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Stranger Things 2 tried to make its female characters people. It should’ve tried harder.

From #Justice4Barb to Mad Max: a skeptical investigation of Stranger Things clichés.

For instance: what the hell happened to Max?
Netflix

Stranger Things 2, released on October 27, hasn’t inspired quite the same level of conversation that the first season’s surprising success did. But it has nonetheless been well-received, and there’s still plenty to talk about, especially vis-à-vis how the show responded to criticism and made adjustments along the way. So critic at large Todd VanDerWerff and staff writers Caroline Framke, Constance Grady, and Aja Romano got together to talk about how Stranger Things 2 compared to Stranger Things, and where the show could — and should — go from here.

Caroline Framke: We’re a couple of weeks out from the release of Stranger Things 2, and the general consensus seems to be that it pretty much did what the first installment did, only bigger. Will (Noah Schnapp) was once again incapacitated by the Upside Down; Joyce (Winona Ryder) once again trashed her own home in the name of bringing him back from the brink; the “Demogorgon” became countless demogorgons and a mammoth shadow monster. But there was at least one area in which Stranger Things 2 made a concerted effort to differentiate itself from Stranger Things: Original Flavor: It tried to treat its female characters like, y’know, people.

The kids’ Dungeons & Dragons party gained a new member in Max (Sadie Sink), the surly new kid in town with an unbeatable high score at the arcade and a horrible brother (wow, does he suck). Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) went on a quest to find her mom that eventually brought her to Kali/Eight (Linnea Berthelsen), her Hawkins Lab “sister.” Joyce found solace in the aggressively nice Bob (Sean Astin), short-lived though it was. The season even made a glancing attempt to find #JusticeForBarb by sending Nancy (Natalia Dyer) on a mission to avenge her friend’s death.

But how well did any of these attempts to flesh out more female characters this season work? And honestly, how much could they even work, given how strictly Stranger Things adheres to the kind of storytelling tropes that have traditionally left female characters in the dust?

Asking these questions is easy, but answering them is way harder, which is why I’m now going to throw it to you guys. Thoughts? Questions? Comments about how annoying it was to spend a million years on Eleven being jealous of Max?

Constance Grady: I absolutely give the Duffer brothers credit for trying to learn from the critique of how they handled female characters last season, but they seem to have failed to grasp the essential problem: namely, they have created a world in which there only seems to be room for one fully rendered female character per generation.

Every age group on this show gets plenty of sympathetic and complex men but exactly one woman: The adults get Joyce, the teens get Nancy, and the kids get Eleven. Every other woman on the show is brushed aside and treated as a prop, which is why the reaction to Barb last season was so outsize: She was in exactly the same situation that Will was in, but because the teenage-girl-whom-we-consider-human slot was already taken by Nancy, the show never bothered to care about Barb’s humanity or plight in the way it cared about Will's. It treated Will as a real character, but Barb was just a prop.

This season, the sense that “there can only be one” is exacerbated. As soon as Max shows up, both Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Eleven panic: There's another girl character among the kids? But that’s Eleven’s spot! Max must be there to replace her! It’s only after Max is safely relegated to the center of a love triangle between Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) — losing the energy that made her an intriguing cast addition to begin with — that Mike relaxes. Eleven, meanwhile, remains hostile to Max all the way to the end of the show. Eleven's a survivor, and she knows a threat when she sees one.

That’s why I liked episode seven, “The Lost Sister,” a great deal more than most critics seem to (although, Caroline, I know you’re also partial to that one). It’s the only episode of the show thus far that violated the “there can only be one” rule, which means it’s the only episode this season in which two female characters are given the opportunity to build a meaningful relationship with each other, one that has the potential to matter more than their relationship with men.

Of course, in the end, it doesn’t quite manage that. Eleven leaves Kali behind to return to Mike and the other boys, because Stranger Things exists in a world in which 12-year-old boys matter more than anything else ever could. But “The Lost Sister” offers the possibility of a world in which women are allowed to prioritize their relationships with each other, and their own pain and anger, and damned if I don't find it to be a refreshing change of pace for such a boy-centric show.

Eight and Eleven, partners in revenge crime.
Netflix

Aja Romano: But even “The Lost Sister” doesn’t really manage to establish a world in which the women of Stranger Things are fully able to work together and integrate their goals. The weirdness of Eleven having to go on a quest to find her mother, only for her mother to send her away to Eight, only for Eleven to realize Eight’s goals are destructive, is a contextual rabbit chase to keep her away from the main group storyline — but it’s also emblematic of just how disjointed women’s relationships feel on this show.

This has been something that’s really struck me about the show overall. As Constance said, there’s a token woman for each age group, but even when all the age groups are working together there’s never a sense that the women are allowed to work together themselves, to integrate their individual goals into those of the rest of the group, or really even to notice each other. Nancy barely paid attention to Barb in season one, and there’s a moment where Eleven hugs Joyce at the end of season two that struck me as coming totally out of nowhere, given how little time they had together overall.

