Stranger Things, Nostalgia and the Role of Girls in Coming-of-Age Stories

TV Features Stranger Things
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<i>Stranger Things</i>, Nostalgia and the Role of Girls in Coming-of-Age Stories

Who gets to come of age? Spoiler: It’s boys. As Stranger Things Season One aptly illustrates, only boys get coming-of-age stories. I found the series that the world fell in love with last year deeply troubling, while also enjoying it and retaining hope for Season Two.

Coming-of-age stories have probably always been popular. In the girls’ version, the heroine becomes ready for marriage (or, in modern stories, dating). In the boys’ version, the heroes go on an adventure, and sometimes learn a valuable lesson. Girls and boys alike are allowed to be chosen ones, but only boys tend to get stories outside of that realm.

When boys come of age, there are mysterious forests, train tracks, dead bodies, and carnivals; they play Dungeons & Dragons and have real-world adventures with walkie-talkies, bicycles, and snacks. Sometimes a girl is the lead boy’s reward at the end; very occasionally, a girl gets to be “special,” usually with some sort of superpower, but always to serve the boys’ story. Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by the Duffer brothers, twins Matt and Ross—who were born a year after the 1983 setting—has nearly all of these things.

Let’s talk about Freaks and Geeks, one of the most beloved series of the 21st century so far. It lasted only a single season, in 1999-2000, because television is a ruthless business, but it has achieved a cult status usually reserved for terrible shows (it is pretty wonderful). Created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, Freaks and Geeks, set over the 1980-81 school year, follows a brother and sister and their groups of friends as they navigate high school. It was one of the first of the 1980s nostalgia pieces that have become increasingly popular in media in the time since.

Let me get this out of the way right now: the 1980s nostalgia is firmly in the hands of white men in their 30s and 40s, some of whom are nostalgic for their own childhoods and some of whom are apparently sorry they missed it the first time around. I don’t know where the women my age are, but it isn’t film and television. Even Freaks and Geeks, which purported to be equally about Sam (John Francis Daley) and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) Weir, had only two actresses—Cardellini and Becky Ann Baker as the mother—in the opening credits, versus seven actors. (Busy Philipps was never in the credits, despite appearing in every episode, and Sarah Hagan only appeared in about half the episodes). There is a single female producer, on two episodes, and a lone female writer, on just one episode.

Let’s go back, for a moment, to the actual 1980s, and the classic film Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner and based on a Stephen King story. I am trying to remember whether there are any women with dialogue in the movie, and with the possible exception of Gordy’s mother, I can’t think of one. (The credits on IMDb back me up, with only Mrs. Lachance and a “Fat Lady” listed.) This is one of my favorite movies, and I never noticed this. I will talk about why I think that is in a moment, but first I want to compare it to another 1980s classic, The Goonies, directed by Richard Donner from a screenplay by Chris Columbus. I do not believe it to be as good a film as Stand By Me, but it has stood the test of time as strongly as, if not more than, Reiner’s film. In Goonies, there are two female leads, Andy (Kerri Green ) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), as well as a female villain, Mama Fratelli (Anne Ramsey) and a mom or two. Despite Green and Plimpton appearing in nearly every scene, they are there only as distractions for the main boys, to provide a voice of reason (“Stop! You can’t do this.”) and a non-consensual kiss that is played for laughs because Andy thinks she is kissing someone else.

Are coming-of-age stories (almost) exclusively about boys because they are (almost) exclusively told by men? It’s not unreasonable to assume so. Nostalgia tends to be for a familiar experience, after all. None of these male creators—Feig and Apatow; King, Reiner, Donner, and Columbus; and now the Duffer Brothers—have experienced being a young woman (though Feig has proven in his post-Freaks and Geeks career that he understands the importance of telling women’s stories). I don’t dare to think what it must be like to look for representation as a non-binary person.

