“Forget “strong female character.” Aim for: “Woman or girl with agency.” One who makes decisions, affects the story, pushes the plot.”– Chuck Wendig
I came across this excellent quote from Chuck Wendig the other day, and it gave me pause due to the truth it holds when it comes to challenging our perspective on the kinds of female characters we’re presented with in the media. Generally speaking, we’re quick to toss around the label of “strong female characters” when it comes to the women and girls we see in television and films, without putting too much weight into whether or not they have any actual importance to the story itself. It isn’t enough nowadays for a female character to simply be present on screen, showing up just to deliver a couple of lines or throw a few punches if we are to consider her worthy of this designation of “woman or girl with agency”. Instead she should be a multi-faceted character whose relevance to the plot extends beyond merely her relationship status or desirable appearance, allowing her to contribute something of value to the overarching narrative.
If we are to redefine our preconceived notion of so-called “strong female characters” by examining them through this lens, then the female protagonists of Stranger Things can certainly be described under Wendig’s ideals. In the show’s third season in particular, El, Max, Nancy, and Robin make a compelling case for this statement, each playing key roles of importance within the plot while also undergoing significant growth themselves. By creating story arcs for these characters that bring them to the forefront of the narrative and allow them to have a true sense of agency, Stranger Things gives us some of the most unique and dynamic young women and girls on television.
One of the best dynamics to come out of season three is the friendship that blossoms between outspoken new girl in town Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) and former government experiment turned super-powered teen, Eleven, aka El Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown). Despite the fact things between the two of them get off to a rocky start, (thanks to El’s jealousy towards Max, who she’s come to see as a rival for her crush – Mike’s – attention rather than a potential friend) El ends up extending an olive branch to Max. (Or rather, Max’s skateboard after it slides out from under her.)
This gesture leads into an honest conversation between the two girls where El vents her frustrations to Max about how Mike, who she’s now been dating for half a year, has been treating her recently. Max is less than impressed upon hearing about his sketchy, dishonest behavior, and, after giving her some relationship advice, urges El to come have some fun with her. “There’s more to life than stupid boys, you know?” Max says, smiling.
While bonding over boy troubles may be the catalyst for El and Max’s newfound closeness, what makes their dynamic so wonderful is how it extends far beyond that. Talking about boyfriends is part of their friendship, yes – but it’s not the only thing their bond is built upon. Because of El’s unique background, she’s still trying to learn what it means to be a “normal” teenager. She may be a powerful young girl who’s in control of things when it comes to using her telekinetic powers to fight monsters from the Upside Down, but she’s unfamiliar with this strange new life she’s found herself living. As a result, Max takes it upon herself to become a sort of guide to ‘girl world’ for her new friend, introducing her to the joys of things like sleepovers, Wonder Woman, and shopping. We’re even treated to a delightful mall montage of the two (set to Madonna’s “Material Girl”, nonetheless!) in the second episode, where we see Max help El find her own unique style as the two spend an afternoon at Starcourt Mall hanging out, getting ice cream and having glamour shots taken.
Throughout the rest of the season, El’s friendship with Max also contributes to her own character development. Since she’s never had a girl best friend her age to learn from and be able to emulate, Max’s presence in El’s life is important. She’s shown to be supportive of El, caring for her as well as encouraging her to make decisions she genuinely believes to be in El’s best interest when it comes to handling both her powers and her personal life (though whether or not they actually are is a whole other discussion.) Regardless, it’s refreshing to see that through El and Max, Stranger Things has finally given us a portrayal of a female friendship between two of its main characters – something that’s been noticeably absent from the show until now – that’s feminine, empowering and a whole lot of fun.
Another character who’s really come into her own throughout the course of Stranger Things is Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer). While at first seen as just being Mike’s older sister and a somewhat prissy high schooler, Nancy has ended up becoming one of the driving forces behind investigating the strange going-ons in Hawkins,as well as being quite a formidable with a shotgun. In season three, we find Nancy taking on a summer job as an intern for the town newspaper, The Hawkins Post. While she’s excited about her new role at first and hopeful it will lead to a chance for her to pursue investigative journalism, she quickly discovers that as the only woman in the room, she’s not at all taken seriously within the patriarchal environment of her workplace.
When Nancy attempts to pitch a piece about the newly-opened Starcourt Mall and subsequent closure of small-town businesses to her colleagues at The Hawkins Post, their belittlement and dismissive attitude towards her becomes even more evident. They openly mock her efforts, laughing and calling her “Nancy Drew” in a condescending reference to the fictional girl detective, as if to suggest the mere idea of a young woman trying to take on a story is ridiculous. The Hawkins Post is very much a boys’ club, and therefore they feel the most appropriate role for a girl like Nancy is to be pouring them coffee instead of poring over potential local happenings. However, the degrading behavior of the men she’s surrounded by in the workplace doesn’t deter Nancy from her further pursuit of journalistic truth – in fact, it spurs her on even more.
After she finds herself on the receiving end of a tip-off on a potential story concerning the diseased rats in town, Nancy makes a bold move. Along with her boyfriend Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), who’s also been interning at The Hawkins Post but as a photographer, she actively chooses to go over the newspaper chief’s head and get to the bottom of things herself. It’s a brash, impulsive decision but it doesn’t feel out of character for Nancy, as she’s proven herself to be headstrong when she sets her mind to accomplishing something. Plus, she’s intelligent and perceptive, but also stubborn and somewhat reckless; a combination of traits that often lands her in trouble.. Yet, more often than not, her intuition proves to be right.
