WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for Stranger Things 2.
Beyond the flashier elements of demonic child possession and psychic tantrums, one of the more impactful scenes of Stranger Things 2 was a very quiet, understated moment. Overcome with loneliness and longing for Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) risks safety to return to Hawkins Middle School. In a classic but infuriating trope, Mike just misses seeing Eleven in the hallway, with the two mere seconds and a head turn away from being in the other’s direct line of sight. Eleven finally spots Mike in the gym talking to new girl Max (Sadie Sink)—of course, at the exact and only moment that their frosty interaction thaws just enough to be misconstrued as flirtation. Consumed by jealousy, Eleven uses her powers to make Max take a hard fall off her skateboard. Confused but unfazed by the sudden invisible force, Max explains to Mike that it felt like a magnet was pulling on her board. Eleven slinks back into the shadows glowering and devastated, and by the time Mike connects the dots and rushes outside, all that’s left to reunite with is an eerily abandoned hallway and self-doubt about his own grip on reality.
That scene really resonated with me for a variety of reasons, not only because it’s agonizing as a viewer who just wants Eleven to be happy, goddammit (El’s temper and occasional brattiness aside, Millie Bobby Brown really goes for broke in portraying the depth and nuance of her anguish with all the fragile hope of an abused 13-year-old desperately yearning for any scrap of affection in ways that systematically shatter every individual piece of your heart), but serves as a microcosm of all the problems with female characterization and interaction that this season had. Chief among them: there was barely any female/female interaction to begin with! Max doesn’t actually lay eyes on Eleven until the finale and receives a non-greeting so over-the-top passive aggressive that Max and Mike look like BFFs by comparison. Significantly for a show that seems to actively court and anticipate praise for having strong female characters, all of Stranger Things 2‘s female protagonists are isolated from each other to facilitate their respective male-driven subplots: El is hidden away clashing with new paternal figure Hopper (David Harbour) as she pines for Mike; Joyce (Winona Ryder) continues to fret over Will (Noah Schnapp); Max is unwittingly caught between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin); Nancy (Natalia Dyer) teams up with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to get #JusticeForBarb in what is equal parts fanservice and an elaborate pretext for them to finally hook up.
That’s where the dudebro starts to seep in. And, much like Eleven’s “magnet,” an invisible force seems to be conspiring to keep all the ladies apart. “Strong female character” has become so vacuous and watered down a term that it’s basically the media’s new dog whistle for “not like other girls.” It’s empowerment light for men who ostensibly support feminism but still can’t get enough manic pixie dream girl. The Duffer brothers have made it clear that Stranger Things is a love letter to their ‘80s childhood, and while I would stop short of claiming malicious intent or deliberate sexism in their writing, the thematic trends in gender interaction and apparent recurring impulse to keep female characters physically apart or antagonistic is baffling at best. On one hand, the very premise of this show is that a middle school boy finds a girl raised in a lab with zero social contact and hides her in his basement until they fall in love, so I understand handwaving a lot of things to enjoy the story, which I thoroughly do. On the other hand, having four main female protagonists share approximately two scenes together feels like the proverbial “bar” isn’t just on the floor—it’s buried far underneath that damn cabin.
Whether intentional or not, the fact that the writers seem to have all of the main women and girls on vindictive marionette strings is particularly frustrating because all of the actresses are phenomenal and their storylines would have so much potential if they were simply allowed to develop organically. Instead, the women and girls feel like they’re written by men who express a theoretical interest in complex female characters, only to lose interest as soon as those characters have a chance to develop outside of male/female dynamics. In other words, they’re aware female characters are important but they just don’t seem to know or care how they feel or interact with each other beyond buoying male protagonists. The deep aversion to allowing female characters to bond or even spend time in the same room together is especially bizarre, as the writers perform exhaustive narrative gymnastics to ensure that they stay segregated and polarized. At every opportunity for female independence or camaraderie, the invisible hand goes to work again. You thought Eleven and Max would be friends? (Imagined) romantic rivalry! You thought Max would be her own character with an autonomous arc? Love triangle! You thought that Joyce and Eleven would get to bond more and develop the maternal dynamic El craves? Break out everyone’s favorite Cabin of Boredom!
