A Jelly Chick, A Black Widow, and A Tortured Tease Walked into a School Dance…

Stranger Things is an entertaining walk back into the 1980s with a modern sensibility that allows representation through the gift of hindsight. The characters are richly developed, and the storyline delivers all the thrills and chills fantasy fans could ever want. Because the character arcs are so well developed, when there are characters whose arcs have corners, it stands out. The problematic and stereotypical representations femininity in Jane Ives (Eleven), Joyce Byers, and Nancy Wheeler in Stranger Things 2 are incongruous to the overall progressive viewpoint in the series.

Spoilers for season 2 ahead.

Netflix

In casting an adolescent girl as the heroine of the series, the Duffer brothers immediately set Stranger Things up as a progressive version of the 1980s movies that overwhelmingly showed male heroes to be the preference of the time period. Eleven is strong and yet vulnerable, and completely unschooled in the social mores of the place she finds herself in. She has to learn how she must behave, how she must carry herself, and most importantly, how she must show her loyalty to her friends. Eleven is coyly naive about the way these things work. In the first season, she goes to undress in front of Mike, Dustin, and Lucas, and immediately understands that she is different. Through many other social gaffes and moments of discomfort, we get a picture of a young girl who just has to find her way to being human.

By the time we get to the second season, however, Eleven understands, without any instruction, that she is to be jealous of Max when the other girl comes onto the scene and seemingly infiltrates Eleven’s friend group, when Eleven herself is kept away from them. Falling back onto the stereotype of young girls being jealous of one another and there not being room in a friend group for more than one female at a time is problematic because Eleven should not have known to act this way towards Max. There is no inherent jealousy that inhabits female humans, especially when there is no socialization towards such a concept. All the other social behaviors Eleven learns, she is taught during the course of the series. Why would jealousy come so naturally without being taught or even examined?

Netflix

Similarly, Joyce Byers is set up as a social pariah in season one, the divorced, single mother who cannot be bothered to keep up with her sons’ whereabouts. Even though the reason Joyce divorced her husband, Lonnie, is most likely because he isn’t a very good person, Joyce’s character lives at the edge of poverty and social inclusion with Jonathan and Will. When Will disappears, the blame is placed on Joyce. The fact that she has to work at a low paying job with long hours to support her sons is lost in that context of guilt bordering on mental illness that plagues Joyce all the way up to the point that someone starts to believe her about Will’s disappearance.

It seems that Joyce is given a new lease on life in season two when she is given a suitor in Bob Newby. Bob is smart, financially stable, and completely smitten with Joyce and her sons. However, Joyce is loving to her beau, but not overly so. Her character seems unable to give Bob the same level of care that she gives her sons, and even Eleven, willingly. She keeps him at a distance at times, unwilling to allow him all the way into their lives. Her hesitance is punished when Bob succumbs to the creatures of The Upside Down. It seems that all Joyce touches is destined for destruction: her marriage, her sons, and ultimately, her chance for a happily ever after.

Nancy Wheeler and her misogynistic entourage – Netflix

Nancy Wheeler seems to be a girl on her way to happily ever after with her boyfriend, Steve. Steve does one of the most impressive pivots as a character, moving from a disrespectful, borderline abusive boyfriend to an unlikely hero’s assistant. Viewers are supposed to forget these negative aspects of his personality and embrace him as the prince to Nancy’s pampered princess. As she spends more time with Jonathan and finds his company preferable to Steve’s, Nancy becomes a tease who seemingly leads Steve on, even as she tries to ensnare Jonathan, as well.

None of this allows for the fact that teenagers are notoriously, and rightly, unsure about love. They can have sex with one person and still harbor feelings for another. They can even have sex with two, or more, different people as they try to parse through their feelings. This is much like adults who need time to focus on a partner and understand what being, or not being, monogamous means to them. Nancy is going through the typical stages of sexual self-discovery, but her journey is marred by the depiction of the “not so good guy turned prince” Steve’s martyrdom over the disintegration of their relationship. Nancy isn’t given much agency in making these decisions for herself, as her character is only able to reveal the truth to Steve when she is drunk. She doesn’t even remember having made the confession that she doesn’t really love him, and this situation absolves her of the responsibility of freedom.

These female characters would have been better served through more positive, or simply realistic, depictions of femininity not drawn on stereotypes. Eleven could have been cautious with Max, but not overtly jealous in how she treated her when they first met. Bob did not have to be Joyce’s boyfriend, but could have been a platonic friend. Nancy could have met her sexual dilemma headfirst and simply broken it off with Steve cleanly and soberly. Then these women would have continued the progressive efforts of the Stranger Things story in a genuine way.

2 Comments

  • Shara White January 19, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    Here’s a question, because it’s been a while since I saw season one. While Eleven didn’t learn jealousy from another girl, she DID learn it from the other boys, right? When Mike wanted to bring her in and the other two were reticent? I seem to remember Lucas being particularly resistant, but that doesn’t mean I’m remembering correctly. I just thought that the other two were really protective of their group and Eleven had to earn her way in for Dusty and Lucas, so if I’m remembering correctly, then she did learn jealousy from others and reacted as a result.

    That said, I hated that it was Max (wouldn’t it have been a twist if she’d been jealous of a boy instead?) and that girl being jealous of another girl is SUCH a tired trope. 🙁

    Reply
  • Lane Robins January 19, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    I didn’t mind the Joyce and Nancy character bits that much, but it really irritated me that Eleven and Max were instant enemies. I hope like hell that next season (?), Max and Eleven get to be friends or at least allies.

    Reply

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