At its core, Netflix’s new hit series Stranger Things is a nerdgasmic tribute to all things eighties sci-fi. The Duffer Brothers, who wrote and directed the show, have talked candidly about their influences: the slack-jawed sublimity of Stephen Spielberg’s starstruck children, most notably Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Barry Guiler and E.T.’s Elliott Taylor; coming-of-age adventure films like The Goonies, Monster Squad, and Explorers; and, in the darkest reaches, sci-fi horror classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing (a poster for the film hangs proudly in Mike and Nancy Wheeler’s family basement, and that famous alien head-detachment scene plays on the home television of the protagonists’ Middle School science teacher, Mr. Clarke) and, dare I say it, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Some have already meticulously catalogued the show’s impressive amount of references to both popular culture and cult favorites of the time period, with endless Internet posts on the ghostly presence of Ellen Ripley (of the Alien franchise), Chunk (of Goonies fame), and Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice)/Veronica Sawyer (Heathers), because WI-NO-NA, why else?
Some have argued that the Duffer Brothers/Netflix, in creating this show, are merely capitalizing on the well-kept and nurtured nostalgia that has begun blossoming to fullness in people who, like the Duffers, grew up watching these films and listening to synth-driven soundtracks and pop music and reading pulp science fiction and horror novels; in one way, this proves the lasting power, both psychic and cultural, of the (early) works of Stephen King. But reducing Stranger Things to the sum of its nostalgic parts seems shortsighted. The series moves far beyond the devices of its honored predecessors, presenting its audience with a group of young adult characters who show strength and insight beyond their years.
What sets this series (and a few of its contemporaries) apart from those tried-and-tested favorites that litter the shelves of those of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties is its insistence that girls and women are authentic heroes. They are smart, powerful, and damaged, without the necessity of being beautiful or demure. These women - young and old, human and superhuman - are the anti-damsels of the new sci-fi, and Stranger Things signifies their brooding arrival.
November, 1983. Autumn has taken hold of a small Indiana town, leeching the color from bald trees and skies. The chill air illuminates the breath of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), who rides his bike home, alone, after another ten-hour Dungeons & Dragons campaign with his three best friends: Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin). It’s dark. Will makes his way through a blue-black wood but something snatches his attention. He skids off-road, tumbling down a hillside beset with wet leaves and branches. He looks up...
Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) works late at the local grocer’s and only learns of her son’s disappearance the morning after, when he doesn’t show for breakfast before school. Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), her oldest son, got home after eleven the night before; he assumed Will was already in bed. The fact of Will’s disappearance destabilizes the already-frazzled Joyce to the point of fraying. She, a single mother of two adolescent boys, has acted as their sole provider and protector for the majority of their lives. The father is absent, ineffectual, and selfish, only showing up later as an unsuccessful foil to Joyce’s “hysterical” campaign to find her missing son.
This point is worth emphasizing: Joyce is treated as a madwoman by the people around her (most of them men). As she happens upon eerie clues as to Will’s whereabouts, her desire to find him intensifies - all this despite the supernatural impossibilities that present themselves as her new reality. She believes, beyond logic, that her son is alive, no matter Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) relating the hallucination-inducing disbelief brought on by the death of his own daughter; no matter the scolding of her good-for-nothing ex; no matter the distressing pleas of her oldest son, begging her to keep it together.
Joyce does not waiver. She does not hide away in her house, biting her nails to the quick. The stares and suggestions of townsfolk to not dissuade her. Instead, she sits awake through the night, axe in hand. She disallows anyone from denying her truth, regardless of how crazy it seems. Her eventual accomplices - mainly Jonathan, Hopper, and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) - are purposefully incorporated into her own plans for saving her son. She is never replaced as the leader in this search, and this is not by happenstance. Joyce is meticulous and dedicated and driven by love: of Will, of Jonathan, and of their lives as three singular individuals in a matriarchal family unit.
Subject 011, also known as Eleven, endeared to Mike, Lucas, and Dustin as El, was borne of science. Her mother participated in government-led field tests on a range of psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs - think MKUltra - which sought to discover the full range of human brainpower. At those outer limits: telekinesis, telepathy, intuition beyond individual memory or experience. The government hadn’t expected the birth of Subject 011; still, they took her. Who would believe her spaced-out, hippie mother? She would eventually become catatonic after the kidnapping of her child. Nobody - not even her sister - believed her.
