Male Gaze, Abelism & Racism: Problems With The Women In Stranger Things

Before I start this piece, I want to say I adore Stranger Things. I firmly believe the series will be something I’ll rewatch when I’m 70 and still love as much as I did the first time I watched it in July last year. But I am a firm believer in critically viewing the things you love, lest we become a passive audience and, as much as I love Stranger Things, I don’t have to be a genius to see the space between the narrative quality of the male characters VS. the narrative quality of the female characters. I’ll elaborate more on this later, but for now, let’s do a recap of our ladies (skip down to “The Closer Look” for the analysis).

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 1 AND 2 OF STRANGER THINGS AHEAD

Let’s Meet Our Ladies

Joyce Byers

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The first female character we meet in the series is Winona Ryder’s Joyce Byers, the single mother of Will Byers (who goes missing in series one), and Jonathan Byers, her eldest son. Our first impression of Joyce is she’s a hardworking woman with too much on her plate whose boys are her whole world… which is part of the problem, but we’ll get there. Once Will goes missing she is hysterical (understandably so) and refuses to believe he is dead. During this time we see Joyce’s interactions with other Hawkins townsfolk and most of them disregard what she has to say, writing it off as hysteria. Even Chief Jim Hopper, while sympathetic to her grief, doesn’t believe her claims that Will is alive until he is presented with other information. It is then and only then that Joyce goes with Hopper to investigate Hawkins lab, eventually resulting in the rescue of Will at the end of the series.

In series 2, Joyce is in a romantic relationship with Bob, a new character played by Sean Astin who dies tragically at the hand of some demo-dogs later in the series. This season primarily focuses on Joyce’s supervision of Will’s treatment at Hawkins Lab, assisted by Chief Hopper who serves as a father figure to Will in these scenarios. Despite clearly being romantically entangled with Bob, the majority of the time she is on screen without her sons, Joyce is with Jim Hopper.

Nancy Wheeler

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The next of our Stranger Women is Nancy Wheeler (played by Natalia Dyer), the older sister of Mike Wheeler. Our first glimpse of Nancy is her shutting a door in the face of a grinning Dustin offering her some pizza. Throughout the series we see Nancy’s tangled relationships with a) her best friend, Barb who is brutally murdered within the first 3 episodes, b) her boyfriend, Steve Harrington and c) her….other boyfriend (?) Jonathan Byers, who she teams up with to fight the demigorgan in season one and take down Hawkins Labs in series 2. There’s also a few scenes where Nancy argues with her mother and one of Steve’s female friends. Series 2 follows more or less the same plot for Nancy, without Barb (who is dead), and she is more or less split between Steve and Jonathan until she has sex with Jonathan after they both uncover the conspiracy at the center of Hawkins. She also spends a lot of time saying things like “I can’t leave Mike!” and then spends the 95% of the series…leaving Mike.

Eleven

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Next up, we have Eleven, or ‘El’, or ‘Jane Hopper’ (depending on your namesake inclinations). Eleven is arguably the show’s central character, as she is the catalyst for the majority of major plot points in the show. Raised and abused in a lab because of her telekinetic powers, El rarely speaks more than 5 or so sentences per episode, communicating for the most part with gestures and short phrases. Understandable when you consider there probably wasn’t a lot of opportunities for socializing in the lab. In series one, Eleven helps the main ensemble of boys find Will and defeat the demigorgan, sacrificing herself in the process. In season 2, however, we find El alive and well living with Hopper in a cozy cabin just outside of Hawkins, eating more Eggos than she should. This doesn’t last long, though. El misses the boys too much and leaves her sanctuary against Hopper’s wishes, leading her on a journey in which she finds her catatonic mother, her (sort of) sister and where her home really is.

Max & Kali

Finally, we have two season 2 female characters added to the mix. Max, a troubled tomboy and the new girl in the boys’ class who Dustin and Lucas go ga ga for (Mike isn’t too impressed because he sees her as a “replacement” for Eleven). We don’t know a lot about Max other than she comes from a somewhat broken family and she likes skateboarding and video games. Our second season two addition, of course, is Kali: El’s long lost sister with the ability to make people see hallucinations, played by Danish actress Linnea Berthelsen. Kali tries to recruit El into her gang of criminals who, as far as we know, hunt down the people involved with Hawkins Lab and murder them. El, however, decides she doesn’t want this life and heads back to Hawkins where she saves everyone from the demo-dogs and closes the Gate to the Upside Down.

