Stranger things is way, way more feminist than you think
Note: The opinions stated here are my own, not those of Google.
While we take it for granted today that the nerds have taken over, it’s easy to forget that those who write today’s rules were a fringe group of cultural misfits in the 1980s. The nerds and geeks were far from being seen as cute or quirky. Being a geek used to be a bad thing, it could get you beaten up, drowned in a toilet, and definitely meant girls wouldn’t dance with you at the school dance. They weren’t celebrated, they were ridiculed. They weren’t romanticized, they were ostracized.
Stranger Things is both a product and a depiction of a renaissance that the nerds and geeks have enjoyed over the last two decades. It shows how the culture in middle America was shifting in the ’80s — how the nerds and geeks were poised to take over and, in effect, enact their revenge.
Comic books, games, computers, fantasy literature — all of this, once the domain of the outcasts, is now the fodder for popular culture. Marvel regularly breaks the billion-dollar mark at the box office. Business is dominated by nerds and geeks: the top 10 companies by market cap include Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon, all of them founded by men who (the yearbook pictures don’t lie) were huge nerds in the ’80s. The same goes for those who are shaping our culture: screenwriters who are raking in megadollars in revenues (Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams and now the Duffer Brothers of Stranger Things as well) are not only massively successful; they are also building the scaffolding of our modern zeitgeist.
Even playing Dungeons and Dragons (long the exclusive domain of the lunchroom outcasts) is something players and even enthusiasts can now wear as a badge of honor. The game, thanks in part to its supporting role in Stranger Things, has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity since the show’s first season. Just the other night, Joe Manganiello spent ten solid minuteschatting Bahamut and Tiamat with Stephen Colbert, granting the nerds of the world yet another prominent moment cultural validation in a cultural bubble that is forming around the nerd roots of Dungeons and Dragons (think the Bitcoin bubble, but with more dice).
The shift to nerdism that started in the 1980s led to cultural changes so tremendous that calling it anything less than a revolution would be downplaying its importance. However, unlike, for example, the more recent cultural turning points we have witnessed surrounding gender and race, this revolution happened quietly — almost imperceptibly. The great revolution of geekery won’t be marked on calendars or taught in history classrooms even though it has generated trillions of dollars and untold levels of influence. For those riding the crest of the wave, it will be discussed — it seems — only in footnotes.
Still, those of us who once occupied the margins of popular culture can look out upon the cultural landscape with no small amount of satisfaction. What is happening today with D&D is a signal of a successful end to one of one of the greatest cultural revolutions of my generation. Gen X and the Xenial Generation (which I have elsewhere called the Buffy Generation), have finally made it cool to be uncool.
We can look back on this cultural shift as the great revolution of the introverts. Being a withdrawn basement dweller no longer comes with unshakable social stigma. On the contrary, the comic book readers, gamers, and ham radio operators emerged (not into the sun, but into the limelight) as one of society’s most powerful demographics. When viewed in this light, it is suddenly very compelling to put the conditions of the nerd under the microscope — especially those conditions when the revolution was still in its awkward infancy.
Running in parallel with the earliest rumblings from the nerdy males in their suburban basements was the much louder and more frequently discussed gender revolution. While Sergei Brin and Joss Whedon were incubating influential ideas in their basements while playing D&D and taking apart VCRs, Madonna was masturbating on stage on The Virgin Tour.
Such outspoken and powerful women were shaking society’s patriarchal foundations, challenging long-held (and, in some circles, still held) and long-outdated beliefs about the place of women in the home and in society. What I think is interesting about these parallel revolutions — one quiet and introverted, the other loud and proud — is that they took aim at a virtually identical target. Nerds, predominantly male, and women interested in a seat at the table shared a common nemesis. Stranger Things uses the Upside Down to illustrate this common nemesis of both the extroverted female and introverted male revolutionaries in the story.
