The Powerful Women of Stranger Things
In Barb we trust
Stranger Things returns to Netflix on October 27 and to get you primed, we've unearthed two pieces of ST content from the vault. This essay on the show's powerful female heroines was originally published in 2016 and contains spoilers for the first season. (To read an interview with Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike Wheeler on the series, on his first-time watching The 400 Blows, head here.) This October 26, members can catch a sneak preview of the second season of Stranger Things at TIFF Bell Lightbox. A rush-line policy is in effect.
“November 6, 1983.” Winona Ryder has just turned 12. Natalia Dyer is a decade from being born, while Millie Bobby Brown is two decades away. At the time Stranger Things is set, Ryder has not yet started acting, yet here she is playing a mother of two. Here is the unborn Dyer playing a prissy teen. Here is Brown playing a psychokinetic pre-pubescent. The conversation around the Duffer brothers’ Netflix series about a parallel universe (known as “The Upside Down”) abducting small-town kids has been dominated by exclaim over its quantity of allusions to every filmmaker from John Carpenter to Steven Spielberg. But if this is a “love letter” to the movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, it is sealed with a kiss specifically for Ellen Ripley.
Alien’s heroine (an indestructible Sigourney Weaver) is famous in her own right – for repeatedly defeating, in the middle of space, by herself, the predatory fruits of Ridley Scott’s mind – but Alison Bechdel inextricably linked her to feminism in the mid-’80s. In her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out for, Bechdel cites Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror as the most recent film to pass her gender equality test (now known as the “Bechdel test”). The criteria? “One, it has at least two women in it, who, two, talk about, three, something besides a man.” According to Omni, only 43 per cent of the top 100 sci-fi films pass Bechdel’s criteria, the rest being largely dominated by little more than Playboy-grade villains and victims. Even Princess Leia’s spunk can’t keep her out of a gold bikini. Horror films are also predominantly reductive, with women chiefly playing femmes fatales, final girls, or characters who are just, well, fucked.
In the rare instance a sci-fi heroine can survive on her own, like Terminator’s Sarah Connor, she is coded as a cold-hearted, masculine, Marvel-bodied machine. Only recently have “regular” young women – Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen to Star Wars’ Rey – become stars of the genre. And it wasn’t until even more recently that older women – Mad Max’s Furiosa to the all-lady Ghostbusters – got in on the action, too. Still, the Duffers’ Stranger Things is perhaps one of the only sci-fi horrors to feature not one but three heroines subverting genre stereotypes. Joyce Byers, Nancy Wheeler, and Eleven span age, class, and education, yet all three share one distinguishing characteristic: they are more powerful than the men beside them.
“I sound crazy. You think I don’t know that? It is crazy!” — Joyce Byers
To play Joyce Byers, a working-class single mother whose son goes missing, Winona Ryder wanted her hair just right. That meant emulating Meryl Streep’s choppy, neck-tickling mullet in Silkwood. Released the same year Stranger Things takes place, Mike Nichols’ biopic centers on real-life whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who in 1974, exposed the lack of safeguards in place at the nuclear plant that employed her. For Ryder, it was less about the hair and more about the woman. Like Winona’s character, Karen Silkwood is a single mom with little money and less power who chooses to take on a major organization and is gaslighted for it.
When Will Byers disappears, his mother is considered crazy from the start. Despite being maligned by her ex Lonny (who abandoned the family years ago), pitied by the police, and shamed by her son, she refuses to abandon her search. The moment she realizes Will is missing, she turns up at the desk of local cop Jim Hopper to give him one simple order: “Find him.” She can’t afford a new phone after hers malfunctions, but, in defiance, she tells her boss at the general store: “I’ve been here 10 years.” Realizing she might be able to communicate with her son through electricity, she empties said store of Christmas lights, draws an Ouija-esque alphabet on her wall and punches a hole through her home to make contact. Joyce may lack confidence, but her maternal instincts do not. “I’m not crazy,” she says firmly to Hopper, who is certain she is. And when her son’s dead body does turns up – the first empirical evidence she might be wrong – she has the presence of mind not to relent. “My mom,” her older son says, “she’s tough.”
