Feminism in Stranger Things: An Ode to Eleven

Spoiler-infested waters. Swim at your own risk.

At this point, writing a general Stranger Things review would be mighty redundant. Especially after the Netflix hit show’s overwhelming success. In summary, the undisputed consensus is a resounding “Hell, yes.” Was it the 80s flair that did it? The continuous homage to Spielberg (and Lynch)? The subtle Stephen King vibe? Winona Ryder’s phenomenal acting? Probably a little bit of everything. And while I would love to discuss this further, I simply cannot focus on anything but my undying love for the character of Eleven.

© Netflix

© Netflix

I am thankful and proud that we are living in the age of third wave feminism. For one, it works wonders (sort of) for my career aspirations. But it also has enabled me to feel what little boys must have been feeling for years when watching superhero movies.

There are finally characters popping up that can join the ranks of Hermione Granger. And as time progresses, what directors and writers can offer female viewers has only bettered in quality. So how did a character with one-word lines manage to deliver a blow to the patriarchy? Well, let’s take a trip to the olden days of childhood.

I was that girl. I legitimately, almost exclusively, hung out with a squad of four boys as Eleven does. While things are getting better, the toxic environment within certain female cliques was still going strong. The thing is, while boys are great and quite loyal, there is nothing you can do about your incoming body parts. All of a sudden you will get visible cooties.

This is probably something a lot of people missed, but the idea that Mike, Dustin, and Luke would feel uncomfortable about a girl’s bleeding is nothing new. Sure, my period doesn’t come out of my nose, but the idea is pretty much the same. It is an in-your-face reminder that boys and girls are expected to be two different ends of a spectrum. It is the “Eleven has to sleep in the other room” conundrum.

© Netflix

© Netflix

Even though Eleven has little hair and could easily be mistaken for a boy, the bleeding and the superpowers create a divide between her and her new friends. Yes, it is probable that the Duffer brothers had no idea they were giving Stranger Things this edge, but that is true for all writers. It is up to the audience to discover within the art that which they can identify with.

Now, what they did do intentionally and brilliantly was their treatment of Eleven’s girlhood arc. Responding to an evident lack of empowering female figures, many shows and films have tried to compensate by giving us female versions of our beloved super heroes. The unfortunate thing is that their main superpower is often…being like a boy or being a boy magnet, and honestly, I don’t know which is worse.

© Netflix via Tumblr

Instead, Eleven’s arc focuses on her never being allowed to be a girl. She didn’t know what it felt like to be “pretty” or had the chance enjoy the softness of cotton dresses. Heck, she had never even worn pink. And yes, we constantly fight this battle to eliminate labels on kids’ toys (which is fair and necessary). But this was all born from a greater issue: the idea that whatever girls have is inherently less than.

Many times I’ve felt that I had to be perceived as less “girly” to be accepted, especially around my all-boy squad. It felt weird picking Peach in Mario Kart because you just knew what everyone was thinking. (I’ll have you know that Peach has one of the fastest cars.) So this is why my heart throbbed when I saw Eleven looking at Nancy’s music box. She was so genuinely mesmerized by the dancing ballerina that any viewer could have sympathized. She’s not just a kid that had no toys. She’s a kid who wasn’t allowed to be a girl.

© Netflix

© Netflix

This grows in importance as we discover that Eleven is not only the ultimate hero of Stranger Things, but also an absolute BAMF. She shows up to save the day when Mike jumps off a cliff, destroys the Demogorgon almost single-handedly (have to give credit where credit is due; Luke is the king of slingshots), and puts herself through unbearable physical and mental strains to find the gang’s missing friend. A kid, mind you, that she didn’t even know.

And she made Troy piss his pants. She made him cry. Eleven ended Troy. Eleven SLAYED bullying. With sass and superpowers. She’s so precious, that child…

© Netflix via Tumblr

© Netflix via Tumblr

But these are not “male” qualities she exemplifies. Eleven is the mother of the group. She is okay with being vulnerable. Her telekinetic powers reinforce the idea of female intuition (which is a real thing). And she shamelessly downed a basket of fries like it was nobody’s business. Because it isn’t.

We need to take into account that there are still girls out there who feel embarrassed to eat in front of their boyfriends. Just because we face more pressing issues doesn’t undermine the effects these small facts can have on our daily lives and human development. And the Duffer brothers didn’t need to scream this at our faces.

Instead, they give you the story of a young girl who has been living as a lab rat. It is thanks to parallels between Eleven, Nancy, Joyce, and the rest of the female characters, that an undertone of feminism emerges. It poses the question of whether or not your sister, your friend, your mother, or even yourself has been forced to live as the patriarchy’s lab rat.

© Netflix

© Netflix

It’s not even problematic that Eleven has a love interest. If anything, the only good thing Stranger Things let that poor child have was Mike (and Eggos).  Mike is also not a dominant alpha male. Dustin, Will, and Luke aren’t the kinds of kids who would take Eleven’s credit away from her. By the end, they are as in awe of her as the rest of us.

Plus, it’s really comical to see how they all realize what the rest of the world has yet to wrap their head around: maybe girls aren’t all that bad. Girls can be cool, too. And most importantly: girls can be cool without needing to cater to patriarchal wants, needs, or expectations.

So thank you, Netflix.



3 thoughts on “Feminism in Stranger Things: An Ode to Eleven”

  1. LittlestWinslow says:

    Good read! I’ve been delaying my Stranger Things postttttt but I might write it tomorrow but I am lazy.

    1. Gabrielle van Welie says:

      Thanks! And looking forward to that 😀

  2. Pingback: A Definitive Ranking of Stranger Things Characters — The Nerd League
  3. Trackback: A Definitive Ranking of Stranger Things Characters — The Nerd League

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