Stranger Things is particularly brilliant because it illustrates the struggle against this nemesis without being overt about its real life parallel is. The theme is extremely pervasive yet camouflaged into the fantastical storyline so flawlessly that the blogs and conversations about the show do not even discuss it as a theme. I understand that this also makes it sound like I’m crazy and that the symbolism I am about to analyze here in this article is not the intent of the authors. But, I really believe that like one of those magic eye posters from the 90’s, once I explain it to you and your brain figures it out, the reality of the show pops out at you in multidimensional clarity.
I believe that the Upside Down symbolizes the common enemy and arch nemesis of the parallel revolutions of the introverted losers and the rebellious ladies that started in the 80’s as a joint attack on a common enemy — Patriarchal Chauvinism. Both of these demographics yearned for a space in society which they could be themselves and what stood in their way was a single ancient source of power that previous generations considered to be insurmountable. Stranger things portrays the youth of the 80’s finding their superpowers that gave them the strength to push back during this era against the established power dynamic and that, even if it didn’t overturn it completely, they at least set it wobbling.
Introverted men may have resisted the pressure to conform to patriarchal norms by hiding in their basements, but champions of the female gender revolution like Madonna were less subtle in their rejection of patriarchal norms
Stranger things juxtaposes the character’s freedom to express themselves as they wish during childhood with the restraints and expectations of adulthood and uses the terrifying threats from the Upside Down to portray adolescence as a perilous transition imposed by the societal forces.
In Stranger Things, patriarchal chauvinism is a horror multiplier. Female characters who can sense their own power and introverted male ones who find some measure of strength in themselves and in the bonds of friendship may be far stronger than they know as the show opens, but they are (and remain when the credits roll) vulnerable — exposed to the nearly constant threat of male violence that, even when it is not immediately present, lurks just outside of the frame.
The power of the Upside Down is as powerful and insurmountable as patriarchal chauvinism in the early 1980s. The idea that a rag-tag crew of teenagers in various stages of adolescence could even imagine standing up to its horrors is just as unbelievable that suburban high schoolers dressed in studded denim could team up with the Tolkien-worshipping basement dorks and stand up to the powerful influence of patriarchal chauvinism in 1983.
The parallel between the imaginary battle of the Upside Down and the real world battle against patriarchal chauvinism is drawn using adolescence as a battleground wherein children are forced to adopt gender roles imposed by patriarchal chauvinism. Hawkins seems to be a special town, however, where the characters in the show learn that the key to resisting the Upside Down is to reverse the gender roles imposed on them by patriarchy — the women become fierce warriors and the men become sensitive creative types.
The first clue that stuck out to me as a signal of the importance of gender roles is the name of the town and its high school: Hawkins. The term “Sadie Hawkins” is a very common type of school dance where the girls ask the boys to dance and gender norms are purposefully inverted. By following this thread of gender role reversal, I began to unravel an interesting source of conflict in the subtext of the story.
The show portrays pubescent boys playing games of imagination in their basement and trying to get their hair just right for the school dance under the oversight of their mother hen Steve Harrington. All the while their knight in shining armor, Nancy Wheeler, and their superhero girlfriend, Eleven, go into the real world and fight real monsters with real superpowers. These role reversals of standard tropes stand out as markers of what makes Stranger Things so relatable to the thirtysomething geeks of today.
Some interesting symbolism of the Upside Down comes forth when we investigate the relationship between characters and their gender roles. It seems that Stranger Things portrays a world where gender roles reverse during adolescence through the influence of negative patriarchy. The symbolism arises from the abduction and consumption by this unreal world, which acts as a stand-in for the process by which the world beyond adolescence overpowers the identities of childhood and forces them into the roles expected of them by the dark forces of patriarchal chauvinism.
The symbol is reinforced by the exceptions. The characters who fight against the Upside Down are also the characters who seem to resist this inversion of gender roles from the free identity of childhood to the forced patriarchy of adulthood, and so the fight against The Upside Down is a symbol of the fight in the 1980s against patriarchal chauvinism and the gender roles it imposed.
Let’s look at some examples of how the characters interact with the period of adolescence and see if we can find some symbolism of gender role reversal during this transformational period. If my hypothesis holds true, we should see children before adolescence acting in opposition to patriarchal gender norms with increasing levels of conflict regarding the adoption of these gender roles as the characters fight the Upside Down. We should also see a clear distinction in the gender roles of post-adolescent characters who are not involved in the fight against the Upside Down.