There is one type of 1980s story where a girl gets to be more than set dressing in a boys’ world (though often still a sort of chosen one): slasher horror, in which one girl gets to defeat the maniac (usually after he has killed all the other girls). Often told as metaphors, and overt metaphors at that, for female sexuality, these are not coming-of-age stories, and like most other stories about girls, they are about things that happen to her. These stories also tend to be told by men.

In Season One of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers directed six of the eight episodes and wrote three; there are two female writers listed on IMDb, accounting for three of the episodes, and four female producers (of 14 total). Winona Ryder is the biggest name in the cast, and she is first billed. She plays Joyce, the mother of a boy, Will (Noah Schnapp), who disappears and is believed to be dead by everyone but her and his three best friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). She fights all of the other adults in town, along with her older son, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), until Jonathan and the local sheriff finally believe her (because they have seen evidence themselves, not because they think Joyce could possibly know what she’s talking about). Meanwhile, a mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) escapes from a secret government facility where she was forced to use her superpowers to open up the dimensional rift that caused Will’s disappearance. Eleven befriends Mike and helps him look for Will. Meanwhile, Mike’s sister, Nancy (Natalia Dyer), discovers (some of) what is going on when her best friend Barb (Shannon Purser) disappears; Nancy teams up with Jonathan to find the monster that took Barb and is hunting Will in the “Upside Down.”

My previous paragraph gives more care to describing the three female lead characters than the season’s eight episodes. Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) is the hero of the show, followed by Mike and Jonathan, even though Joyce and Nancy are the only residents who discover that something is going on and try to investigate, and Eleven is the only one who actually knows. Eleven, by the way, gets a makeover in one episode so that she will look more like a “real” girl, and spends the rest of the series wondering if she’s pretty. I could write a thousand words on why this is so awful, but it might just be three pages of me screaming.

Even if we ignore the in-show lack of respect for these women and girls—because let’s be real, it’s pretty likely they would not be believed—there is a central question that Stranger Things cannot answer: Why do the four friends have to boys? Why are these stories always about boys? Will and Jim in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Mikey, Mouth, Data, and Chunk in The Goonies. Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern in The Body/Stand By Me. Sam, Neal, and Bill in Freaks and Geeks. Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas in Stranger Things.

Where are the stories about girls running around unsupervised in the 1980s? Where are the groups of girls playing in the basement? Sure, you could argue that girls weren’t playing Dungeons & Dragons (it’s certainly true that we usually weren’t invited), but we didn’t just sit primly in our bedrooms and hope a slasher would show up so we could have our story told. In fact, while I did not play D&D until I was an adult, I did spend a lot of time running around in the woods. I know for a fact I’m not the only one.

If Stranger Things had been a slasher film, it would have centered around Nancy and her romance with Steve. (Technically, Barb should have been the final girl, but instead she is fridged for Nancy. I do need to note that it is… interesting to see a female character fridged for her friend’s character advancement and not for a man’s story, but it fits the slasher film narrative.) It was refreshing when Scream turned on its head the trope of a girl losing her virginity and immediately being killed; that was in 1995, and it’s no longer surprising or clever to use that reversal, as Stranger Things does.

But Stranger Things, while paying loving tribute to 1980s horror, is ultimately just a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story about boys. And I find that disappointing.

If women were telling nostalgia stories, boys would not be the default. If there were abundant girl stories, it would not be as troublesome that there are no female characters in Stand By Me, or that the female characters in The Goonies and Stranger Things have questionable priorities and no agency. But until women get to tell our share of the stories, these problems are huge, and so pervasive that we rarely notice them. Netflix’s GLOW proves that women can tell 1980s nostalgia stories about women—now how about some that center girls?

Season Two of Stranger Things premieres Friday, Oct. 27 on Netflix.

Annika Barranti Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer and feminist killjoy who is moderately nostalgic for her own 1980s childhood. You can find her yelling about books at Book Riot, and about everything else on Twitter @noirbettie.