Stranger Things deserves inclusion within the small (but growing) group sci-fi/fantasy/horror films/series that feature heroic, non-stereotypical women leads. Each of the members of this group provides commentary on abuses dealt by men in power upon their subjects, who most often are women, young girls, and nature, including nonhuman animals. These films represent a singular genre within the sci-fi/fantasy/horror canon where authentic feminist critique exists, structuring not only the unfolding of the plot but also dialogue and character development around the pursuits, accomplishments, struggles, and abusers of lead women characters. Films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, Beyond the Black Rainbow, Tank Girl, Mad Max: Fury Road, Alien and Alien: Resurrection, Pan’s Labyrinth, It Follows, and Melancholia all belong. It is interesting to note, however, that only one of the aforementioned films/series is directed by a woman, and none are written by women (Stranger Things is the stand-out here, featuring three women-writers in its crew).
Throughout history, women’s bodies have been used as tools for societal and scientific “progress.” Sexist and misogynist belief systems have long informed the fields/disciplines of gynecology, psychoanalysis, capitalism, eugenics, pharmaceuticals, advertising, and so forth. In the aforementioned list of films, it is more than likely that the directors - since all but one of them are privileged men - did not deliberately incorporate any sort of feminist critique in their films, Stranger Things reluctantly included. Actually, each of the films I mentioned is problematic in its own way, so let me be clear: I am not arguing that these male directors are feminists (regardless of whether or not they claim to be), nor am I dismissing the presence of stereotypical depictions of women and people of color in their films.
What I am suggesting, however, is that these films, whether consciously or unconsciously, provide alternative modes of being for nonconformist women heroes in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror movie realm.
This is reflective of a paradigm shift in thinking about gender and society in a time where the pernicious effects of totalitarianism and genocide, of bigotry and oppression, can be closely examined by everyone. We also live in a time of an amplification of voices, a proliferation of alternative modes of being in the face of ongoing struggles for liberation and social justice. These films and their directors/writers may simply be a great mirror held up to this new reality. Whatever the case may be, the women characters in these films levy legitimate critiques against systems of (male) dominance, power, and privilege. For example, in Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steals herself and four prized “breeding wives” away from their rapist, Immortan Joe, who is also a white supremacist fascist leader of the desert-bound people of The Citadel. The Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is a clone of herself by the third installment (Alien: Resurrection), brought back by a group of male research scientists who incubate an alien queen embryo in clone-Ellen’s womb (another instance of rape). Beyond the Black Rainbow, perhaps the least known title in this list, tells a strange, disorienting story about the imprisoned young telepath Elena (Eva Allen), whose abilities are studied by Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers) at the eponymous Arboria Institute. He eventually sets her free to test her survival skills in the labyrinthine depths of the hospital, where other sentient science experiments roam.
In the case of Stranger Things, government men in white lab coats - who pose in the open as everything from plumbers to social workers - conduct unethical experiments with the forced help of Subject 011, who I’ll call Eleven from here on out. These efforts are led by Dr. Brenner (Matthew Modine), who plays pretend as Eleven’s surrogate “papa.” She calls him this repeatedly in flashbacks, screaming it over and over when he throws her in solitary confinement as punishment for refusing to harm a cat with her telekinetic powers. (Father/god complex, much?) Brenner’s objectives are never clearly stated, although espionage and military weapons development are implied. The unforeseen consequences of Brenner’s cruelest experiment, during which Eleven is submerged in a tank of water with an electrode-infused cap strapped to her head, lead to both the disappearance of Will Byers and to Eleven’s escape from the institute.
Audiences love the character of Eleven partially because, through her, the Duffer Brothers articulate key aspects of what we love best about coming-of-age action/adventure heroes from the 1980’s and 1990’s: she’s strange, a more extreme type of reject-weirdo than that of the group of boys she befriends. She’s so likable in her awkward “other”-ness in the same way that we love Dustin, Mike, and Lucas because they play Dungeons & Dragons and are really jazzed about being core members of the Hawkins Middle School Audio Visual Club (oh, and also because they adore Tolkien and love the Stephens, King and Hawking, as much as we do). Eleven is also strong in her defiance, which more closely ties her to the beloved figure of the child-rebel who deliberately disobeys his/her parents to pursue adventure, knowledge, or justice.