The Duffer brothers slice through the demographics at this important time, with the majority of the show’s focus dedicated to the young boys who play D&D together in the basement and call themselves an “adventuring party.” These boys are on the cusp of adolescence, transitioning away from the safety of childhood and plunging into the uncertain and precarious adult world. They stand firm in their dorkiness and resist the prevailing winds of the day that threaten to change them from innocent children into accomplished assholes.
For some reason, these boys choose to continue living out their fantasies in the entirely imaginary worlds of comic books, fantasy novels, and role playing games even as they are in the process of crossing that threshold beyond which they will be expected to put away childish things in favor of manly ones.
The youngest characters portrayed in the show, though briefly investigated, provide important context into the childhood that precedes the battle of adolescence. For example, Lucas Sinclair’s little sister Erica presents shockingly atypical behaviors for well behaved young girls on television with explicit sexual behavior with her dolls and callous manipulation of her older brother.
Another young character, Elle (a.k.a Eleven), begins her character arc with an escape from her traumatic and notably patriarchal childhood home to seek freedom in the suburban wilderness. At first she is repeatedly mistaken for a boy as her shorn head and brazen behavior immediately trigger the assumption that she is a boy rather than a girl for other characters in the show. The symbols in this arc are thinly veiled, Eleven is a girl who escapes the stronghold of extremely abusive patriarchy with the power of her own mind to seek the freedom to define herself which makes her character a great proxy for the breakout identity of women that sought to define itself in the eighties before patriarchy could catch up to it.
This arc continues as Elle grows and changes from a boyish child to a confident and stylish girl by the end of the second season. Her struggle with the gender norms and expectations along the way keep pace with the battle against the upside down, such as how to be pretty like Nancy, how to be romantic, and how to rebel against the world that tried to keep her restrained as a child.
A second tier of adolescent characters, the older siblings, are closer to the end of adolescence than its beginning, close to the final transition into the adult world that awaits after high school graduation. This puts them in the midst of that final transition to adopting the roles expected by patriarchal chauvinism, closer to those perilous gender role definitions that will solidify their gendered identities and last them — presumably — for the rest of their lives.
The trials of these teenagers represent the last opportunities to resist the pressures of patriarchal chauvinism and maintain their freedom to be themselves. The fight is different for them than for the younger ones because while Mike and his friends are simply trying to survive first impact with the gender role expectations of adolescence (the bullies, the school dances, etc.), older characters like Nancy have to choose whether or not to face the Upside Down of patriarchal chauvinism directly, or forever lose their freedom to be themselves and be consumed by the expectations of their gender.
Nancy and Barb are presented with these patriarchy-induced roles when their longtime female bond is strained by their invitation to attend a small party at Stephen’s house. While Nancy does precisely what mature gender roles dictate she should do (i.e., flirt with and eventually sleep with Stephen), Barb is shown resisting these expectations. In defiance of the changing winds of adolescence, Barb tries to retain a firm grasp on her identity as an unbridled and authentic self unconstrained by society’s expectations. While Nancy is rewarded with rejection and the typical shame that muscles so many young women towards submissive roles, Barb’s defiance is rewarded with a dead end in her own Choose Your Own Adventure tale.
Barb starts out wanting to maintain her youthful freedom from the influence of boys. Watching Barb try to cling to her friendship with Nancy and call her to the higher path is heart wrenching and relatable to anyone who misses the innocence of childhood friendships that were consumed by the pursuit of the opposite gender in high school. Barb can sense that it’s too late to retreat back to the illusion of childhood one more time and she tries to keep pace with the others as they shotgun beers by the pool, but there is a point at which the tether between Barb’s childhood identity as a person who chooses their own fate and the isolation of adulthood as a woman who is outcast by the patriarchal pecking order of prettiness. This snapping point is the moment Nancy chooses to go up the stairs instead of accompany Barb back to safety.