I think Nancy is the most striking example of the show’s attempt to evolve in this respect, as well as its failure. In season two she’s given her own storyline, and she’s allowed to drive the plot in a way no other characters but Will and Eleven get to do — but like Eleven, her entire storyline is siloed away from the main action. And ultimately, the purpose of that storyline is negligible; it does lead to some nebulous government shake-ups, but it seems more like a meta attempt to resolve #Justice4Barb for fans than a real effort to show Nancy dealing with or instigating long-term plot points. This is so indicative of the way the Duffers either can’t come up with anything substantive for girls to do or to be or are so heavily reliant on the boy-centered ensemble tropes around which they built season one that they can't figure out how to work women into them.

I think the issue of Eleven’s hostility toward Max is arguably an example of this, because it’s not only a tired sexist cliché but a weird one in context. Eleven has been raised outside of any social context for why girls should hate one another; she doesn't have the ingrained social upbringing that would teach her to view other girls as threats. Given this, and given how desperate she is for friendship and company, it makes no sense for her to decide at a glance that Max is a threat to her relationship with Mike. But because these ’80s coming-of-age narratives demand that adolescence be explored through budding sexual tension in these very gendered ways, she's trapped in this role of the threatened girlfriend. And we’re barely allowed to get to know Max at all outside of her relationship to the men in her life.

Todd VanDerWerff: Are you saying there are things more important in the world than the emotions of 12-year-old boys? Geez.

In all honesty, I’m pretty sure I liked Stranger Things season two better than season one, in that it addressed most of my complaints about the first installment (sometimes in really eye-roll-worthy fashion). But I also found myself thinking about season one, flawed as it was, for weeks after I’d watched it, whereas Stranger Things 2 has fallen into the same gap a lot of binge watches do for me: Oh, right. I watched that. I think I liked it? It's gone from something vaguely personal to just another piece of pop culture ephemera, which feels like a justifiably ironic punishment for the show.

The one exception has been the arguments surrounding the seventh episode, which have burned intensely all over the place. Is it a worthy experiment? A complete flop? Somewhere in between? I tend to think it’s an example of the show having the right idea but no idea how to execute said idea. If episode seven were the first time we saw Eleven all season (and we wrapped some of her other flashback story into that episode and made it an hour long, instead of 45 minutes), it might have played as a story about young people in way over their heads, and a girl who has to make her first really hard choice between right and wrong. Instead, the show stacks the decks so strongly in favor of Eleven’s return to Hawkins that the episode feels like a footnote. It feels like she’s in Chicago for about 12 hours, before saying, “Welp, gotta go!”

This stems, I think, from the Duffers’ realization that Eleven is so much more powerful than anybody else that her mere presence essentially “solves” the story. You can see this idea take root when Hopper, the one character who knows where Eleven is, gets into a pointless fight with her, then gets incapacitated in the Upside Down before he can get the one character who might help them out from the exile he’s placed her in. It’s weird storytelling.

More broadly speaking, it also points toward how everything in season two feels reverse-engineered from the (admittedly terrific) climax. The last two episodes have big action beats, great character payoffs, and some beautiful grace notes around the edges. But so much of the plotting on the way there feels like it simply exists to get to the finale, right down to the largely superfluous storyline about D’artagnan, the baby demogorgon.

Stranger Things 2 tries to be more when it probably should have just tried to deepen the characters. Then again, look over to Mr. Robot which spent much of its second season trying to deepen its female characters and encountered a ferocious backlash — to see what happens when you don’t aim to be even more spectacular: Nobody talks about your third season.

Constance: Todd has a great point that Eleven’s powers mean she has to be siloed away for most of the season in order for there to be a plot. Eleven’s status as the most powerful character by far, and arguably the most fully fleshed-out of the female characters, is interesting to me from a feminist perspective. On the one hand, it’s fun and cool that the most powerful character in the Stranger Things universe is this teen girl — but on the other hand, Eleven’s powers are clearly not the product of a girl’s power fantasy.

Instead, Eleven is powerful because to 12-year-old boys, teenage girls are incredibly mysterious and alien creatures. And as Aja pointed out, this is an ’80s story about adolescence, in which coming of age means using genre tropes to play out sexual tension in gendered ways: so Eleven isn’t quite allowed to be an individual girl, but is instead used as a sort of stand-in for the concept of Girl, which also makes her an alien.

This makeover tho.
Netflix

Aja: That’s also why it’s telling that the show spends so much time trying to teach boys how to interact with the mysterious Girl. There is a nod to Nancy figuring out that she wants Jonathan and not Steve, but she basically has to have an adult man tell her (in one of the series’ other siloed storylines) what she wants before she admits that she wants it. Beyond this, we don’t get any similar mentoring, say, from Nancy to Max or Joyce to Eleven.

