Given that Stranger Things is centered on Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a young girl with superpowers who can defeat monsters with her power of her mind, the series seems like it would earn the feminism stamp of approval by design. In Netflix's immensely popular retro sci-fi series, we also watch Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) grow from a sweet, overachieving popular girl to a fierce fighter against the Demogorgon; Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) powers through her grief and found her missing son in a hellish netherworld; and in season two, we meet Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), an independent, tomboyish California skater girl who befriends the boys and confidently navigates the treacherous, evil-infiltrated world of Hawkins, Indiana. Still, in many respects, Stranger Things sometimes struggles with navigating the roles of its female characters, and with their treatment in its third season, released last week, it’s felt like we’re only going backwards.
In Stranger Things 3, we see Eleven learning about autonomy now that she and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) have DFT'd (defined the relationship, as the kids say). The hormonal teens spend every moment possible playing power-ballad-soundtracked tonsil hockey (to borrow a saying from the 80s), and ditching their pals to, well, make out some more. This unleashes eyerolls amongst their friends and sends El’s caretaker and father figure, Jim Hopper (David Harbour), into a rage, worrying in true old-school dad fashion that his little girl is spending too much time with her boyfriend doing god knows what. But even keeping her bedroom door open three inches whenever Mike is over can't keep the inseparable teens from swapping spit as often as possible. Naturally, instead of following Joyce's advice to talk to them openly and set healthy boundaries, Hopper opts to physically threaten Mike, leading to a very teenage breakup—which leads us to a cheesy, hamfisted lesson on girl power.
Eleven goes to Max for advice, which is a shift from their rivalry for the boys’ attention in season two. The duo now comes together to form an anti-boy alliance after Mike blows El off using a pitifully weak lie fed to him by Hopper about his grandma falling ill, which more-experienced Max easily identifies as complete BS. "There's more to life than stupid boys, you know," she tells El as she drags her out of her bedroom to the sacred grounds where all young women find their strength, sense of self, and the realization that girls rule and boys drool: the mall! Cue Madonna's "Material Girl," because it's time for a SHOPPING MONTAGE! The girls giggle, take soft-focus glamour shots decked out in acid-wash denim jackets, and—because after all, it's still a sci-fi series—El explodes a soda on a group of mean girls using her mind powers. When it's time to give Eleven her prerequisite makeover (canon in any teen movie), Max tells her to "try things on until you find something that feels like you... Not Hopper, not Mike. You." (How these jobless children pay for any of these new clothes is unknown and unresolved, but it doesn't matter. This is the stuff of Debbie Gibson's dreams.)
The fresh outfits and newfound understanding of girl power spell out an inevitable truth learned from decades of teen girl movie tropes: Mike is about to get his ass handed to him. And he does with a single "I dump your ass," delivered with as much sass as a laboratory-raised telekinetic teen girl can muster.
Perhaps this scene was the Duffer Brothers' (who created the series and wrote the episode) way of nodding to those teen girl flicks of the 80s, or perhaps it was an attempt at cleaning up after creating a series that, while entertaining, gives us as much thoughtful, progressive, and incisive depiction of female empowerment as the Fearless Girl statue; scratch the surface a bit and you'll find it's actually corporate faux-feminist bullshit.
While the series prides itself for its referential moments—and the mall scene is undoubtedly that, and definitely cute—it's telling of the Duffer Brothers' idea of feminism that the only way they chose to give their main character, a literal superpowered girl, her autonomy and empowerment was by having her go shopping and then dump her boyfriend. Even for a show set in the 80s, they should try a bit harder.
This moment feels especially superficial considering Eleven's relationship with Hopper, who, under the guise of protecting her from evil government agents (sure, fair), brutishly enforces his control over her life and body (not fair, at all). Not only is El made to wear his ugly, oversized plaid shirts while being trapped in his gross man-cabin (where he smokes cigarettes while drunk in bed—that is a fire hazard, sir!) eating TV dinners, he literally conspires to keep her and her boyfriend apart simply because it makes him uncomfortable. These are the sort of toxic men women are told are just looking out for you while in actuality, they’re routinely abusing your rights. These are the type of dads that lead women to spend thousands on therapy to overcome the trauma they've inflicted on their daughters under the guise of love. The mean dad who screams because he loves you is not something to entertain as a beacon of goodness.
It's not just El that gets a raw deal in how she's portrayed, with just enough ra-ra girl power to hide a collection of clichés below the surface. Erica (played by the scene-stealing 12-year-old Priah Ferguson) saves the boys—and in doing so, the world— time and time again with her smarts, fearlessness, quick thinking, and ability to fit in small, confined spaces. But her character, who is the only Black girl on the show, is positioned as a fast-talking, sass-mouth—a long-running trope that silos her within racial stereotypes. Her personality is hilarious—and stands out in contrast to the more soft-spoken Eleven and Nancy—but her inclusion feels calculated given that the one other Black woman this season (the hospital receptionist) is also reduced to a sassy trope. While Ferguson truly is magnificent this season, and was given plenty of material to work with, it's disappointing to see more of the same stereotypical, formulaic roles doled out to talented Black actresses.
Meanwhile over at the Hawkins Post, Nancy faces an office full of disgusting, sexist men as she takes on an internship and tries to start her career in journalism. While any woman who has worked in newsrooms can tell you that sexism in the industry is rampant, we only see Nancy get defeated time and time again by these dirtbags—and frankly, it’s depressing to watch. None of her female co-workers come to her aid; nor does Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), her boyfriend and colleague at the newspaper. She never gets credit or acclaim for the story she uncovered, and despite a promising pep talk from her mother, there's no professional resolution for her at all at the end of the season. Granted, she gets to kill her nasty jerk of a coworker and boss after they've been mind-flayed by a disgusting, oozing monster. Still, the promise of Nancy showing up all the men that screwed her over is never fulfilled.
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Alex Zaragoza is the senior culture writer at VICE and thoroughly enjoys fashion montage scenes. Follow her on Twitter.