The Faux Feminism of ‘Stranger Things’

Stranger Things is a show not only filled with the nostalgia of the past, but it is also a depiction of the coming-of-age experiences of the pre-adolescent kids who live in Hawkins. As the show is centred on a young girl’s journey of self-discovery and overcoming her traumatic childhood, it is assumed that it would get the feminist stamp of approval. However, some of the female characters in Stranger Things fulfil traditional gender roles as objects of romance excluded within geek culture. The show has smart and compelling female characters and yet, they are not developed in a way that serves them well. They are seen as objects of desire for the male characters, treated as ‘crazy women,’ and do not have any agency when it comes to exploring their independence because of toxic figures in their lives. 

The show takes place in the ‘80s and follows the aftermath of Will Byers’ (Noah Schnapp) disappearance in the small town of Hawkins. His friends Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo)— aka The Party— attempt to find him, using references from games and entertainment like Dungeons & Dragons. While searching for their friend, they come across El (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl who has supernatural powers. She has fled from an abusive father figure and escaped from a government facility called the Hawkins National Laboratory. Due to the fear of being found by the “bad men,” Mike lets her hide in his parents’ basement. From then on, The Party uses El’s telekinetic powers to find Will and defeat the Demogorgon that is terrorizing Hawkins. The treatment of El and the rest of the female characters is very interesting to watch— not because they are portrayed positively, but rather because they are sidelined to advance the male characters’ storylines.

The female narratives in Stranger Things can be divided into three tiers. There are the preadolescent kids (Max and El), the adults (Joyce and Terry), and the teenagers (Nancy and Robin). The introduction of Max and El presents a problem for The Party as the girls do not fit their ethos. While the group is only exclusive to the boys, Max and El challenge this social dynamic. Both of them cause a rift in The Party’s friendships, reflecting how geek culture often portrays female characters as objects of desire in a coming-of-age narrative.  It is critical to reflect on the objectification and exclusion of female characters in a group of male characters that are characterised as geeks. From the beginning, El is seen as a threat to The Party because of her lack of knowledge of geek culture, and— most importantly— her supernatural powers. Max poses a different challenge for The Party because she is characterised as a nerd, but her excessive knowledge of the culture leaves the young boys confused.

Ell is stood in a forest. She is wearing a dark coat and a grey shirt with red accents and appears to be looking down at something.
Image courtesy of Netflix

When El’s backstory is introduced in the first season of Stranger Things, the audience starts to understand that she was born and raised in a government facility without any parental figure. Her father figure is Dr. Brenner, who does not view her as a child of his own, but as a product and an object for him to use as a weapon. El is devoted to making her “Papa” happy by using her powers of telekinesis to conduct experiments. Whenever she messes up or refuses to complete a task, he locks her inside a room as a form of punishment. Because this is the kind of life that El lived inside the facility, she is anxious when she meets The Party since she is unsure if they will mistreat her. She slowly starts to trust them, and they realise that they do not want to hurt her or return her to Dr. Brenner and his associates. 

While staying in Mike’s basement, El undergoes a makeover so that she can go to the school and they can communicate with Will using Mr. Clarke’s radio. When she arrives at the house, she is wearing a big shirt and has a buzzed haircut, looking more like a boy. For this mission, The Party takes the opportunity to make her look more feminine. They dress her up in Mike’s sister Nancy’s dress and wig and put makeup on her. As she presents her new look to The Party, they mention that she looks “pretty good.” El walks up to a mirror and looks at herself for the first time, surprised at the way that she looks. The audience can see that she is pleased with her makeover. 

Another problem that this makeover scene presents is that it has nothing to do with her character arc. El’s purpose and the journey are defined by her ability to stand up to her abusive father figure and save Mike and her friends. She heroically defeats the Demogorgon, saving Mike, Luke, and Dustin from getting killed by it. El tries to move on from her past by standing up to her father figure, who is presumed dead after the Demogorgon attacks his team. Adding a makeover scene in this season acts as a distraction and a disservice to El’s character arc, as it serves no purpose other than advancing a romantic narrative between Mike and El. 

