Not-so-wondrous strange

I watched Stranger Things in a remarkable-for-me 4-day binge this past weekend. I had mixed feelings for the first episode, but it gradually won me over, then the ending made me mad.

If, somehow, you haven’t heard of it, then let’s at least say: Stranger Things is a short, eight-episode series currently in its first season on Netflix about small town teens who fight a monster. It’s steeped in nostalgia for the 80s – or, maybe, more for the pop cultural outgrowths of the 80s than the actual 80s, per se. Imagine The Goonies crossed with E.T. and It with just enough Firestarter and The Thing for good measure.

If you liked any of those fine films, you will probably enjoy this series. And I did, too, up to a point. But the final episode of the series was a major disappointment and I want to talk about why, but, somewhat obviously, I can’t do that without significant spoilers.

If you have not seen Stranger Things and plan to and don’t enjoy **MAJOR SPOILERS**, stop reading now, kaythxbye!

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Still here? Okay.

Let’s start with: the 80s were not a great time for women in film. The “Bechdel-Wallace Test” (aka the Bechdel Test, the Mo Movie Measure, and The Rule) originally appeared in a 1985 Dykes to Watch Out for strip where 1979’s Alien is the last movie to have passed the test.

So, going into a series steeped in 80s film nostalgia, in 2016, no less, scant days after watching Paul Feig rebooted, gender-swapped Ghostbusters (and the last year or so of the 20-something man-baby portion of the culture collectively losing its mind) one has to be, at least a tiny bit apprehensive as to how women are going to be handled in Stranger Things. Are we going to see badass women a la Alien’s Ripley? Or are we going to get E.T.’s Gertie? Or any of the dozens of 80s’ lust objects/trophies?

The first couple episodes are rough: Joyce starts out frayed and rapidly goes into high-gear hysteria; Nancy is initially framed as the object of Dustin’s lust; the other high school girls are barely characters; El starts out nearly mute and spends her first few appearances straddling a very fine line.

So, until maybe episode 3 or 4, the show’s women are more objects than subjects. Somewhere in the middle of the season, though, this all takes a sharp turn: Joyce, with her ouija wall and wall axing, seems to be occupying the Jack Torrance / Roy Neary “kinda crazy but actually not” territory. Nancy, with her gun toting and lock breaking, turns out to be more Marion Ravenwood than Andie Walsh. And El freakin’ steals the show – there’s an early shout-out to X-Men 134 that, for geeks like me, anyway, foreshadows her evolution, which plays out much more along Dark Phoenix / Carrie / Firestarter lines than the damsel-in-distress 80s template might have predicted.

But, then, in the eighth and final episode, they fuck everything up.

Depending on how you want to count Barb & Will’s time in the Upside-Down, there are three (maybe four) separate stories happening in Stranger Things:

1) the D&D group find El and elude the lab goons
2) Nancy & Jonathan discover, lure & fight the monster
3) Joyce & Det. Hopper journey into the Upside Down to rescue Will

There are three stories and each one has almost exactly one woman character. For the first 7/8ths of the season, it appears that each of these stories might actually be about the woman – El’s super powers, Nancy’s badassery, and Joyce’s determination appear to be in the driver’s seats of each of their stories for seven episodes.

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Let me back up a second: I want to talk, for just a bit, about stories and protagonists, because I think our culture routinely screws this stuff up, and I just want to establish some ground rules.

Protagonists are not “just” the central character in a story. Protagonists experience conflict and make choices to resolve that conflict. The arc of the story is shaped by their choices: the story happens because of them, not to them.

So, my beef with episode 8 of Stranger Things is that it de-protagonizes every woman in the show, in 53 minutes or less.

Look, let’s warm up with one we can all agree on: Mike’s Mom (Karen: I had to look it up) is not, and never was, a protagonist in this show. She’s on “it’s time for dinner” mom-auto-pilot – sadly, standard fare for this “80s genre” stuff. She does not make choices that effect the story, the story happens to her.

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Technically, Barb gets fridged early on, and so maybe this is just me, but I held on to some hope until the bitter end that maybe, just maybe, Barb was going to be a subject of this story, and not just an object. By the finale, though, it’s clear: this is a story where Will gets saved and Barb gets eaten.

Nancy is more complicated, maybe, but: up to episode seven, Nancy (the character) is driving her story. She may be Steve’s conquest, but the show makes it clear that it’s as much (if not more) her choice than his; later, she pushes Jonathan to gear up and fight the monster, bashes her way into the shed, etc.

In the finale, though, the focus shifts to Steve – in the end, it’s his decision to stick around and join in the monster fight that’s the focal point of their arc. I mean, it’s a good story for Steve, it’s just, we were literally in the middle of Nancy’s story when Steve broke into it. In the coda, it’s even implied that it’s actually Steve who got the camera for Jonathan (“did you give it to him?”).

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It’s Joyce’s story that I’m most pissed at, to be honest. Joyce has been, since episode one, determined to find out what happened to her son Will. The lights, the ouja wall, the axe attack – all of Joyce’s action in the course of the season is focused on this one thing.

