In the last month, Netflix’s Stranger Things, has become the locus of nearly unanimous praise, sparking a resurgent conversation about current art’s ongoing fascination with remixing ‘80s culture as a vision of cultural idealism. Some have taken it to task for its level of homage, while others have obsessively cataloged the range of influences in every frame and gesture.
But while Stranger Things may have an over-reliance on outside inspiration, the bigger problem is the show’s inability to present female characters who aren’t defined by their relation to the plot. Plot-based storytelling isn’t inherently an issue, but like another early Netflix show, House of Cards, Stranger Things hides the inadequacies of its writing with fastidious production design, strong performances, steady pacing and just enough interactions with the characters to get a vague sense of their relationships, but without granting them interiority.
Nowhere is that sense of hollowness more apparent than in Stranger Things’ treatment of its female characters—a group of women whose actions are entirely dictated by the needs of the plot (Justice for Barb!). Winona Ryder has been at the center of much of the show’s acclaim for her fiercely emotional role as Joyce Byers, the grief-stricken mother who’s desperately searching for evidence that her missing son, Will (Noah Schnapp), is still alive. But while Ryder brings an exhausted intensity to the role, her characterization is a prime demonstration of the show’s disinterest in the characters individual journeys.
Joyce’s character is an easy trope—a familiar and lazy archetype in a long history of cinematic and television mothers whose only response to tragedy can be violent denial, and a descent into behavior that makes her an other in the community. She’s the standard “crackpot,” a character who’s at first pitied, and subsequently dismissed as unstable.That’s bad enough, but this designation carries a secondary purpose—it allows Ryder’s character to exist completely separately from the town.
She’s been written into a place of total amnesty from any possible narrative consequences, and also any possible growth. Boarded up in her house for nearly the entirety of the season, she’s defined almost completely by her role as a mother, first in her consumption with her lost son, and in the second half of the season as a maternal figure to Eleven. Of course, her being a mother isn’t the problem, but so much of her screentime is about her reacting to her own grief and the ways that her son’s absence (and presence) shapes her life, rather than her development as her own character.
And in a season that places her in nearly every episode, it’s notable that there are only one or two moments when her character isn’t in a narrow emotional spectrum consisting of crying and yelling. There’s the flashback scene in the first episode where she buys tickets for Poltergeist, and a scene late in the season when she comforts Eleven before she goes into the deprivation tank. Other than these two (very welcome) moments, so much of Joyce’s role is reduced to set-up. She’s the character who stands on the fringes with the knowledge that everyone needs, but won’t believe if it comes from her. And other than those scenes that drive forward the plot—communicating with Will through the lights, being attacked by the Demogorgon—her main purpose is little more than to trigger paranoia in the heads of other characters who can actually enact change, like Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and her son, Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton).
In terms of narrative agency, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) fares slightly better, especially as she’s involved with some of the biggest moments at the end of the season. But she’s another character whose actions are, again, reactions to the male characters around her like Steve (Joe Keery), Michael (Finn Wolfhard), and Jonathan. While the four lead boys have lives that exist outside of their relationships with each other, Nancy’s screen time is all about, first, her crush on Steve, and then her partnership with Jonathan. The relationship with Steve initially appears to be centered on her own conflicted and exciting feelings about falling for someone, but it’s less about Nancy’s own feelings than the indifference Steve treats her with after they have sex. And even then, their fallout is just a way for Nancy to connect with Jonathan, after Steve breaks his camera.
Nancy’s progression over the whole season is less about her growth as a person, and more about how she becomes a better friend to Jonathan or Barb, or a better sister to Michael. Those relationships are fine on their own, but they point to a larger pattern that shows that Nancy’s role in the series is also, always plot-based.
At this point, it may sound like i’m bristling at the fundamental convolutions of a season of television. After all, so much of a successful season is about a combination of invisible orchestration, and creating a world and characters that feel real outside of the context of an episode of TV. But Stranger Things moves in such a way that very few events in the entire season happen without the presence of illogical (and sometimes just bad, sorry Winona) characterization, and a bullying narrative hand.
Eleven is perhaps most representative of these puppet strings. Millie Bobby Brown’s performance is startlingly believable, as a young woman who’s been trapped in a government chamber her whole life. She’s only begun to understand herself, and there’s an appeal to watching her interact with basic human objects in totally alien ways. However, at the end of the day, she’s little more than a blank slate.
Her character is a piece of clay that can be molded to the whims of the two creators, and she’s only recognized as something more when the story needs to feel more emotional. Here again, the show relies on Eleven to be understood through her relationships with male characters, like Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) who she’s taken to calling, “Papa,” and her growing affection for Michael, who treats her with kindness.
And much of Eleven’s internal conflicts are still worries that she’s not living up to what others want her to do. There’s no sense of discovery when she’s out in the world alone. She’s a plot device that’s being restrained until she’s needed, and while there’s potentially a rationale to, for example, understand why she doesn’t immediately tell the boys to travel into the Upside Down world, it’s a plot move that ultimately feels like another attempt to delay the story until all the other pieces have caught up. Like Nancy, Joyce (and Barb), Eleven could have been a far more fascinating character, had she been given the chance. And the series would have been better for it.
Stranger Things certainly isn’t a bad show, but the ways it uses and discards its female characters are entirely symptomatic of the show’s overall approach. This is an entertaining series, filled with engrossing atmosphere, flashy camerawork and an addictively watchable story, but it forgets that the most important part of storytelling is strong characters. Here’s hoping a second season will mean a second chance for the girls and women on the show to serve the growth of their characters, as well as the greater plot.