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The Closer Look

Phew! Now we’ve done a little roll call. Let’s talk about how the narrative quality of the women in Stranger Things pales in comparison to the men. We’ll start with Joyce.

Now, I believe Joyce Byers is the most well-written woman in the series. She has a past we know about through her conflicts with other characters, she is dynamic, determined and has moments of vulnerability and strength. In other words, she is written like… a human. Although, there is a small detail of Joyce Byers’ narrative that annoys me.

All the most important people in Joyce’s life are men and the majority of the major events in her narrative are viewed from the male perspective. The only women we see Joyce interact with are Mike’s mother, whom she has a brief conversation with before kicking her out and Eleven. Joyce has no significant connections to women in her life as far as we know.

Men write women this way all the time. Think of every romantic comedy ever written, there’s a safe bet that there’s only one scene (if that) where a woman talks to a female friend. Even then, they usually talk about men. In 1985, Alison Bechdel created what is now known as the Bechdel Wallace test. A film/show/fiction only passes if it has a) two women with names b) these women have a conversation without a man present and c) this conversation is no way about men. The test was created to highlight the inequality of women only being viewed in relation to their oppressors, and that men write women in a way that their entire existence is defined and validated by the men. Unfortunately, Joyce Byers’ entire characterization fits quite nicely into this narrative trope. Joyce is constantly pleading with the men in her life to believe her, whether it’s about Will’s whereabouts or Will’s mental health. The only time any affirmative action is taken in favor of Joyce’s claims is when one of the male characters validate her findings, such as when Jim uncovers that Will’s body is a fake.

Joyce’s connection to Jim Hopper is my favorite in the show, despite issues with the way it is written at times. He’s sympathetic to Joyce when even her own son isn’t and is usually the only male character who semi-believes her when no one else will. However, often Hopper’s presence is the only thing that seems to make people take Joyce seriously.

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At the beginning of Season 2, Hopper accompanies Joyce to Will’s sessions in the lab where the Doctor refers to him as Will’s ‘Pop’, Hopper does the majority of the talking when he and Joyce speak to the Doctors, giving the impression that Hopper has to be there to protect Joyce and Will’s interests because she isn’t capable of that herself. This is reinforced when the Doctors begin burning part of a demigorgan to test whether it is connected to Will. Will cries out in pain and Joyce begs them to stop, but it is only when Hopper puts his foot down that the Doctor turns off the blowtorch. It is later revealed Hopper has cut a deal with the labs to keep their operations under-wraps, explaining his presence when Joyce and Will are there, but this doesn’t negate the overwhelming implication that Joyce’s decisions are validated for her by men.

There is also an element of abelism to the way people discredit Joyce’s story. She herself refers to her own hysteria as ‘crazy’ at multiple points in series one. Worse, her own ex-husband directly infers to Joyce that her mind is breaking down like a distant schizophrenic relative of hers. Even Hopper chalks her belief that Will isn’t dead up to grieving hallucinations. As someone with a mental illness herself, these kinds of narratives always hurt a little because there have been times in my life where people close to me have claimed my fears were unfounded (connected to my anxiety and OCD) when they were not. Throughout history, women have often been discredited completely because men claimed insanity. Winona Ryder’s own career suffered because of this mentality. You can understand why seeing this narrative in 2017, even written retrospectively, is unsettling,

Disclaimer: I do not believe women should be automatically believed. I don’t believe anyone should. However, I don’t believe that anyone should ONLY be believed because of a perceived male authority.

The Misogyny in Nancy’s narrative is much easier to spot. Not only does she exclusively discuss her boyfriend with her ONLY female friend, but her only female friend is killed by episode three and, much like Joyce, Nancy’s belief that Barb was taken by a monster is discredited by the significant men in her life until Jonathan (a man) corroborates her story with photos.