In episode 8, though, the story suddenly shifts to Det. Hopper – he makes the deal with Brenner, he tells her to breathe, he pulls the breathing tube out of Will, he talks her through CPR. Joyce has literally gone from driver’s seat to “along for the ride” in the space of one episode. Worse still, the (heartbreakingly, beautifully rendered) flashbacks to Det. Hopper’s daughter’s cancer shift the emotional weight of their story solidly to him. It’s no longer about Joyce’s determination or focus; it’s about Hopper’s.

By the time we get to the coda, Joyce has been reset back to being just another overburdened, frazzled Mom, while Hopper’s scenes play out as an unwinding of his introduction – making for neat bookends with his introductory scene, all the way down to the “your mom” banter.

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Okay: El. In the end, El sacrifices herself to save her friends. As much as I’m gutted to see her disappear in this way, sacrificing oneself is a real protagonist choice, and even I have to admit that I’m stretching things a bit to say that she’s “deprotagonized” in episode eight.

However, the way this plays out on camera is just wrong. The moment when El makes the decision to fight the monster, she’s not even on screen. There’s a wonderful scene in episode seven where she’s facing her fears, plunging into the bathtub to locate Will, so it’s not as if the actress isn’t up to selling this. Episode 8 just isn’t having any of it.

Sure, at the end, she gets a lovely “goodbye”, and, I suppose, you could argue, maybe, that that’s the moment she decides to sacrifice herself, but… I just don’t think that’s supported by what’s on screen. For one thing, we have no reason to think her powers work like this, or are capable of … whatever it is that happens – let alone that she’d know she was capable of this outcome. More important, every time she’s on screen before that, we’re being reminded how weak she, how much she needs a re-charge, etc.

Just contrast this scene with, say, a similar moment in Creed: as Adonis lies, barely conscious on the mat, we get brief micro-flashes of his childhood, his girlfriend, his mentor, his Mom… and, finally, his late Dad, smiling, before Donny jolts upright and springs back into action.

Again: he’s barely even conscious here, yet, there’s no doubt that Adonis has chosen to remain in the fight, despite his injuries, despite all the physical reasons he has to bow out. Adonis is not on “autopilot” here, and the film-makers focus all the energy and attention on his story, his grit and determination.

When El gets up off the table to fight the monster should be her moment, but it’s not a moment we get to see.

Worse, it’s not even a moment we’re “supposed” to be emotionally invested in: it’s not her story, it’s Mike’s. The climactic showdown with the monster is focused on Mike, Dustin & Lucas. The moment the last stone leaves the wrist-rocket and pins the monster to the wall, slows down just enough to make you think “it worked?” The scene is filmed and presented in a way that makes the boys the focal point, so, El isn’t on screen at all when she decides “fuck it, let’s save these guys”.

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Think about it this way: if you imagine this third of the story a bed-time story being told to a small child, who do you picture is telling the story?

Mike, right? It’s the “that time Will went missing and we fought a real-world monster”, right? The thing is, at almost any point up before episode 8, it could have been – it had a chance of being – El’s “how I escaped from Hawkins Lab and became a badass Jedi knight” story. And then, suddenly, nope, it’s Mike.

I’m not talking about “she can’t be telling the story ‘cause she’s gone”, here. I’m talking about who the story is centered on. And it’s totally okay to tell ensemble stories – and, actually, Dustin kinda gets the short end of the deal here: he’s not really in conflict, basically on auto-pilot the whole season, but because he’s always right and kinda awesome, and there are plenty of other dudes on screen, it’s not a big deal.

On it’s own, El’s story wouldn’t be a problem. “Super-powered girl sacrifices herself to save her friends” is not a bad story. But, as part of the pattern happening in the show overall, it is a problem. As a part of the much broader pattern of the 80s gender politics, which 2016 seems oddly fixated on in hindsight, it’s yet another small piece of a much bigger problem.

Will gets saved, gets to go on and have other stories and seasons and adventures; Barb gets eaten. Nancy is thiiiis close to being in command of her own story, but Steve swoops in at the end. Joyce is just-along-for-the-ride while Hopper saves her kid, no axe in sight. And El isn’t even on screen when she decides to save the world.

Here’s the thing: there’s the glimmer of a thing here that could have been awesome. This show is more about “80s movies” than “the 80s”, per se. This is a show about D&D and adventures – it’s more about the stories we tell about our lives than our lives, per se. Like much of the 80s material its soaking in, this show is all about banding together, working together and becoming greater than the sum of our parts. “Don’t split the party or the orcs will get us.”

This could have been a show about how we live our lives as if we’re the protagonists in a story – in our own story, of course – but in reality there is no story and we’re as much guest stars in each others’ shows as we ever are protagonists of our own.

But, in the end, it’s just another product of a 1980s culture that, apparently, only sees men as having interesting stories to tell, that doesn’t quite understand woman as people.

I am disappoint.

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