But what sets Eleven apart from all those favorite characters of ours is her benign tomboyishness, her quietude, the seriousness of her being. Eleven has seen things, done things beyond the imaginations of her science-minded, fantasy-hearted friends; for although Mike, Lucas, and Dustin’s minds are plastic enough (like Joyce’s) to more readily accept the stranger things that Eleven reveals, they must still rely heavily upon her in the search for Will. Her strengths - physical, psychological, and moral - are truly torn from another plane of existence: that of the trauma survivor. It is in spite of her suffering at the hands of her “father” that Eleven helps the boys find Will. Her participation in this search is deliberate. The boundaries she sets are firm, her own; the first word she utters to Mike is no, in response to his suggestion that Eleven meet his mother in order to ask for help. Her second no comes when Lucas similarly attempts to involve Mike’s mother; her proclamation is accentuated by her telekinetic slamming of the bedroom door.
In a sense, Eleven’s ability to deny others access to her body and mind is the power of strict autonomy of the self: that which she has never had up to this very point, and previously not without punishment. This is what makes Eleven’s relationship with the boys and, later, with Joyce (who acts as a surrogate mother), so authentic and moving but also strikingly unique. Her “craziness” and “monstrosity” - that is, her extraordinary powers of mind and body - are never truly compromised. This is true even despite that scene where Lucas, Mike, and Dustin give Eleven a makeover, which is so obviously a commentary on feminine stereotypes. Lucas emphasizes that this is how Eleven must look in order to not be singled out as a freak (i.e., a girl with a shaved head, gasp!). The makeover provides Eleven a disguise, one she eventually rids herself of anyway. Neither she nor the boys intended her to change to become this “ideal.” She loses the blond-girl wig. The peachy-pink glow of the dress fades beneath dirt and blood.
In an article for The Atlantic, Lenika Cruz suggests that Eleven’s death at the end of the series is stereotypical, claiming that “the casual treatment of (Eleven’s) departure after so much buildup suggests that Stranger Things cared less about her than it initially implied,” and that, “In aping earlier cinematic glories,” her death replicates “subtly retrograde tendencies” - such as the quasi-love-interest, would-be heroine who sacrifices herself in the name of love, or friendship, or simply because she was too weak to survive (and the boys have to stick around to mythologize her, to tell her story, and, of course, to live the full course of their natural lives). But with an understanding of Eleven as being driven by willful choice in defiance of the violences perpetrated by the men who exploited her, her death begins to read less like sacrifice and more like a kind of complicated heroism. If all of Eleven’s combined words and actions prove anything, it’s that she has always known more than she lets on; why not consider her death as an active choice in light of the knowledge and experience she has that even we, the audience, can only speculate about? She knows that world, the upside-down, better than any of us. She makes this “sacrifice” because she feels she can survive it. (Depending on how you read Sheriff Hopper’s actions in his final scene, this contention may be exactly right.)
On a final, but important, note: you may have noticed that all of the woman-hero characters mentioned in this article are white. This is reflective of white male-centric structures that suffuse all mainstream media. In fact, of the top 100 domestic grossing sci-fi/fantasy films, only fourteen (14%) featured a woman lead, with zero of those being women of color. I am hopeful for the critical feminist future of cinema - which must begin to consciously, deliberately incorporate stories and perspectives of black and brown women (and indigenous, poor, LGBTQ+ women) as it simultaneously bolsters all girls and women at every stage of the filmmaking process. If we spend money at the cinema, we must begin to think more critically on what (or whom) we’re spending; we must seek out films starring, written, produced, and directed by women; and, most importantly, we must continue to use the Internet as a tool for constant critique of the racist, sexist, and otherwise elitist structures of the moviemaking industry.
For a film to anticipate, check writer/director Annetta Laufer’s forthcoming afro-punk dystopian sci-fi film Afro Punk Girl. The film’s lead actor (Danielle Vitalis), top producers (Shobu Kapoor, Anya Ryzhenkova), costume designer (Louisa Thomas), and composer (Bev Harling) are all women.
EDIT: There have been a handful of commenters who have rightfully noticed that Nancy and Barb are not discussed in this post. This has only to do with ideal length restrictions for this platform and nothing else. Let it be known that both Nancy and Barb deserve inclusion here.
SECOND EDIT: Some have expressed concern that I’ve not mentioned the work of Joss Whedon here, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is not because I don’t consider BTVS to have feminist qualities, but simply because the women characters I discuss in this article have a specific quality of “non-feminine” anti-authoritarianism that sets them apart from the likes of Buffy, for example; for although she is strong, and is in large part autonomous in her life and relationships, Buffy is still traditionally beautiful and “feminine” in the terms set by the male gaze. For more information on this topic, check out Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”