Barb had no superpowers to rely on when she chose her fight against the Upside Down. She was unable to draw attention with her looks, her attempts to be cool were abysmal and her call to Nancy to come back with her and support her independence was pathetic. Failing to appease the expectations of patriarchal chauvinism, and with none of the protections of childhood remaining, she is isolated, shunned, physically carried off by Demogorgon, dragged into the Upside Down, where she is finally consumed and silenced by the titantic and irresistible forces therein.
Boys are far from immune from the threat of patriarchal chauvinism. Stephen, for example, very nearly succumbs entirely to the patriarchal and adult roles he is expected to play. His role as the late-teenaged Cassanova is a long-familiar one, and he plays it to the letter, talking Nancy into bed and then, when it becomes apparent that he will not be able to possess Nancy entirely, he rages against this rejection. Succumbing to a combination of jealousy and peer pressure, he lashes out and attempts to slut-shame Nancy, but she is preoccupied with her missing friend, and has found a new ally: Jonathan.
When Nancy leaves, Stephen is left to stand in the gateway to the patriarchal chauvinism that will consume so many of his peers. To the surprise of even the showrunners (who initially imagined a very different arc for the character), he steps back from the lip of the chasm, resisting expectations and overcoming toxic emotions to emerge as the most unlikely of heroes in the second season.
However, it is perhaps Jonathan Byers who best describes the metamorphosis from rebellious youth to conforming adult that threatens the vast majority of their generation. It is after Nancy and Jonathan argue over whether Steve was justified in breaking Jonathan’s camera and she accuses him of being “the pretentious creep everyone says he is”. This inspires a cold, but penetrating analysis of Nancy Wheeler and the precipice of adulthood upon which she stands.
(Sarcastically) “Nancy Wheeler, she’s not just another suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling by doing exactly what every other suburban girl does until that phase passes and they marry some boring one-time jock who now works sales, and they live out a perfectly boring little life at the end of a cul-de-sac. Exactly like their parents, who they thought were so depressing, but now, hey, they get it.”
This speech comes shortly before Nancy faces the Upside Down herself after following a blood trail to a portal where she faces the perils on the other side. In context of this analysis, this seems to be an important challenge to the path Nancy is on, pressing her to make a conscious decision between blindly falling into the patterns expected of her and struggling to own her own identity. This is Nancy’s “Barb” moment, where she chooses to eschew the roles being imposed upon her because of her gender and fight for the freedom to define her own destiny. Unlike Barb, Nancy escapes because of her connection to Jonathan: an important symbol of the importance of allies in the struggle to protect the control over one’s identity form complete dissolution into the patriarchal power structures of adulthood.
The third tier of characters are the adults, most of whom are parents. Long past their adolescence, they remain scarred by its memory, haunted by its traumas. They often refer to their younger years and to irrevocable decisions they made when young — decisions that shaped their futures and limited their choices.
Joyce Byers is one of the only adults to play an active role in the child-led adventuring party (Jim and Bob are the others). The fact that she is able to find inclusion in the world in which the children move marks her as very different from the other parents of the core party. This difference can be observed in the portrayal of Karen Wheeler (Mike and Nancy’s mom) who serves as an excellent foil for Joyce since she is another maternal figure with a lot of screen time, but follows traditional gender roles very closely.
The fact that Karen is completely oblivious to the Upside Down could be a symbol regarding her oblivion to the pervasive effect of patriarchy. She attempts to form meaningful communication with her children using the expected rules of her gender role: She tries to talk to them over a well-prepared meal, she tries to discipline her daughter for her rebellious behavior, but all efforts are met with an invisible barrier that prevents any meaningful conversation from actually occurring.
Joyce, on the other hand, is driven mad by the lengths she is required to break through to her child. Consider what it takes for Joyce to reach her son as this symbol of adolescence tries to consume him and pull him from his maternal childhood home forever. In order to save him from its grips, she must completely upend any semblance of sanity and question the very fabric of her meagre existence. Her tactics are very different from Karen as she tears down walls, drapes her house in lights, and buys two telephones just to be able to try to communicate with her son no matter how insane it makes her look to others or how terrifying it is. This struggle forms an excellent parallel to the concept of a single mother standing up to the expectations of gender roles in the 1980’s in an attempt to save her son from the grips of patriarchal chauvinism.