I could write a separate post on my hatred of Jonathan Byers as a character, but for now, I’ll stick to his “relationship” with Nancy. This “relationship” is founded on the following plot points 1) The reason Jonathan had photographic evidence of a monster is that he took photos of Nancy without her permission. 2) Nancy decides that this boy who stalked her is the best person to help her find her friend. 3) They insult each other (????) 4) They fought a monster together so I guess that means they’re in love now? 5) She’s not like “other girls”.

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The first piece of evidence that Nancy is a female written by men is that she instantly trusts a boy that was stalking her, something no woman in her right mind would do. Second: The major internal conflict in her life when her best friend has been taken into a demon realm is “which of these boys do I like more though?” and before you say “No, that’s not what Nancy says she’s doing!!” please keep in mind that everything we learn about Nancy is learned through her interactions with Steve and Jonathan. Three: she chooses the boy that stalked her over the boy that not only didn’t do that, but Steve defended her right to privacy when Jonathon violated it. Four: Nancy has two #GIRLPOWER monologues in which she divorces herself from her entire gender in order to be “cool”. The first is when she insists she’s nothing like the women who are like her mother. The second is in series two when she’s dancing with Dustin and claims that “girls this age are dumb!” delivering judgment on her entire gender in one negative generalization that, of course, does not apply to her.

Finally, there are Nancy’s talents that make her “attractive” and badass which include: sculling beer from a can, shooting a rifle and swinging a bat. All of these are typically masculine activities, giving the impression that Nancy’s appeal to the boys is that she herself is practically a boy with the body of a girl. This is also reinforced in the first episode when Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are lamenting how “cool” Nancy used to be when she played board games with them as if Nancy is no longer interesting now that she assumes a more feminine role. There are only 3 brief scenes in total where Nancy isn’t the subject of the male perspective and yet these scenes merely showcase in the consistent internalized misogyny of her characterization.

Then, there’s Eleven.

In the first season, the only other female Eleven interacts with is Joyce and while it is a nurturing and loving connection, it is the ONLY one. Our view of Eleven’s whole life has been at the whim of and in relation to males; whether it’s her “Papa” (Doctor Brenner) who experimented on her from birth and kept her locked away from the world, Mike and his friends pressuring her to find Will to the point of exhaustion, or Hopper limiting her freedom in the pursuit of her safety. Granted, not all the aforementioned relationships are sinister in nature, but the fact remains that 90% of the time our impression of Eleven is one almost entirely curated by men. The one exception to all that comes in episode 7 of season 2 in which Eleven finds her sister, Kali.

Kali, like Eleven, is gifted with abilities and named after an ancient Hindu Goddess of femininity and the liberation of souls because in case we missed the Duffer Bros giving us a South Asian character with special abilities, they named her after the most epic Hindu Goddess they could find. And then there’s the fact that Eleven, who is white, is characterized as a badass innocent runaway, while her darker-skinned sister is a murderous criminal (I’m rolling my eyes so hard I can see my brain cells dying).

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That being said, there were many moments that were easy to love episode 7: Eleven’s determination to find her sister, Eleven muttering ‘mouthbreather” at a man who bumps her in the street, her enthusiasm over her new punk look (“bitchin'” ), warm moments between her and Kali, and El getting the opportunity to push her powers as far as they go in a non-life threatening scenario. There was something refreshing about seeing Eleven making her own way in the world, having an episode, essentially, all to herself and giving Eleven her real first chance to form herself as a character. Yet, many named it the weakest episode of the season and it’s not hard to see why.

“The Lost Sister” fell victim to a trope I’ll call, “whoops! we forgot a personality.” It is a trope that rears its head whenever you have a show that is primarily told from a male character(s) point of view so the writers don’t bother focusing on other perspectives (females), but then when the plot calls for the men to be out of the picture, the writers are left with female characters whom they suddenly realize they haven’t given enough of a personality too because up to this point they were really just an accessory to the male protagonist’s story. So, the writers scramble to give this character their own…life, essentially.

