of the definition of what it really means to be female.

                The Duffer brothers were breaking ground. They had a meaningful show that was reaching a wide audience that could have done a lot to subvert the misogynist agenda. I can’t ― as much as I’d like to ― say “Stranger Things” was anything but good television. The actors were sincere, the characters felt real, the plot was engrossing, the symbolism was inherent. But that is the biggest offense the Duffer brothers made with their show. “Stranger Things” is an 8-hour long saga that fatally leaks the toxic fumes of female limitation, closing itself and therefore its audience off from progress.