Expanding this model of gender roles further, it seems that the differences in Joyce and Karen’s ability to connect and assist with the struggles of their children is caused by the differences in their adoption of patriarchal gender norms. Joyce gets to be part of the fight against the Upside Down because she is fighting the influence of patriarchal chauvinism in real life, as such, her ability to help her children get through adolescence with their freedom of expression intact. On the other hand, Karen seems to have adopted patriarchal gender expectations and therefore cannot be part of the struggles against the Upside Down since she has already been symbolically consumed by it.
Joyce and Hopper struggle mightily against the feminine and masculine roles the patriarchy assigns them. These struggles push Joyce to, and occasionally beyond, her breaking point. Still, she soldiers on, maintaining her independence from Lonnie and wearing the struggles of independent motherhood like a badge of honour. Hopper, too, struggles in the second season to balance his patriarchal tendencies (expectations of submission from his substitute daughter) with his clear wish to adopt the role of nurturer and caregiver.
The cross section of age groups gives a varied and diverse account of the various struggles of young and old against the pervasive forces of patriarchal chauvinism.
So what makes the adventuring party so special? How do they manage to resist the gender role inversion demanded by the patriarchal forces that gain strength during adolescence while their peers succumb to the identical forces? There are a few clues to pursue: for one, the identities of the adult characters are strongly tied to the degree to which they have submitted to or resisted the patriarchy’s expectations. This complicity or resistance has directly affected their children’s identities. Let’s take a closer look at the homes of each member of the adventuring party.
The boys in the adventuring party have something in common: matriarchal homes with either absent or nearly absent fathers. Mike Wheeler’s father, Ted, is a patriarchal wet blanket, who attempts to exert his patriarchal control in the household — though he is hardly successful at doing so. Lucas’ father Mr. Sinclair, who appears on screen only briefly, seems intent on proving that he is perfectly content to affectionately defer entirely to his wife. Dustin’s father, Mr. Henderson, appears on screen even less than Lucas’s father. If he hadn’t made an appearance at Will Byers’s funeral, it would not be clear that he was alive at all. Though the subject isn’t raised, it might be fair to question whether Dustin, too, is being raised by a single mother.
While each of these homes are portrayed as relatively functional, the last party member, Will Byers, lives in a home that has been devastated by the absence of the father and husband. The differences between the Byers’s residence and those of the other boys is helpful if we want to understand precisely why Joyce is a critical member of the adventuring party — a party who supports the boys in their battles with the Upside Down — at times doing battle herself while the other boys’ parents stand on the sidelines as helpless and often witless observers.
For one, Will’s father, Lonnie Byers, is as unlike the other fathers as Joyce is unlike the other mothers. Though physically absent, he is nevertheless present. His specter haunts the family, influencing their daily lives. The construction of Castle Byers and the worship of The Clash are both results of this influence. They are both rebellions against the dominating patriarchy of Lonnie Byers, who spent an entire year fixing up his Pontiac GTO but doesn’t stick around to help his own family. The family’s manifest fear and desperation are the scars that his removal from the household left behind — scars he threatens to re-open (not close) with his return.
Lonnie Byers is the reason Will Byers is targeted by the Upside Down over the other boys in the party. Each of the party members lives in a house with a strong mother figure, which has given them a respite from the forces of patriarchy for a few extra years compared to their peers. However, Lonnie Byers is a greater threat than the other fathers and so it is Will Byers that is first to be truly tested by the patriarchy that the Upside Down represents. Will resists, which traps him in a void between childhood and manhood, but even in this zone, he does not submit. Instead, he tries desperately to find a path back to safe haven of the maternal sanctuary of his home.