Eleven’s case is nowhere near as bad as some versions of this trope I’ve seen. The narrative for her character is structured in a way that it is not implausible for Eleven to struggle to find out who she really is. As an escaped lab-rat living in a cabin in the woods with minimal language and literacy skills, it makes sense that she is impressionable. Especially, because she’s a child. But “The Lost Sister” rubs me the wrong way because of the limited amount of time we are expected to believe that this child has decided who she is based on a catatonic mother, 24 hours with her sister and a robbery/murder gone wrong. To me, it just felt like a sloppy “oh, I guess we should at least let Eleven try something different before she stays where she is,” rather than a genuine attempt to allow Eleven to form her own identity independent of the male-dominated social circles she exists in. Her main motive to get back to Hawkins throughout the series is to find her way back to Mike, after all.

Now, while Mike and Eleven are no doubt adorable in their innocent love for each other, her determination to be reunited with this boy she spent around 3 days with defines her as a character a little too much for my liking, to the point where Eleven, a girl with bare minimum understanding of socialization, physically injures a girl she does not know purely because she saw this girl with Mike. Amazing, really, how much of Eleven’s social skills are non-existent, but the toxic internalized misogyny of “I automatically hate girls who hang out with my man” makes it into her social repertoire.

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This has to be one of my biggest pet peeves about the way men write women. As if women are so insecure, or would allow ourselves to be with someone so untrustworthy, that we are possessive to the point of hating anyone of our own gender simply because they are with someone we think is “our’s”. It is a gross, misogynistic (not to mention heteronormative) trope that men have used to make women distrust each other since the dawn of time. Seeing it embodied in Eleven, a pre-adolescent child, was nothing short of laughable and threw me back to my feelings in season one when we watched Eleven, a girl with little to no access to beauty standards growing up, agonize over whether she is “pretty” based on an offhand comment from Mike and a wig.

Eleven is so often spoken of as something the men in the story are entitled to. Mike compares her meaning to the group to a role in a game (“she’s our mage!”), Dr. Brenner quite literally treated her as an experiment, Hopper (though with good intention) gets angry when Eleven isn’t grateful for all he has done for her and its all a bit icky, especially because El has no female friends to speak of whom she has a deeper connection as she does with the men in her life. Imagine an Eleven that doesn’t care she has a shaved head because hey guess what she’s not locked in a lab and she’s safe. Imagine an Eleven who has never met a girl her own age before so she’s excited when she meets one for the first time and she’s a cool skate-boarding chick and Eleven’s never skated before so she wants to learn. Imagine an Eleven curious to learn how big the world really is. Eleven’s character growth could be so much stronger if the Duffer Brothers weren’t so caught up in their simplistic problematic understanding of femininity and womanhood.

Speaking of which, Let’s talk about Max and her racist brother. I’m going to cut straight to the point here: These two characters served no purpose in the show. When I imagine what the series would have been like without the two of them in it, literally nothing changes. I’m going to assume they will be important later and that’s why they were included in season 2 because both characters’ impact amounted to pretty much nothing. The way Mike, Dustin, and Lucas treat Max for the majority of the season slides into one of the following categories: 1) “holy sh*t you’re a girl, my hormones are Awakened” or 2) “we’re basically going to ostracize you because you’re not part of our Group” or 3) (this one is mainly Mike) “I’m going to take my anger out on you because I don’t see you as a human being.” Despite being treated this way, Max persists in her pursuit of befriending all the boys (99% of whom BARELY bother to ask her about her life). I mean, if you need proof that men believe we women NEED them, look no further than Max’s entire plot that revolves around being constantly rejected, or objectified, by a group of boys she wants to be friends with because they treat her a little better than her abusive brother who practically tries to kill her for hanging out with Lucas, the only black kid in this school, apparently. Not to mention Max is characterized a lot like Nancy in that the reason she is regarded by boys in the first place is because she skateboards and plays video games when “girls don’t play video games!”. The boys only take notice of her as a woman because what makes her attractive are perceived as masculine traits.

It is also worth mentioning that the Duffer Brothers forced Sadie (the girl who plays Max) to kiss Lucas after she told them repeatedly that she did not want to. The Duffer Brothers joked that the fact she was uncomfortable was what made them want to make her do it.