In season two, El goes through another makeover. This time, it’s not at the hands of The Party, but by her “sister,” known as Eight/Kali, who is one of several test subjects experimented on at Hawkins Lab and has supernatural powers. After being rescued by Hopper, El stays at the cabin for a year until she leaves when he does not allow her to visit her friends. El still has a lot of internal trauma due to being abandoned and punished by her previous father figure, so when she leaves Hopper’s cabin, she goes on an important journey of independence. Once again, El is subjected to another makeover by Kali, who helps other cast-aside misfits hunt down former government officials responsible for abusing innocent people. She rejects the feminine dress from season one, instead of wearing a punk look with heavy makeup and a gelled-up hairstyle. During this journey, El confronts a man who worked at the same government facility that was responsible for giving her mother electro-convulsion therapy. Kali expects her to kill the man, but El does not go through with it. She understands that by avenging what happened to her mother, things won’t go back to normal. The problem with El’s arc is that Stranger Things has a hard time shaping her narrative of being both a love interest and an avenging hero. Its efforts to include geek culture as more than just male desire is dominated by the character’s primary action and romance with Mike. 

Max sits in a chair with her arms folded. She is wearing a light blue hoodie, which matches the colour of the brick wall behind her.
Image courtesy of Netflix

In the same season, The Party is presented with a gaming champion named “Mad Max” who happens to beat them at every game. It is revealed later on that this champion is none other than a girl named Max Mayfield. This revelation makes The Party rethink their original ethos of girls not playing video games. Her entry into The Party is a difficult one too. Even though she plays video games, skates, and has knowledge of pop culture, she is not welcomed into the group because of her gender. Mike especially treats her differently, not wanting her to take part in anything that they are doing, even though she tries to prove her loyalty to them. Similar to the romance between El and Mike, Max serves as a love interest to Lucas. Unlike El though, she does not change her appearance or receive a makeover from the boys. El and Max’s introduction at the end of season two is even more frustrating to watch as El gives a cold look to another female character— someone that she has never met before. This confrontation is confusing and could have been replaced with a much friendlier welcome between the two. 

However, in the third season, their rivalry for the boys’ attention does not exist. El goes to Max for advice when Mike ignores her after Hopper threatens him to stop spending time together. Here they form an anti-boys club and ask each other why they had not spent more time together. After breaking up with Mike, Max decides to take El on a shopping spree, where they try out different clothes and dance around while Madonna’s “Material Girl” plays in the background. Once again, El gets a makeover, as Max replaces her boring old clothes with colourful outfits that fit her perfectly. This is a sudden shift in their relationship dynamic from the previous season. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, want to portray a positive representation of female friendship to correct the wrongs of the second season. Unfortunately, they accomplish this by giving El a moment of empowerment by dumping her boyfriend and going shopping, which only scratches the surface of showing portrayals of female characters on screen. As she is having a makeover, fighting Demogorgons and harnessing her childhood trauma, the show still wants to fulfil the heteronormative romance that El is subjected to. 

The women on Stranger Things are constantly dismissed, often referred to as “weird” and “crazy”. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), who believes that her son has been abducted by a supernatural force, learns how to communicate with Will who is trapped in the Upside Down. She confides in Hopper, but he believes that she is going through an “emotional time” and dismisses her concerns. He thinks Joyce is making up these stories and would later “shut down” as she normally does in the middle of the road where everyone is watching. Joyce occasionally loses control of herself and starts to believe things are not real. When Joyce’s son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) does not believe her, she takes it into her own hands to figure out how to save her son. Joyce’s characteristics are seen as “crazy” by every man in her life. From Hopper to Jonathan and even her ex-husband Lonnie (Ross Partridge), they believe she needs to snap out of this fantasy that Will is alive. However, Joyce’s suspicions are correct and it is revealed to Hopper and Jonathan at the end of the season that she has been right all along.  

