I have a lot of thoughts about Stranger Things, and I’ve spent the last week stewing about it. Overall, I liked the show. Yes, it was a rehash of things we’ve seen many times (Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, The X-Files, John Carpenter…), but it was also, somehow a breath of fresh air. How does that work? I don’t know. Maybe, as a child of the 80s, I was in the mood for some nostalgia.
Either way, my biggest faults with the show had to do with how it treated two of its main female characters, Joyce Byers (known from here on out as Winona, because why stop now?) and Eleven.
Super Mom Rides Again!
Some of y’all might remember my issues with mom tropes, but in case you don’t…I have them. Issues, that is. With mom tropes. I don’t LIKE them. It’s not that I don’t like moms. Moms are great! What I don’t like is the idea that a woman exists solely to be a mom.
In many ways, Winona is a great example of a mom on tv. She’s a single mother who works hard to raise her boys well. She clearly loves them, and hates the long hours she has to put in away from them. She knows her kids, even where their interests don’t overlap: she struggles to remember Will’s clubhouse password, but she does remember, and respects his rules for entry. She wants to buy him better crayons to encourage his art. She knows where Jonathan has wanted to go to school since he was a little boy.
I love that, and if it stopped there, I would be applauding. However, Stranger Things fell into several mom-trope traps. Mom trap tropes. Team Mom? Check. Mama Bear? Oh boy howdy. Action Mom? Sure thing.
Winona-Joyce is all of these. At first she’s the stressed single mom who holds her family together as best she can, but then she’s the mighty Mama Bear who vows to stop at nothing to get her kid back. She bucks authority, sanity, and common sense in her quest to save Will, and somehow she gets away with all of it. The government guys don’t come for her until she and Hopp actively break into the facility. Hopper himself becomes convinced that she might be right, and he cuts her dead kid open to find out.
How embarrassing if she’d been wrong…
Next thing we know Winona’s swinging an axe and adopting El and even invading the Upside Down itself, willing to face off against the creature who took her kid.
Early on I criticized the character as being a whiny mess, so, like, maybe I should make up my mind. But there’s gotta be a middle ground. There’s gotta be a way to show that a female character is tough (physically and mentally) and willing to go to bat for her kids without making it all about being a mom. All of Winona’s flashbacks were with Will, about her as Will’s mom. Her entire storyline was about being Will’s mom. Her arc, such as it was, was about being Will’s mom, evolving from panicky, helpless “someone took my kid” mom into badass “super mom” armed with an axe and a refusal to take anyone’s shit.
Hopefully season 2 will give us a little more of Winona sans Will, Winona as her own character rather than just mom!Winona. Considering the season ended with Will throwing up slugs, I kiiiinda doubt it.
Eleven’s Lack of Personhood
I touched on this issue in my second review, but at that point I was only 4 episodes in, and I had hopes the situation would improve.
It did not.
While it’s true that Dustin tells the bullies that El is their friend, he’s also using that statement, at least in part, to scare them. “She’s our friend and she’s crazy!” he yells at them as they run away. In other words, she’s theirs, and she’ll use her powers to protect them. Next time she’ll do worse than break an arm, so don’t even mess with them.
As I mentioned in the review linked above, Mike and the boys are just kids. They can’t possibly understand the trauma El’s been through. They can’t understand, really, how they’re using and exploiting her. We, the viewer, are on the outside looking in. We not only see how the boys behave, but also how Matthew Modine has treated her all her life. Using her powers is all she knows. It’s the only way she’s been able to get any kind of love, kindness, or affection.
When the boys (especially Mike) withhold that kindness or acceptance from her when she doesn’t use her powers, or “fails” in their use, she’s tossed right back into the shit Matthew Modine did to her. To El it means “I have to try harder,” no matter what kind of pain or stress she’s putting on herself.
We see that nearly every time she uses her powers, her nose bleeds. That’s got to be causing some sort of issue, right? I mean, it’s not just “random nosebleed lol!” It’s potentially serious.
Yet she keeps pushing, and the boys keep pushing her, and when it comes down to it, even super mom Winona is willing to put this child in a sensory deprivation tank and send her into some unknown shadow realm to look for a freakin’ monster!
When it came down to it, any one of those people would’ve sacrificed Eleven in an instant if it meant getting Will back. Mike might have a qualm or two. Winona might flinch a little, just because we’re talking about sacrificing a child, but they would’ve done it. They would’ve pushed her to her absolute limits, because at the end of the day she was a tool to them.
Eleven was a tool to everyone who met her. Matthew Modine stole her from her mother and raised her to be his guinea pig. He used affection and positive reinforcement to get her to push herself further and harder, and when she failed or refused, he would withdraw that affection and have her locked in a closet.
What choice did she have but to offer her powers to the boys and Winona? To do anything she could to help get Will back? To her, that was how to be earn “friends.”
Except you don’t earn friends. Friendship isn’t conditional on how useful you are. If suddenly her powers had pooped out and she couldn’t contact the Upside Down or injure bullies or kill soldier guys, sure the boys probably would’ve kept her around…but I can’t imagine they would’ve just been cool with it. “Ah, no big, she lost her powers.” It would’ve been, “Okay, let’s try one more time…!”
I’m more disgusted by El’s treatment from a Doylist point of view than a Watsonian one. In other words, the narrative should have treated El better. No, maybe the kids didn’t know any better, but there should have been something, narratively speaking, that gave El back her personhood and sense of agency. As it was, she existed solely to serve others at the expense of herself.
If you doubt that, then look at her ending. Yeah, we’re teased that maybe she wasn’t sucked to the Upside Down, but the fact remains that she sacrificed herself (she said goodbye before she did it; she assumed This Was The End) to save the boys. By the time we flash forward a few months, everyone except Mike seems to’ve forgotten about her. They aren’t mourning her or missing her or worried about her. She was there, she had super powers, and now she’s gone.
She was their friend, sure. But man she sure was useful.
Overall I enjoyed Stranger Things. I loved the boys. I ended up enjoying Nancy, and even Nancy and Jonathan. Steve redeemed himself. Matthew Modine was suitably sleazy.
I just wanted more: more than cardboard cutout super mom Winona. More than “useful tool” Eleven. Tragic cop who lost a kid Hopper. I’m looking forward to season 2 (assuming it happens), and I hope that since season 1 was such a success they’ll take the time in the future to give us more of those character moments the first season lacked.
All of this to say don’t even get me started about Barb…though if I’m being completely honest, I think some of the (justified) Barb flack distracted from other, legitimate issues with the show. Critical focus has been more on the death of a minor character than on how a major (also female) character was treated as disposable.
Images curtesy of Netflix