Before I wrap this up I want to give an honorable mention to the scene in which Mike’s mother, an adult woman, flirts with Max’s brother, an underage teenager. Because apparently, he’s so damn irresistible that a grown ass woman is going to sexualize a boy only a year older than her own daughter. Because that’s just what women are like?? Apparently?

The males in this show are very rarely held accountable for the way they treat women. In Joyce’s case, she instantly forgives Hopper and Jonathan for calling her crazy, while her ex-husband just leaves the picture. Mike treats Max awfully because she isn’t Eleven, but at no point does he apologize, nor does Eleven for hurting her. Jonathan violates Nancy’s privacy, which is a crime, yet he “gets the girl”. Max is treated with very little respect by the majority of the boys in Hawkins (including her brother), yet she remains friends (and more than friends) with them. Even Doctor Brenner and his associates aren’t really held fully accountable for experimenting on children and killing dozens of men and women in their experiments with the Upside Down.

Like I said, I love this show and I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve the praise and adoration it has. All I’m saying is that I hope as this incredible cast of kids grows and improves in future seasons, the show does too. Also, diversity and inclusion onscreen count for very little when there is none behind the scenes. We desperately need more people of color and women writing these stories so the characters can become the best they can be.

8 thoughts on “Male Gaze, Abelism & Racism: Problems With The Women In Stranger Things

  1. Really glad somebody pointed this out. I love stranger things and whenever people hear a slight bit of criticism they assume ya hate everything about the show. This really made me think, there were a lot of problems in the show I saw but this pointed out a lot more I didnt think about before!

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  2. I hope someone who works with/knows the duffer brothers or the cast members sees this so they’ll be at least aware. And since their masculinizing the women of the show maybe they’ll make some male characters more feminine.

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  3. some really good analysis here, thanks for writing it. a couple of things pops into my head: I could believe Max would follow around the boys even if they didn’t treat her very well. why? even if she wasn’t used to abuse from her brother and dad (step-dad? I can’t remember), she’s a lonely insecure middle schooler who’s desperate to have friends, and doesn’t necessarily value herself enough to wait for good ones. I was that middle schooler once. And Mike’s mom flirting with Billy is kind of set up: she is shown to be unsatisfied with her marriage…
    BUT! the in-universe explanations of why these ladies behave like they do is less important than why the writers decided to write them that way. it’s clear the Duffer Bros are caught up in that insidious form of subtle misogyny. The way Eleven hated Max right from the off made me SO MAD! If season 3 doesn’t give us Max/Eleven friendship, the Duffer bros can truly kiss my ass
    (side note, am I the only one who thought they were going to actually do something with Mike’s mom? it’s been awhile since I watched season 1, but I remember Nancy giving a speech about how her mom’s been crushed under the heel of the patriarchy, and she has a few moments where she seems to realize she’s lost touch with her family… I wondered if she might up and leave, or maybe bump into the Demogorgon and find she has a taste for adventure. But no, those moments go nowhere)

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    1. “unhappy in marriage” doesn’t make it ok for a grown woman to flirt with a literal child. we all got that she was unhappy. it didn’t make it ok, it’s still a male fantasy: hot older woman seduces young boy. it’s males who think we act ready to just drop our pants (or lift our skirts) at the sight of any male no matter his age simply because we’re “unhappy” in our marriages/relationships. it’s basically the start of a porno movie.

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  4. just a quick thing, alison bechdel’s comic was specifically about how alienating it is *as a lesbian* to watch media. i know people use it to address general misogyny, but it feels dismissive to remove the lesbian part of its history if you explain the rest of the origin of the test.
    other than that this article is great thank u for writing it! these are all things i think were worse in s2 and make me not want to watch s3 :/
    s1 eleven is a semiverbal kid with a shaved head and poor social skills who has meltdowns when she gets overwhelmed and only likes one food, and as an autistic lesbian i love n relate to her character a lot, and im worried theyll make her more and more “normal” so shes an appropriate love interest for mike :/

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