Though she has been compared to Elliot’s mom in E.T. – also single, also dealing with an alien entity – Joyce is more akin to Poltergeist’s Diane Freeling. There’s a reason she bought Will a ticket to see the 1982 horror film. When her child is similarly abducted by a parallel world, Diane (played by a sparkly JoBeth Williams), whose husband is as useless as Joyce’s, refuses to leave her increasingly compromised house. “I’m not leaving here without Carol Anne,” she announces. Joyce echoes Diane when Hopper warns her of the dangers they face in continuing to look for Will: “Then I’ll go! You stay! Are you kidding me? He’s my son, Hop, my son, I’m going!”
This sort of tenacity is not uncommon for mothers in horror movies, but it is for a mother like Joyce. As Hazel Cills observed in Grantland two years ago, moms in this genre are flawlessly devoted to their families. “Just as slashers have their sainted final girls, home invasion and possession films have their final mothers,” she wrote. Joyce may now be doing anything to find her son, but having been overworked and underpresent, she is not the apple pie baking ideal of motherhood. Said Ryder to Collider: “She’s not a perfect person. She’s very flawed and she’s struggling, even before everything happens. I liked that she wasn’t this perfect mom.”
"Last week I was shopping for a new top I thought Steve might like. It took me and Barb all weekend. It seemed like life, or death, you know?" — Nancy Wheeler
The first time we see Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), she’s on the phone surrounded by pastel pinks and baby blues. It’s the stereotypical image of the ‘80s teen girl, straight off a Babysitter’s Club paperback, and she appears to act like one too. Like Halloween’s Laurie Strode, the seminal (so to speak) Final Girl, this brunette is an A student who dresses like the V she is – skirt below the knee, white tights, brown flats. When she fends off her boyfriend Steve’s advances by saying she’s not like other girls, he responds, “You mean, you’re not a slut?” We are set up to believe this Nancy, like the Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street, is the girl who says no and survives because of it. As Final Girl designator Carol J. Clover wrote in 1987, “She is feminine enough to act out in a gratifying way, a way unapproved for adult males... but not so feminine as to disturb the structures of male competence and sexuality.”
And neither is her best friend. Barb (played by aptly named first-timer Shannon Purser) is reminiscent of Martha Plimpton in Goonies – same hair, same glasses, same irony. She’s already skeptical about Nancy dating “up,” but when her friend invites her to chaperone at a party at Steve’s on a TUESDAY, she knows shit is going to go down. In the face of her friend’s repeated naïveté about Steve’s intentions, Barb eventually borrows Plimpton’s same expression of exasperation: “Come on!” After Nancy crushes a can of beer and follows Steve up to his room to “go change,” Barb is done. “This isn’t you,” she says. But here, the Duffers flip the Final Girl trope and instead of Nancy getting fucked over, it is Barb, who failing to partake, is sacrificed while her friend is busy in the sack.
Nancy doesn’t get off that easy. When Steve mistakenly thinks she is now dating Will Byers’ brother Jon (she actually recruited the River Phoenix-look-alike in a quest to find Barb, who has disappeared and of whom Jon has taken the last photo of her seen alive), his friends proceed to deface the local cinema marquee, writing beneath All the Right Moves (the Duffers can’t resist): “Starring Nancy the Slut Wheeler.” Steve symbolically wipes off his friends’ graffiti, a metaphor for the realization that teen sex isn’t tantamount to fucking up. “We slept together, is that what you want to hear?” Nancy tells her mom. “It doesn’t matter!”
Nancy doesn’t lose her innocence the moment she has sex, she loses it the moment her best friend Barb goes missing. With that, she drops Steve Harrington and picks up a baseball bat, becoming, as one of her brother’s friends puts it, “kind of a badass.” She unites with Jon to find her friend, saying “screw that” to the life she once knew; refusing to be reduced to the cover of a book. “That is such bullshit,” she says when Jon characterizes her behaviour with Steve as “an act.” Like Nightmare’s Nancy, this Nancy “faces things,” diving into The Upside Down, commanding Jon to sleep in her bed, breaking and entering, always deciding which action they should take next. “I want to finish what we started,” she tells Jon, her bony jaw set. “I want to kill it.”