“You’re a fighter,” Nancy’s mother, Karen (Cara Buono), tells her during a heart-to-heart not long after Nancy’s dismissal from The Hawkins Post. “You always have been.” Having felt frustrated with the fact she’s been relentlessly in pursuit of a story no one else seems to believe in, these words of encouragement are exactly what Nancy needs to hear in the moment. The newfound knowledge that her mother not only admires her conviction but believes in her seeing the story through makes Nancy want to continue pushing harder and digging deeper – so that’s exactly what she does.
Nancy’s dogged determination to solve the case of the rabid rats ends up becoming an important part of Stranger Things’ season three storyline, sending her and Jonathan down a trail of answers that leads to much more sinister, supernatural implications. Fortunately, Nancy’s characterization as being a fighter happens to be true in a literal sense as well. Not only is she unyielding in her crusade for the truth – she’s also skilled in combat. Nancy actively jumps in to help the others battle monsters from the Upside Down, her trusty shotgun coming in handy on multiple occasions. The fact that Nancy’s season three arc doesn’t center on her romantic relationship, instead positioning her as a strong-willed, capable protagonist in her own right who’s direct involvement in the plot is certainly notable and worth applauding.
Speaking of intelligent, well-developed female protagonists who are integral to the show’s storyline, one of the best additions to Stranger Things this season has been Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke). Introduced in the first episode as a bored teenager slinging ice cream at Scoops Ahoy for the summer, poking fun at her co-worker Steve’s (Joe Keery) attempts to flirt with girls and his unconventional friendships with children, Robin quickly becomes a fan favourite. That’s because the more we learn about her, the more we – and also Steve – come to think she’s pretty awesome.
When Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), one of Steve’s child friends, inadvertently stumbles onto what he’s convinced is a radio transmission from a secret Russian base, Robin immediately jumps at the chance to help them translate. Since she’s linguistically proficient (also knowing French, Spanish, and Italian) as well as musically inclined (having been in band for years), Robin claims her ears are “little geniuses” and wants to listen to the recorded message herself. While at first she only entertains the idea as it alleviates her boredom, Robin ends up not only being able to translate for the group, but figuring out what the coded Russian message actually means.
There’s no question that Stranger Things could have added Robin into the mix as nothing more than a plot device, having her exist simply to help facilitate the storyline’s transition from point A to point B. After all, she plays an instrumental role in getting the action to move out of Scoops Ahoy and into the underground Russian lab. What makes Robin such a breath of fresh air though is that in the midst of this convoluted plot, she’s still given the chance to develop into a fully realized character with an arc of her own. Yes, Robin may be the brains of the group and have some impressive code-cracking skills, but there’s a lot more to her than that. She’s also a cinephile with an offbeat sense of humor, who feels misunderstood by the world around her – and she just so happens to be a lesbian, making her the first canonly gay character in the world of Stranger Things.
It feels impossible to talk about Robin in a way that fully does her justice without talking about her coming out moment, which occurs in the season’s penultimate episode. After she and Steve find themselves in a bathroom together trying to get the Russian truth serum out of their systems, the two end up having an honest conversation about love. As Steve describes the girl he’s fallen for over the summer, Robin realizes he’s talking about her. If this was a scene straight out of a cliché high school romcom, then Robin would echo his confession of feelings immediately afterwards and the two of them would get together. But it’s not, and Steve’s words have clearly made Robin uneasy, judging from the uncomfortable facial expressions and tense body language she displays while listening to him in silence.
Eventually, Robin tells Steve that she does really like him – which took even her by surprise – but she doesn’t think he’d like her if he really knew her. “I’m not like your other friends,” she says, hesitating before she explains to Steve that her obsession with him in high school actually had to do with Tammy Thompson, a girl in their class. Robin goes on to say how it killed her inside that Tammy always paid attention to Steve, someone who would barely give her the time of day. “I wanted her to look at me,” Robin admits.
“But Tammy Thompson’s a girl,” Steve says in response, not sure what exactly Robin’s getting at with her story. Then it dawns on him, a “holy shit” lightbulb moment of realization that his friend plays for the other team.
Suddenly, Robin’s references to being an outsider, and her worry that Steve wouldn’t want to be friends with the real her make a whole lot of sense when interpreted within the context of her newly-revealed queerness. After all, it’s not always easy being a girl who likes girls in today’s world, let alone in small-town Indiana in 1985. The two sit in silence for a moment until Steve finally speaks up – and when he does, it isn’t to be judgmental of Robin’s sexuality or angry at her for being unable to reciprocate his feelings. Instead, he teases her about Tammy, the girl she has a crush on, leading to a light-hearted moment that reinforces their friendship, whilst also showing there’s nothing wrong with who Robin is. Her revelation feels organic too, adding another layer to her characterization rather than becoming her sole defining trait. It’s really cool how a mainstream television show such as Stranger Things has given us the complex, charismatic protagonist to root for that they have in Robin – and then also decided to let her be gay.
Going back to the whole concept of eschewing the “strong female characters” label in favour of “women and girls with agency”, it’s especially interesting to see the unique ways in which each of the Stranger Things females I’ve talked about become more fully realized over the course of season three while also helping to drive the plot. El and Max’s friendship empowers both girls to make bold decisions and happens to be a major part of both their character arcs. Nancy’s determination to find out the truth and her desire to prove herself within a male-dominated workplace fuel her development while directly tying into the main storyline, and Robin’s multifaceted characterization makes her a valuable addition to the show while allowing her to be more than a mere plot mechanism.
While these four characters are incredibly different from one another on many levels, they each bring something important to the table that extends beyond showing up and looking pretty, without having their femininity undermined. It’s a big part of why I enjoyed this season so much, as seeing such great female-centric and LGBTQ+ representation makes me optimistic about the future of the show. In this respect, season three of Stranger Things is a triumph, having taken into account past criticisms regarding the way its female characters are handled and flipping the script, well, upside down. And I for one couldn’t be happier about it.