Netflix, Stranger Things.
UPDATE: Oh man, it’s all just “Frankenstein,” isn’t it?? Which means it’s 4th season Buffy. Nooooooooo… I don’t have time to write this. And thanks for all of the thoughtful comments to this over on FB, but dudes… if I’m ever to gain traction for this poor blog and embed it in a website, comments here will help a bunch! ♥
Early, primary notes on Stranger Things, post first pass. By no means do I think these are concretely “right” thoughts, just early ones utilizing a few schools of theory focusing on a little bit of race, a little bit of psychoanalytics, and a whole lot of gender.
And, you can’t talk about female characters with super powers without talking about Buffy. Of course.
Spoilers. So many spoilers.
- If the creature–which is clearly meant to imply “organic,” plant-like, something “grown”–is patriarchy manifested (a viewing the narrative and subtext strongly lend themselves to), how does that frame all of the men in the show and boys who have not yet fully matured? The fact that the creature seems to be a government (society / culture) experiment that escaped also offers that Eleven is another product of the same system–a brutalized shell of a girl with a few exaggerated strengths and not much else remaining of her own self.
- And, if it is patriarchy manifested, what does it mean that it is drawn to fresh blood and bleeding? Like a narcissist, do the show writers offer that patriarchy sees someone or something that is wounded as an invitation to cut deeper / be preyed upon?
- How does this situate the women and girls on the show? The children?
- If Brenner is the WORST man (less than only the creature and that’s actually arguable), Hopper is grey. Hopper gaslights Joyce until she hurls a comparison at him he can directly relate to (asking if he would know his child’s breathing if he heard it). Then he mostly stops treating her as “hysterical”* and begins to try to find her missing child. But, but, but… he gives up Eleven to save the missing boy, prioritizing a boy’s life over a traumatized, abused, and kidnapped preteen girl’s. (Could be further illuminated however, as the narrative develops.) But he gives her cookies at the end so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- The further issue with this is that it exhibits Hopper as unable to relate to or feel empathy for Winona Ryder’s Joyce, unless she can make a direct comparison to his life that he has experienced. Does he even have the ability to really empathize?
- In contrast, we have what I find to be one of the emotional hearts of the show, the brief relationship between El and the diner owner. Here is a large, imposing man (Chris Sullivan) caring for and concerned for El in a supremely parental way, entirely occupied with her well-being and best interest. So it’s interesting then that he should be so quickly killed as a direct result of caring, and by a woman–the only woman we see involved with the government branch that produced the creature and El. His care becomes his liability.
- What are the pills that Hopper is taking?
- What does the mention about aliens (if I remember correctly… aliens having visited) which is never revisited, imply? And what does it imply about this world? If aliens are a fact the charcters accept, are people not super surprised by the creature? Or the Upside Down? What else is liminal in the show’s reality?
- What does it imply that the creature makes its home in the Upside Down, but can hunt and exist in the show’s reality world? Is the Upside Down a world of the creature’s creation? Or is it just an inhabitant?
- What does the narrative between Lucas and El exhibit? Rightfully, he struggles with her–doubting her intentions and presence. How could he not, as a young black boy in America? He has no reason to trust anyone until they prove themselves and even then, he would probably keep one foot near the door. Lucas and El seem to find a trust over time, but the fact that they do, and that they struggle against the same thing (the creature and Brenner), possibly posits that Lucas can see *why* El is the way she is–she was tortured and traumatized by white men for her entire life. The way she is, is entirely because of who, and how, they made her. Something Lucas can possibly relate to.
- Who is “good” and who is “bad”? Is anyone really good, aside from the intentions of the children? Joyce is rightly panicked, but when she meets Eleven, why is her first move not to get her to her mom, (presumably) Terry Ives, the mute woman who had her child stolen from her, whom Hopper and Joyce visited for information? The same for Hopper–a man who lost his child to cancer doesn’t think to return this long-missing girl to her mom? Immediately? Rather, Joyce uses Eleven to try and locate her son, offering herself as a sort of stand-in “mom,” who will help El through the event/sacrifice/spell. This is barely different than Dr. Brenner, commanding El to be tortuously experimented upon and carry her back to her room at the end of the day, likely as an act of “love” in his book.
- There are few African American or POC in Stranger Things. Similar to the Smurfette trope outlined below, it seems like a deliberate move on the part of writers to have not only a token girl, but a token black friend, as 80s TV / film regularly did. Aside from Lucas and his parents, police officer Powell (Rob Morgan) who often seems like he is a little fed up with the white folks’ shenanigans, and one lab assistant, POC are rare in Stranger Things, seemingly to make a point: What has really changed, 30 years later? If Stranger Things is trying to hold a mirror up to our culture, is it doing so successfully? In some ways, I think yes, very much. In some ways, if feels phoned in–short hand for things that need and deserve deeper development in commentary and character. Perhaps later seasons can kick it off the fence it seems to be perched upon.
This article* states critically: “Eleven is often treated like a liability—a major character relegated to the corners of the story unless it’s time to save the day…”. Yes. But because that’s how women and girls are generally treated in our culture (see above where Hopper prioritizes Will over Eleven).
The same article goes on to say: “Eleven is clearly the token girl of the group—recalling the “Smurfette Principle” trope that pervaded children’s TV during that decade—but the show doesn’t display much self-awareness on this point.” Absolutely. Spot fucking on, BUT, Stranger Things also displays the Buffy Principal (I just made that up) which is a female character that fantastically depicts the depth and ability women have and contain (hello… Potentials!?), but generally learn to minimize or atrophy, outright deny, or temper because our society cannot integrate or tolerate it. Buffy, and in Stranger Things El during a few scenes, try/tries repeatedly to be “normal” only to realize that they have to be who they are, and utilize all that they are to save the situation. They can try to be what society wishes and wants, but they can’t do it for very long and certainly not well, an experience many, many young women have. In Stranger Things, we have El, curious about what she looks like in a dress and wig, and clearly admiring of Will’s older sister, who has a perpetual application of fresh Bonne Bell or Kissing Potion on. But we see El rip off the wig after a few scenes in it, knowing she can never be that. And in Buffy, we have Buffy out patrolling in a cemetery with a crossbow in her beloved prom dress, or showing up to the Bronze for one of her first dates with Angel, makeup smeared and grass in her hair.
And finally the article finishes with: “Stranger Things is unwittingly guilty of this mistake, overwhelmingly privileging the happiness, desires, words, and lives of El’s friends over hers.” I see why this is said, but can’t agree. Too much in the show points to the fact that the show’s writers and producers know exactly what they are doing, and to what end. Whether they are successful is for viewers to decide.