"Still pretty?" — Eleven
When Gertie meets E.T. for the first time, one of her first questions is, “Is he a boy or a girl?” It’s a query that keeps coming up in Stranger Things with the appearance of Eleven (a prodigiously stoic Millie Bobby Brown), the psychokinetic runaway based on Steven Spielberg’s most famous extraterrestrial. With a face approximating Newt in Aliens (with a pair of lungs to match), plus a shaved head like a later Ripley, Eleven’s gender confounds expectations. One of the three 12-year-old boys who find her in the forest, disheveled in a hospital gown from the government lab she has fled, asks: “Where’s your hair, do you have cancer?” Later, another kid says, “She doesn’t even look like a girl.” How girly Eleven looks is less about aligning herself with gender norms and more about claiming her humanity. She wants to be normal, and being a normal girl is being a pretty girl. So when the boys dress her up like Gertie dresses up E.T., it makes sense that his “be good” translates to her “pretty good.”
Brown, who was around 11 and had long hair when she landed the role in Stranger Things, hesitated over her haircut. To persuade her, the Duffers flashed a photo of Charlize Theron as buzz-headed Furiosa, stating: “Charlize looks totally badass, right?” But like Ryder, it’s not just about the hair. Eleven is so badass that her first word is “no.” Her scream ripples water, her cocked head breaks arms, her bowed head moves cars. This girl who doesn’t act like one is called “wrong,” “crazy,” and “mental” before eventually being deemed “a superhero” and finally, “Yoda.”
“It’s not just a fun girl with superpowers. This is someone that if she wanted, or even accidentally, could seriously hurt one of them,” Ross Duffer told Variety. “She’s a bit of a wild card, she doesn’t fully have control.” Where E.T. whimsically makes his friends fly, Eleven is more destructive, bypassing her friends’ bikes to instead chuck an approaching van over their heads. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe she’s the monster?” one of the boys asks Mike (Finn Wolfhard) of his new roommate. But unlike the eponymous telekinetic prom queen in Carrie, or the pre-pubescent pyrokinetic in Firestarter, Eleven’s powers are less clearly delineated. When she later agrees with them that she is a monster, the one who opened the gate to the Upside Down, Mike’s reply is: “But you saved us.”
The saving goes both ways. Without Mike adopting Eleven into his band of best buds and exposing her to real affection, Eleven might not have had the self-awareness to reject her domineering “Papa.” At the end of Carrie, Carrie White’s only means of extricating herself from her past is to burn down the present, including herself. Eleven learns that it is not she but her papa who is “bad,” and the opposite is Mike, the kid who took her in and refused to treat her like a dog. This realization is enough to sacrifice herself for him. Before she destroys the creature from the Upside Down, before her scream disintegrates them both to dust, she announces firmly, powerfully, “No more.”
In the penultimate episode of Stranger Things, all three heroines are brought together in a rare scene for a fantasy narrative, one in which a character’s power is not taken for granted. Eleven agrees to use her abilities to risk her life and return to the Upside Down in order to find Will Byers. Joyce, in return, does not let her forget how thankful she is for Eleven’s sacrifice. “You’re a very brave girl, you know that, don’t you?” she says. “Everything you’re doing for my boy, for Will, for my family, thank you.”
Joyce even gives Eleven an out, which is something her Papa never did. “If it ever gets too scary in that place, you just let me know,” she says. While Eleven floats in the sensory deprivation bath that will transport her to the other side, Joyce does not leave her, cooing into her ear when she screams, wrapping Eleven in her arms when she emerges. As a result, she becomes the mother that Eleven never had. “I’ve got you,” she says, cradling Eleven, the mother holding the child next to Nancy, the young woman grieving for her lost friend. For a brief moment, the camera frames the three stages of womanhood, with no men to interfere with the power that’s theirs alone.