The difference between Will’s relationship with his father and the other boys’ relationships with theirs is especially important because the central conflict of the show in both seasons revolves around saving Will Byers from the grips of patriarchal chauvinism represented by the Upside Down. To escape it, he draws upon three resources: his introverted imagination, his allies both young and old, and his latent super powers.
What makes Will special? How is he able to resist the forces of patriarchy that consume his peers? Joyce Byers contributes to a different home environment and he has a supportive older brother, which helps. But I believe Will Byers is portrayed as having additional super powers which he draws on to fight the Upside Down.
Castle Byers is an important symbol in the establishment of Will as a superhero in Stranger Things as it is a representation of a interpretation of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. The destruction of Will Byers’s parents’ relationship threatens to absorb him in the typical consequences of being abandoned by a pig-headed father, but instead he retreats to his Fortress of Imagination/Solitude, where he resists the powers of the patriarchy. The colour scheme in his fortress is dominated by reds and blues, with splashes of yellow (Superman’s characteristic colours). White paper hung on the walls and the shafts of light penetrating through the crude walls remind the eagle-eyed viewer of Kal-El’s ice-columned retreat.
The depiction of Castle Byers as a refuge from the anger that his father generates is clear. Will and his brother Jonathan built the castle on the night of their parents’ divorce, doing so in the pouring rain and getting sick in the progress. The fortress is far from idle busywork. It is of crucial importance as a bullwark against the world, which seems to be crashing down around the boys’ ears.
If you’re still not convinced, consider this: Jonathan Byers, Will’s older brother, has a name strikingly similar to that of John Byrne, the comic book writer who completely redefined Superman’s story in 1986 (three years after Stranger Things is set to begin). In this massively popular rewriting of The Man of Steel, Byrnes makes two important changes. The first is that he does not kill off Superman’s adoptive parents as in previous versions and the second is that he changes the fortress of solitude from being a physical place, to being the identity of Clark Kent. The reasoning was that with his parents alive and part of his life, Clark Kent was not an alter ego, but rather his primary identity. Byrnes wanted to show Superman taking refuge in the identity of a socially awkward nerd as the only place that Superman could be his true self and the only place he could be entirely free of his Superhero identity. Just as John Byrne built Superman a Fortress of Solitude where he could be his truest self, Jon Byres built his little brother Will a safe haven from the outside world, thus making Will the Superman of the Stranger Thingsworld.
Since the hunt for Will Byers is so critical to the story in season one, these Superman references provide a solid foundation for understanding what is being said about what constitutes a superhero. While it is predominantly female characters that show superhuman powers in the show, the boys show extraordinary resistance to patriarchal norms, which makes them superheroes in their own right. This is a testament to the forms of culture-led rebellions that signaled a changing of the guard in the ’80s.
Another prime example of cultural rebellions of the times in Stranger Things is The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” which is featured prominently in the first season.
“This indecision’s bugging me,
If you don’t want me, set me free,
Exactly whom I’m supposed to be,
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?”
— The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go (1983)
In this context, the song reads a lot like an ode to the absent father, who acts as though he does not want his child, yet maintains a persistent presence in their life that prevents them from being truly free or true to themselves — the kind of father who wouldn’t know what size clothes their sons wear and would leave the constant question hanging on the lips of the next generation: should I stay or should I go? Should I leave, abandoning my maternal childhood to become an asshole like you, or should I stay and face double the difficulties of being a responsible man.
The Byers boys are thus facing down an identity crisis — the result of their father’s rejection — that positions them precariously between two worlds, neither of which is appealing. The song acts as an ode to their absent-yet-present father and a signal of their barely concealed desire to abandon their childhood identities (with the elder brother being much closer to actually doing so than his sibling). Separately, each of them learns how to stay instead of go, despite the fact that the trouble is indeed doubled by the decision to stay and pick up the burden of being a supportive and responsible man.
Eventually, each character in the Stranger Things adventuring party finds their source of power against the Upside Down. For Will and Jonathan, it is the works of the imagination such as art and music and their network of supportive friends that give the boys their ability to fight the influence of their father.
