Stranger Things and the Female Lead

Stranger things have happened than an unknown, monster-like creature (aka the demogorgon) escaping a government-run lab and going on to abduct residents of a dreary Indiana town. Or maybe not. But the show, paying homage to retro 80’s movies, seems almost believable in a way and, just like every other Netflix Original, those WTF moments keep you binge-watching all night long (if you’re not too scared to stop). This semi nerd-erific, sci-fi thriller is not only geared toward the pre-teen, Dungeons & Dragons loving crowd, but also toward those of you enthralled by quality acting. Needless to say, the hype of "Stranger Things" is real. While binge-watching the show, I couldn’t help but feel proud, yet surprised, that much of the plot revolves around the actions posed by female characters. Why is it not the norm to see strong women play powerful roles? Is "Stranger Things" slowly trying to close that gap?

One of the most significant features of this show, and the reason I couldn’t stop watching, is the undeniable all-star cast, much of which is played by young male actors and bad ass female leads. A fan favorite (and all of you ladies’ next halloween costume), Eleven, strikes me as a modern-but-not-so-modern day version of LeeLoo from The Fifth Element, a must watch 90’s movie. This young girl (12 years old IRL), also known as El, is a real force of power in this season, both literally and figuratively. Her schtick is that she has psychokinetic abilities, which make her a threat to the sinister government agency that created the creature who abducted a young boy and teenage girl. Despite her minimal vocabulary, El is able to control almost everything that happens throughout the season because of her supernatural powers and the fact that she’ll do what it takes to help those she cares about. Some may say El’s character could have been a lot more interesting and widely used, hinting towards the issue of gender inequality in the TV industry. And everywhere.

Maybe not the most surprising A+ performance, but definitely one of the best this season, comes from Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce Byers. She plays the grieving single mother of a working class family who is desperately searching for answers about the disappearance of her missing son, Will. Joyce’s consistently frazzled persona allows her to be the mystery; is she going insane or is the monster who took her son really emerging from the walls of her home? If you’ve ever seen the movie Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, you’ll notice the parallels between the movie and Stranger Things early on. The portrayal of the dramatic, out-of-her-mind woman in the media is not a new phenomena, and the over-reliance on this type of character is no secret. However, despite playing the “crazy woman”, Joyce doesn’t let the doubts of others interfere with how far she will go to find her son, even if that means destroying her house in the process. The creators’ intentions may have been to set the scene of a more progressive 80’s decade, but it still may be that popular opinion weighs heavier toward the show being more on the regressive side when it comes to gender roles.

There’s no denying that many of the female roles in this show are not your typical, dolled-up, Hollywood love interests; Eleven has a buzzed head and is often referred to as “the weirdo”, and Joyce is frantic, disheveled, and the opposite of a cookie-cutter housewife. These characters are powerful for being themselves and not giving up until the truth is revealed. Throughout the season, it’s clear that there is a major distinction between the roles of Joyce and Karen Wheeler, the mother of another young boy in the D&D group and a teenage girl. Unlike Joyce, Karen is “organized” in every sense of the word; her attractive and put-together physical appearance, calm attitude and demeanor, and stable home/family life. I often times find myself wondering “Why Joyce?” when it comes to the tragedy of losing her son. Having to buy a new phone each time hers was shot seemed like a major purchase for Joyce, which it probably would not have been for Karen. Does this make it more entertaining for us? If this had happened to Karen’s family, would it have been easier to overcome and get to the bottom of things? Maybe not, but all we know for sure is that no one could have been more persistent than Joyce.

In the end, Joyce and Eleven turn out to be the leaders of the hero-pack (Will’s group of friends, brother, and friend’s sister). Some may say that the female’s role in Stranger Things revolves around what’s happening with the male role, which may be true, but to me there’s nothing more exciting than watching women kick ass. My mind wanders back to Karen’s daughter, Nancy Wheeler, and the fact that her beautiful, “perfect” life was, of course, the face of a love triangle. However, the fact that the season ended with her back with her original, less predictable choice, made everything feel a little more realistic. In my eyes, at least it’s a step toward a less conservative style of the female role. While there are some opinions out there stating that production’s way of portraying women in the show is nothing different than usual, I challenge you to watch through a more detailed lens. The female characters do not seem disposable when it comes to the overarching theme of the show, at least not more-so than their male counterparts.