Stranger Things, the Platonic ideal of contemporary 80s nostalgia, burst onto the scene back in July to instant popularity and very little critical examination. Thereafter, it has rapidly assumed a place in the sci-fi canon, but the criticism largely hasn’t materialized. It’s certainly been examined, as fans combed the series for homages, but it’s all come from an uncritically positive perspective.
Unfortunately, along with the endearing features of the 80s, Stranger Things also replicates the biases of the 80s, bringing back a world where cops are men, teen girls are shallow, gay people are nonexistent, and everyone has exactly one black friend. This wasn’t an accurate portrayal of reality even in the 80s, but at the time, these assumptions and omissions were more socially acceptable. Nostalgia thus becomes a vehicle for rolling back progress.
For a closer look, let’s examine the show’s breakout fan favorite character, Eleven. While it’s tempting to immediately classify her as the notorious Strong Female Character, a more detailed study demonstrates that the show’s treatment of her actually propagates many of the frustrating gendered ideas that pervade movies and TV, ideas that have their underpinnings in the view that women are less important than men and their stories aren’t as worth telling.
First and most obviously, Eleven is the only female character who isn’t the relative (or short-lived friend of a relative) of a male character. That isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with the other female characters, per se, but their roles are mainly defined by their relationships to male characters (or, in Barb’s case, their extremely short lifespans), whereas the male characters both have more independent roles and more roles, period. Only one (Steve) is primarily defined by his relationship to a female character.
The gender ratio in Stranger Things isn’t the worst—certainly it’s far less marked than the race ratio—but it starts Eleven off on the wrong foot. From the get go, she’s is the only young girl character. While there are four young boy characters, allowing them to fill a variety of character types, Eleven has to represent all girls by herself.
Second, Eleven almost never speaks. Nonverbal or minimally verbal characters aren’t a purely female character type by any means; various types of silent characters of all genders appear in different types of media, ranging from the strong, silent bruiser to the alien sidekick. But Eleven’s mode of silence evokes the cultural value that women should be seen and not heard. Eleven can talk if need be and she can make her feelings and opinions known, but she isn’t always chattering about them. The boys are the ones who provide the running commentary on how they feel about what’s happening.
The third point may be counterintuitive. Eleven is the most powerful member of the cast, and indeed the only character who isn’t a completely ordinary person. That might seem to show value to female characters, but in fact it does the opposite: By allowing ordinary boys to occupy lead roles but requiring the girl to have special powers, it implies that regular women and girls don’t merit their own stories.
It’s a common phenomenon: The dweeby everyman male lead paired with a powerful, ass-kicking female lead. While men often interpret this as a sign that Hollywood doesn’t respect them, in reality this panders to male audiences. Everyman protagonists allow ordinary men and boys with no special talents to nevertheless imagine themselves as the heroes of grand adventures. There’s no widely-used parallel archetype for women and girls. They have to earn their place in the story by having extraordinary abilities, or by being related to a male everyman.
Eleven is a likeable, sympathetic character and it’s easy to see why she’s attracted so many fans. Yet her treatment on Stranger Things, and especially her role as a lead in a show with so few other female characters for her to play off, reinforces the idea that girls are only worth telling stories about if they’re exceptional and don’t talk too much. This problem could have been fixed so simply without doing anything to undermine the character’s charm: Just introduce more female characters who Eleven can interact with and who can demonstrate a wider palette of female traits.
Stranger Things does a great job of capturing the fun, the scares, and the adventure of old-school 80s kids’ movies. Unfortunately, it also captures the biases of an era when many of us felt left out by the very media we enjoyed so much. If we want to revisit the past, we need to do so with a critical eye and an awareness of what we’ve learned in the intervening time. Otherwise, our nostalgia only serves to give harmful ideas new life.