But what about those characters who don’t have superpowers? When Nancy’s friend, Barb, tries to resist patriarchal norms at Steve’s party, she finds herself isolated and, as a result of this isolation, falls victim to the Demogorgon. Barb’s death contrasts with the fate of other characters (Nancy, Mike, and Jonathan) who enter the Upside Down and emerge unscathed, marking their successful rebellion against patriarchal chauvinism. Barb is a stand-in for the very real victims of patriarchal chauvinism. Her death goes largely unnoticed, only seeming to affect her parents and Nancy in any substantial way. Will is able to leverage his network and his imagination to find his superpowers, but Barb has neither of these and is therefore vulnerable. In a sense, she dies of exposure.
In the second season, another character is similarly overpowered by the powers of the Upside Down. Bob, the mild-mannered accountant and boyfriend of Joyce Byers refers to himself as “Bob Newby, Superhero.” With a name that contains a byword for novice, Bob Newby represents the first wave of superheroes — those privileged-yet-dorky white men who paved the way for the upstart generation by standing up for those who don’t yet have but deserve the freedom to live authentically. Bob lacked the superpowers necessary to survive his confrontation with the Upside Down, but his indisputably brave actions set him apart and mark him as a superhero of sorts in the eyes of the adventuring party and he is thus immortalized — cape and all — in Will Byers’s drawings.
Bob Newby was a superhero in the fight against the Upside Down because he used the privileges afforded to him as a white man as super powers to support the struggle of the kids.
This adulation of Bob Newby as a superhero is a stark contrast to the depiction of Barb, the only other victim of the Upside Down. While Bob fought to the end and had agency in how his life would be used to benefit the other, Barb was a true victim: powerless over her situation, alone and outcast to bleed by herself into the pool outside the Harrington residence.
Comparison of the male and female superheros in the show is telling of the different struggles faced by men and women under the oppression of patriarchal chauvinism. Men are expected to repress their emotions and to play roles perhaps ill-fitted to their truest selves, while women face a more all-encompassing repression of both body and mind, as demonstrated by the treatment of Eleven in her prison-like childhood home.
While the adventuring party plays games of imagination in their basement, Eleven is subject to pain and humiliation at the hands of her father, who has, it seems, all the power of the state at his disposal. This conspicuous symbol of institutionalized patriarchy forms an excellent backdrop to portray the birth of a new kind of woman armed with a powerful mind who escapes the clutches of institutional patriarchy before her adolescent identity has been formed for her through the process of repeatedly feigned paternal acceptance as a mind control and brain-washing method.
Her struggle is different than the boys whom she finds shelter with in her plight. Hers is a physical struggle for the mind and body where life and limb are on the line. She must kill and maim those who oppose her, she hurls vehicles into the air with her mind while the boys come to the fight with a pathetic slingshot. The battle for the boys is one fought with sticks and stones; for the girls, it is another matter entirely.
The prepubescent boys are portrayed with typically feminine characteristics that represent their maternal alignment before being subjugated to the forces of patriarchal chauvinism, but the girls are portrayed in opposite terms. The most complete depiction of this is Eleven, who acts as the female counterpart to Will Byers and is Stripped of her femininity and repeatedly mistaken for a boy. Before her late entry into the journey of adolescence, Eleven is essentially genderless. Her exploration of gender identity starts once she breaks free of the compound and she becomes a character of both imaginative and nascent-sexual curiosity for the members of the adventuring party.
Eleven investigates her femininity with trepidation. She calls herself “pretty” when wearing a wig and dress that used to belong to Nancy Wheeler, but the dress and wig are awkward and ill-fitting. Thus, her quasi-romance with Mike is especially endearing, representing as it does a reversal of expectations — the physically and mentally powerful young woman pursued by an emotionally and physically fragile adolescent. This trope came into its own in the eighties with other anti-patriarchy superheroes like Lloyd Dobler of Say Anything.