Sadie Sink brings an unaffected swagger to the gang as Max, a tomboyish videogame aficionado who also skateboards. Yeah, I’m pretty sure her initial characterization is the kitchen sink answer to “how can we introduce a new girl that the boys would be both intimidated by and immediately attracted to?” Nonetheless, Sink gamely breaks into the ensemble, putting a sarcastic yet vulnerable spin on a guarded girl determined to hide her turbulent home life at the hands of her abusive brother, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Unfortunately, Max is engulfed by El’s shadow from the second she arrives, and Mike’s hostility towards her does no favors in propelling her above being perceived by both the audience and the narrative itself as an obvious El placeholder. In spite of all her “cool girl” bells and whistles, poor Max is soon reduced to a manic pixie trojan horse in tomboy’s clothing. She predictably becomes a source of romantic conflict between Lucas and Dustin, ultimately choosing Lucas so that 1) Dustin can continue serving as comic relief and go off on his marvelous Steve subplot and 2) the writers could get out of giving Max or Lucas actual storylines of their own, I guess? While the Duffer brothers achieve their stated purpose of making Billy a human antagonist, the abuse plotline also quickly runs out of gas in terms of giving us much insight on Max, as she merely illustrates the extent of Billy’s controlling nature.
The similarities between Max and El make the deliberately avoided opportunity for friendship all the more disappointing. If anyone would be able to understand each other, it’s these two (we’ll get to Kali in a minute). They’re both outsiders who have never had a stable home life or consistent group of friends. They’re both physically and emotionally abused by male familial figures who wield a disproportionate amount of power over them. They should be the two with the strongest friendship in the entire party! Yet El, who presumably has hardly seen a girl her age for almost a decade, immediately views Max as a rival because
the writers are incapable of writing girls as anything other than love interests or vehicles of self discovery for the boys she smiled at her crush. And look, I get that Mike was the first person to show her kindness and middle school infatuation runs deep. It would be fine if it was just a throwaway moment of preteen angst, but El’s icy staredown of Max’s earnest attempt at a handshake indicates that this tired conflict could be dragged out into next season. It’s arguably one of the few plot points that doesn’t actually hinge on a real love triangle and the girls are still divided over it! Plus, it’s been pointed out that Lucas and Dustin had several episodes to explore and resolve their rivalry, whereas Max and El have to settle for one unsatisfying scene of the silent treatment.
Which brings us to the dreaded Cabin of Plot Purgatory. Even Millie said they were the most boring scenes to film because she was by herself doing an endless loop of repetitive activities, which is coincidentally an accurate description of how I felt being forced to watch scene after scene of her sitting alone in this godforsaken cabin. It’s both telling and symbolic that the writers have to lock Eleven up because they, like Hopper, have no idea what do with her now that she’s separated from the boys, effectively benching her from the narrative until she’s required to close the gate—minus a few underwhelming side quests. Luckily, Hopper pops in occasionally for some drive-by character growth and to learn how to be a dad again. The chemistry between David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the season, but again, I wish it wasn’t at the expense of keeping El isolated for so long.
Notably, the times when she disobeys Hopper’s instructions and leaves the cabin are all instances of bitter disappointment at the hands of women. The first time is Flirtgate and the second is when she runs away to find her biological relatives and hang out with her superpowered sister, Eight (aka Kali, played by Linnea Berthelsen) in Chicago. The heartbreak is swift and manifold: she finds her mother lobotomized; she discovers her aunt reporting her to the authorities; it turns out Kali wants to weaponize El’s powers for her own benefit. Kali is weirdly cold and outright abusive to El for the amount of time they hyped up their alleged psychic connection, especially since she is the only person in the Stranger Things universe thus far who could fully empathize with El, doubly so because they spent time together in the lab as small children before a supposedly traumatic separation. Every time El reaches out to a woman in her life for comfort or support, the narrative slaps her wrist and punishes this optimism with escalating betrayal and manipulation. To be clear, Eleven was raised in a lab and tortured by men her whole life, escaped to the woods and then conveniently found more than a half-dozen male characters to befriend without issue, but somehow women are the ones she needs to learn to be suspicious of? Sure, Jan. El is so deeply disillusioned following her encounter with Kali (and a hackneyed Breakfast Club makeover) that she hops a bus back to Hawkins to fulfill her true destiny as an on-call dues ex machina for her embattled lads.
I recognize that Stranger Things is, at its core, a nostalgic reflection by the Duffer brothers on their own childhood and perhaps who wish they could’ve been or become. But if the boys can be the heroes of their stories, why not the girls? If Hopper can find renewed purpose after grief and Will can fight a demon from the inside and reformed douchebag Steve can help Dustin gain self-confidence, why can’t Joyce and Max and El have the same depth and complexity to their journeys? And why on Earth wouldn’t they lean on each other? Yes, they are all superficially involved saving the day, but the road to get there relegates them to passengers of their own narratives. Surely government conspiracy and imminent apocalypse trumps shipping and love triangles.
For a show where the fate of humanity hangs on the intervention of a young girl, we could certainly use a little more girl power.
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Stranger Things 2 and the Invisible Hand of the Dudebro: photographs courtesy of Netflix