El’s mother, Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins) is another female character who gets mistreated. Terry was part of Dr. Brenner’s project and was subjected to many experiments, which involved taking mind-altering, psychedelic drugs. During the project, she finds out that she is pregnant and goes into labour, but has a miscarriage in the third trimester. Terry believes that her daughter, Jane— or El, as she is now known— has been abducted by Dr. Brenner. She barges into the Hawkins Lab and finds her daughter in a room with Kali. She attempts to take Jane away but gets pulled away by the guards. Dr. Brenner authorises electroconvulsive therapy and fries her brain while she is forcefully strapped to a table so that she is unable to talk about the events that happened on that day. Eventually, she loses her mind due to the drugs and the years of discredit that she had to go through with her family. When Hopper and Joyce visit her house to find out where Will might be, they are too late. 

Joyce wears a concerned smiles in the middle of a pharmacy. She is wearing a blue coat and a white top.
Image courtesy of Netflix

While Joyce is seeking the truth about Will’s disappearance, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) is concerned about her best friend, Barb Holland (Shannon Purser), who goes missing after her boyfriend, Steve Harrington’s (Joe Keery) house party. She tries to convince the cops that Barb is not someone who would run away without giving any notice, but the cops do not believe her. When Barb’s car is found nowhere near Steve’s house, Nancy gets suspicious. Her suspicions are confirmed when she sees a torn picture of Barb sitting at the poolside as a dark and mysterious figure looms behind her. Nancy asks Jonathan for help, and when she describes the figure to him, he realises that Joyce has been telling the truth all along. What is interesting about Nancy’s character arc is that despite her determination to find Barb and kill the Demogorgon, the writers choose to focus on her love life. In many interactions that she has with other characters— whether it be with Jonathan, Hopper’s secretary, Florence (Susan Shallhoub Larkin), or Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman)— the unnecessary interrogation of her love life is involved. Jonathan and Steve have a fight sequence to prove their dominance to Nancy, which has become important to Nancy’s arc. 

While Stranger Things’ portrayal of feminism has been imperfect, the introduction of Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) in season three suggests a surface-level improvement when it comes to the varieties of women on the show. Robin works at Scoops Ahoy at the Starcourt Mall with Steve, and helps him and Dustin solve a decoded Russian message and find the Russian base underneath the mall. She and Steve show their affection by mocking each other, but some viewers thought this was leaning towards a romantic relationship between them. However, the show subverts the expectations of Robin and Steve having a romantic relationship, revealing that Robin is a lesbian. This creates an opportunity for Stranger Things to avoid falling into the “gay best friend” trope, which usually involves a gay guy and a straight girl. After Steve and Robin puke their guts out because the Russians drug them to get the truth, Robin confesses that she does not have a crush on Steve, but was jealous that a girl named Tammy Thompson liked him and not her. It takes a while for Steve to understand why, but the moment is tender, subtle, and thoughtful. The show takes the chance to depict an exploration of queerness and identity with Robin’s coming out, and sheds light on an experience that we have never seen before from the women in Hawkins. 

While male action heroes such as Rambo, Terminator, and Luke Skywalker were dominant in the media during the era, female action heroes like Princess Leia, Sarah Connor, and Ripley rejected the tired stereotype of the defenceless woman. Stranger Things’ mistreatment of women is a problem that goes beyond the screen, as it accurately reflects what happens to women around the world. Women often do not get the chance to share their stories or ideas, and they have to repeat them and be subjected to abuse. The female voices on the show are constantly undervalued and discounted by their male counterparts. It is frustrating to watch female characters be discredited and branded “crazy” and “weird” by the male characters when their theories are not considered sane— especially since they are correct the majority of the time. A character like El did not have to be forcefully feminised; instead, this could have been an opportunity to develop her character arc and her powers, as well as her friendship with other female characters instead of pitting them against each other. El’s friendship with Max was important to develop as both of them have dealt with an abusive father figure and brother. The show attempts to correct some of the wrongdoings of hypermasculinity and compulsory feminism, and in a geek coming-of-age narrative, it mainly focuses on heteronormative romance. Maybe these kinds of tropes for female characters are not meant to be popularised with makeovers and love triangles— faux feminist narratives the show had the opportunity to subvert.