Stranger Thing’s first season sets the battleground in the fight for the right to maintain prepubescent gender roles as the world struggles to impose the dominance of patriarchal chauvinism on the characters. The grand battle of the second season matures as Eleven learns from the seasoned and street-wise Kali — endowed with very real superpowers of her own — who has sought shelter among marginalized and cast-aside misfits rather than maternally shielded tweens. While the episode in Chicago may have been widely and rightly panned as a terrible piece of television, it’s importance to the show’s premise should not be overlooked.
“You have to confront your pain. You have a wound, Eleven, a terrible wound. And it’s festering.”
Kali, who shares a name with the Hindu goddess of death and time, teaches Eleven a crucial lesson: if she commits fully to her fight against the powers that be, she can become more than a survivor; she can become a soldier. With the help of the other outcasts, Eleven sees the possibilities and the dangers that attend upon a more offensive position both in terms of attack and of rebellion against cultural expectations. While she shies away from the extreme limits of this aggressive position, she does return from Chicago with a new appreciation for her powers and the role she must take in the ongoing battle.
However, Kali’s cryptic secret to achieving the next level of intensity is to address her “wound” which is festering. Something that takes on an interesting interpretation when considered in the light of the birth of liberal feminism that was also being born during the same period. The properties that Kali suggests Elle subsume are aggressive, violent properties that are not aligned with traditional expectations of women. Thus, Kali’s “wound” seems to be something related to her womanhood, a symbol which is not made overt until the end of the season.
Eleven also comes back from Chicago with a new look — one that draws inspiration from the androgynous cultural icons of the ’80s. In a men’s blazer, rolled up denim and with her hair slicked back, she is the antithesis of the helpless female victim — a far cry indeed from Nancy’s wig and pink dress, a far cry from the “pretty” girl she may have once aspired to be.
In their brief moments together, Kali and Eleven bond through a shared trauma. Kali seems to have come closer to moving through this trauma, but Eleven is still living through it. Kali describes this hindrance on Eleven’s progress as a festering wound that she must see to.
I would like to posit that this idea of finding power by closing off her womanhood is a representation of the concept of liberal feminism, which is impelled by the idea that women could prove they were equal to men by proving they could be like men. Liberal feminism dominated the ’80s, while difference feminism didn’t find sure footing until the ’90s, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as this movement’s most noteworthy warrior.
The guiding principle of difference feminism is that femininity is equal in value to masculinity and that women didn’t need to prove they were just like men to prove they were equally valuable. But, in the decade before the emergence if difference feminism, the frontrunners had to endure the painful process of first proving equality through sameness before being afforded the luxury of equality through equivalence. Thus, in the context of liberal feminism, it is clear that Kali is asking Eleven to confront her womanhood, her femininity, by likening it to a festering wound.
Taking Kali’s advice to heart, a gender-bending Eleven returns to Hawkins and descends into the abyss to do something very interesting. The physical struggle presented to Eleven as her battle in the war on patriarchal chauvinism reaches its climax as Eleven comes face to face with the portal to the Upside Down. This portal, which festers deep below the surface, represents the gateway through which patriarchal chauvinism exerts its dominance. If this portal can be closed, the forces of the Upside Down can no longer penetrate into this world.
The visual representation of the wound which Eleven struggles emotionally and physically to close is, to say the least, suggestively shaped.
The act of closing it permanently to prevent the forces of patriarchy from exerting their power is hardly a subtle symbol. Her substitute father figure assists her by keeping the denizens of the Upside Down at bay as Eleven uses her nearly limitless mental powers to close the festering wound. This powerful symbol of liberal feminism connects the show to the extreme conversations that were flaring wildly at that time, especially those regarding women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.
Something miraculous happens after Eleven closes the suggestively shaped wound. She makes a surprise appearance at the Snowball dance where Steve Harrington has Fairy Godmothered Dustin’s hair with the spirit of Farah Fawcett while Nancy Wheeler proves herself as noble defender of geeks once more as she the takes the role of knight in shining armor to rescue Dustin from mockery on the dance floor.
When Elle arrives at the dance, she appears pretty and confident, and she shares a kiss with Mike that signals a relatively complete emergence out of childhood and into adolescence — an adolescence in which patriarchal norms have been, at least for the time being, successfully resisted and rendered powerless.