Posted by Holly
Creators: Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer
It seems that for the past several weeks, the only words coming from anyone’s mouth, facebook feeds, or twitter updates had to do with the phenomenon known as Stranger Things. Part throwback to classic horror, and part love letter to the simple days of the 1980s, it’s easy to understand why people have become to enamored with it; it’s smart, self-aware, and wildly entertaining.
Stranger Things follows the events of a sleepy midwestern town in the early 80s, the supernatural peril it finds itself in, and how it all comes back around to the disappearance of a young boy named Will. The story branches out in how several characters relate to and experience this disappearance: Will’s family, Will’s close group of friends, and the town’s police chief, who is investigating the mysterious event. As this is happening, one of Will’s close friends, Mike, encounters a strange and frightened young girl who is much more than she appears.
Stranger Things is, at its core, a coming of age story. While there are adult characters, and they are by no means insignificant, the story is really about Mike and his experience of losing a friend. There’s a purity to the concept of friendship and loss for someone Mike’s age, and exploring it through that perspective gives it an innocence that is disarming for a viewer. Plus, Mike and his friends are a wonderfully charming and lovable group to experience the strange and terrifying occurrences through, both supernatural and mundane. A monster from another dimension, a sadistic school bully, and your best friend breaking his promise to you are all issues that trouble Mike, and they’re all treated with equal respect by the narrative.
While the show is a wonderful coming of age story, it is specifically one tailored to boys. There’s nothing wrong with telling that story, though it is important to understand the perspective through which the story is being told, because it does come at the detriment of female narratives in the story. None of the women in the show have arcs that are as layered or complex as those of Mike or Jim, because the show is centered on those two characters.
The only part of this that does become problematic, ultimately, is the treatment of Barbara. In the narrative, Barbara and Will fill very similar roles: close friends of a main character who go missing early on in the show. Because Mike is our main perspective, Will’s disappearance makes the most significant impact; most of the central narrative flows around finding him, Will’s family’s emotions are deeply explored, and the police chief’s whole investigation revolves around him. Barbara, on the other hand, sits in the shadow of this story, despite mirroring it almost completely. There is only one scene where her mother appears, and it is short and dismissive – does Barb’s mother love her as ferociously as Will’s does? The audience never finds out, because Barbara’s disappearance is treated as wholly less important than Will’s. Even the revelation of her death falls flat, and goes without further acknowledgment by anyone but her best friend, Nancy.
The female character who arguably has the biggest part in the story is Eleven, and she follows a tried-and-true story arc: the human weapon. She is the culmination of a lot of human experimenting, and while extremely powerful, she is socially maladjusted from spending her whole life in a scientific facility. There are a lot of things I like about Eleven – the actor who portrays her is great, and her relationship with Mike is genuinely touching. That said, the story also fulfills what is often a very male-oriented idea of an “ideal girl”; Eleven is extremely powerful, but uses her power to help the male lead (to the point of detriment to her well-being), she has no name of her own until the male lead gives her one, and she has limited language skills (to the point of spending most of the show nearly mute), allowing for the male lead to teach her. There is an undercurrent to her story that feels vaguely patronizing at times, which is unfortunate for a character that has great potential.
Where Stranger Things fails to succeed with Eleven, it succeeds beautifully with other characters in its roster, some of which subvert traditional narratives in a very satisfying way. We have Nancy, the straight-laced good girl with a bad streak; Steve, the typical jerk of a jock who wants primarily to get into Nancy’s pants; finally, Jonathan, the weirdo loner kid with a hint of a crush on Nancy. It’s a common set up for a love triangle, but things don’t play out as expected. Steve in particular gets a satisfying character arc that feels refreshing and diverges from expectations. Joyce falls into a story arc of women having strong belief in something, only to be disregarded as crazy, with her adamant claim that her son is alive regardless of the evidence. This is nicely shaken up by the fact that Jim comes to Joyce’s side much earlier on, giving her an important ally, and validating her story.
Stranger Things is a mixed bag in some ways, especially with regard to the women that are part of it. However, I still feel comfortable giving it a solid recommendation based on the strength of its storytelling alone. It’s difficult to find a show that captures the spirit of being young in a very frightening world the way this one does, and it’s for this reason that the show has resonated with so many people. So set aside some time (best to budget in the whole evening), and enjoy that feeling.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Highly recommended, but not without its flaws.
Scariness level: Low-to-medium. It has a big bad monster, but you don’t get a full look at it until the end. There are some pretty eerie glimpses into the Upside Down, but overall nothing that horror newbies can’t handle.
Violence level: Medium. No real gore, but some bloody deaths, especially a few enacted by eleven. The shot of Barb’s body is pretty disturbing, but you don’t actually see what happens to her, only the aftermath.
Bechdel Test: Fails, one of the biggest disappointments of the series.
Mako Mori test: Miiiiight slide through with a weak pass, if you count Nancy’s story as being more about her quest to find Barbara than the weird love triange they set up for her. She spends far more time involved with that story than anything to do with Barbara, so it’s still very weak.