It’s sort of ridiculous given how much emphasis Stranger Things places on character development that it can’t figure out how to put two or more women in a scene together. But I think that goes back to what Todd said about ideas without execution: it wants deeply for us to care for these characters but is still trying to work out how these characters feel and interact with each other.

Caroline: Not for nothing, the D&D party member who’s always had the least to do also gets wholly relegated to that love story in the back half of the season. Lucas has never had as strong a storyline as his friends — which is a shame, because Caleb McLaughlin is really charming. This season largely mirrored the first in that respect, stranding Lucas in pretty much the same way as Max, relegating what initially appeared to be a different sort of character for the show to a boring love story later on.

The season started off making a concerted effort to show us more of Lucas’s world by introducing us to his family (most importantly, Priah Ferguson as his perfect little sister Erica). It even let him drive a great moment, when the boys show up to school as the Ghostbusters and Lucas contradicts, as Mike claims, that he volunteered to be Winston, the token black Ghostbuster. But the show quickly loses steam with his characterization, and he gets stuck trying to convince Max over and over again that the Upside Down is real while Dustin, the third point in that love triangle, gets a side adventure with both D’art and Babysitter Steve.

Also: Can we acknowledge how weird it is that a show starring 13-year-olds ended its season on a series of big romantic gestures? Like, chill out, guys. They’re kids.

Okay. Sure.
Netflix

Todd: I think it’s worth pointing out that I don’t really know where the show goes forward from that moment. The dance coda, while sweet, doesn't really suggest open lanes for the characters going forward, and the cliffhanger featuring the Shadow Monster makes it feel like season three is simply going to be more of what we’ve just seen. Ideally, the show would keep scaling up, but I fear it’s going to get stuck in the pit that a lot of shows like it wind up in, where the characters can’t face the main villain until the final season, so they spend a couple of years marking time.

It’s telling that the thing I’m most interested in — how Hopper and Eleven negotiate their shift from unlikely duo to father and daughter — is also the thing that’s furthest from the series’ heart. The four main boys are still fun, and the show still hit the casting jackpot with all of them (especially Noah Schnapp, whose work this season I was unprepared for). But the series will also probably need to really test their dynamic for them to continue at the show’s center. And I have no idea what that looks like.

Maybe that shouldn’t matter. This has always been a show built on surface pleasures, and those surface pleasures are real and palpable. I just wish I had faith that the show’s emotional contours could grow to match them.

Aja: I think it’s worth asking, too, if “surface pleasures” could or should incorporate girl-driven tropes, instead of just, for example, taking all the great girl babysitters of the ’80s — Adventures in Babysitting, The Baby-Sitters Club — and giving their tropes to Steve.

There seem to be plenty to go around. Tropes of the era built around women and girls were often fun and empowering — just look at Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone for a perfect example of a great female-driven plot that revolves around the “city slicker way, way out of her element” trope. With a few more teens in the cast, Nancy could easily be at the center of her own Heathers-esque teen drama. If you wanted to go a more adult route, you could always send Nancy or Joyce (or both!) down a Working Girl/9 to 5 path. Add a few more adult women into the cast and you have the potential for a squad of sassy women à la Designing Women or Golden Girls — or a soapy drama à la Dynasty or Dallas if you wanted to go that route. And I think it’s worth asking: If it’s the ’80s, where is our Denise Huxtable, our Claudia Kishi — that one cool artsy girl of color with the loud clothes and rebellious personality who likes to break away from her suburban family with a little adventure?

More relevant to the atmosphere of Stranger Things is the flock of girl-driven fantasy narratives that popped up around then, like Labyrinth, Legend, Neverending Story, Return to Oz, and The Dark Crystal. Nancy or Max playing out Jennifer Connelly’s Labyrinth adventure in the Upside Down could be a potentially fantastic tribute with a lot of interesting plot angles. And while it’s tricky to work Eleven into these narratives given her great power, there are ways: for example, rewatch The Dark Crystal and you’ll instantly see that Kira was an Eleven-like superpowered hero who was inexplicably shunted to the side of a boy-centered narrative. Stranger Things third season could be a great opportunity to revisit so many of these tropes and really pay homage to some fantastic classic female-driven narratives that don't get enough credit for shaping our culture.

Caroline: I actually got some serious Claudia Kishi vibes off Kali with the purple-haired undercut — or at least Claudia Kishi if someone stole all her junk food and inspired her to unleash righteous hell.

But Aja has a point: There is a way to work within tropes without giving short shrift to characters who aren’t boys and men learning how to do the right thing. There are so many more stories out there that Stranger Things could tell if it would just look a little outside its most obvious reference points. But Stranger Things 2 proved that the show knows what it’s doing and can even excel when it stays in its preferred lane. Once it tries to venture outside that, it needs to follow its beloved D&D party’s lead and actually use some imagination.

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