Dissecting Pop Culture

The Feminism of Stranger Things 3 Is Unwatchable

Male writers once again being clueless about feminist characters

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things 3.

Here are two truths: I’m a Stranger Things fan, and I’m also a feminist. Because of these facts, a large part of me hollered with joy when the third season of the show began to invest in the friendship between El and Max.

Girls hanging out alone, without boys? And talking to each other? Woah.

But soon enough, I groaned at how arid it all became. And how parched it left me as a viewer.

It was as if one of the writers (in the team led by the Duffer brothers — who are two men, by the by) stumbled upon a feminist bumper sticker in a gift shop and decided to slap it on the show. As if the writers had read a handful of think pieces and decided that, because of feminism’s current popularity, viewership might ramp up if they added bits here and there.

It didn’t work. Not for me, anyway. Watching the show felt like sucking on a dried-out orange, hoping for some juice but only finding an unsatisfying pulp.

Not sure what I’m talking about? Keep reading.

The Girls Decide the Solution to Boy Trouble Is…Shopping

When El comes over to vent to Max about her troubles with Mike, Max takes her by the hand and says they are going to have some fun.

“There’s more to life than stupid boys, you know,” she says.

Amazing, I thought. They’re going skateboarding, like Max was doing in the previous scene. Or exploring. Or just getting ice cream and wandering around.

Watching the show felt like sucking on a dried-out orange, hoping for some juice but only finding an unsatisfying pulp.

But alas, they did none of these things. Instead, they went to the mall. Sure, this was and is a normal thing for a teenager to do, and the two do have fun using El’s powers to mess with a group of snooty older teens. But the Duffer Brothers have to ruin it by making them go shopping.

Shopping.

A piece of my soul broke off and died. Why shopping?

For those who are unaware, a lot of women despise shopping. In fact, I have very few female friends who enjoy it. A need to try on clothing isn’t ingrained in our DNA like many people seem to believe.

I personally have been saying out loud for weeks that I need to go to Macy’s because I have a gift card I got at Christmas-time that I still haven’t used. It’s now the end of July. I have held onto this gift card for 7 months because that’s how much I hate shopping.

But even if these two characters have a passion for buying clothes, the lines written for them were beyond bad.

“How do I know what I like?” El asks in The Gap. She’s never been shopping before.

“You just try things on until you find something that feels like you,” Max says. “Not Hopper, not Mike. You.”

In other words, this girl is about to claim her individual identity through clothing. This isn’t even an original idea.

I might give the writers more credit if I hadn’t seen this trope played out a million times in other movies and TV shows: Girl gets makeover. Girl embraces her power. In that order.

Only after El gets a new outfit does she have the strength to say, “I dump your ass” when she runs into Mike at the mall. And in every scene from then on, she’s donning a new fashionable getup. (P.S. How did a family living in a run-down cabin in the woods afford such nice clothing? That’s enough for another article.)

Nope, not buying it. Literally.

The Girls “Make Their Own Rules”

El finally has a friend to introduce her to Ralph Macchio. She and Max have a sleepover and decide to spy on different boys using El’s abilities. Because of course they do. They couldn’t just hang out and think about anything other than boys.

The two are playing spin the bottle using slips of paper with the names of guys they want to spy on. Here the writers sprinkle in a bit of feminist dust. El’s spin lands on Mr. Wheeler, and the two agree that he’s too boring to spy on.

So she starts to spin again, but stops to ask, “Against the rules?”

And the worst catchphrase so far is assigned to Max: “We make our own rules.” And they smile at each other knowingly.

Gag me with a spoon.

At the next sleepover, Max pulls out a Wonder Woman comic book. Then El brings up her concerns about the goings-on in Hawkins, and Max shuts her down. Probably because El is worried about Max’s brother.

“There’s nothing to worry about anymore,” Max says. She refuses to admit that El might be on to something, a.k.a. isn’t taking her friend seriously.

Not exactly feminist of her.

“Who is that?” El then asks, pointing at Wonder Woman.

“This is why you can’t just hang out with Mike all the time,” Max says. She proceeds to tell El about the all-woman island full of Amazon warriors. The irony is palpable.

Nancy and Her Mom Have an Absurd Conversation

This scene comes out of left field. And it might be the most desiccated feminism of the whole season. It’s so bone-dry that very little meat could be extracted if you tried. Think turkey legs lying in the sun for weeks — pure jerky.

Nancy has been working at the Hawkins newspaper and has gone through the most realistic female experience of the show: Sexism in the workplace. She gets coffee. The staff calls her sweetheart. They laugh at her ideas. All of that feels real.

But then the writers have to go and include a forced heart-to-heart between Nancy and her mom, Karen.

It’s so bad, I can’t force myself to write out the details. Instead, I’ll extract the most overbaked quotes:

Karen: “It’s not easy out there, Nance. People are always saying you can’t, that you shouldn’t, you’re not smart enough or not good enough. This world, it beats you up again and again until eventually most people just stop trying.”

Karen again: “You’re a fighter. You always have been. I honestly don’t know where you get it from.”

Nancy: “I get it from you, mom. I get it from you.”

Karen: “I’m proud of you that you stood up to those shitheads. (Nancy shows surprise at the cursing). Yes, those shitheads.

Karen: “Finish it. Look at me, Nancy. Finish the story.”

The whole conversation came off like a made-for-TV movie planted inside an action show. Even the music is meant to be inspirational but ends up making the scene feel laborious.

This conversation announces to the world: “We have two strong women on aisle 8. Two strong women, aisle 8.” If only the writers had put aside their feminist megaphones and let the characters be more human. Real women don’t always make the strong choice. Sometimes women give up, or decide a specific goal isn’t worth their time or effort, and that’s OK.

Nobody can be a powerhouse 100% of the time.

Back off, TV Mom Karen. Maybe Nancy doesn’t want to finish the story. Ever think of that?

Everyone Decides Mike Is Controlling

El and Mike get back together, not after Mike apologizes, but after he offers El some M&Ms and compliments her wardrobe. Makes sense.

Then the troop decides that El should use her powers to spy on the people they suspect are “Flayed” (infected by the MindFlayer), and Mike expresses concern. And how dare he. How. Dare. He.

“It can’t be good for her to be in there for this long,” Mike says after the screen pans away from El in the next room sitting beside a gigantic pile of bloody tissues. (Her nose bleeds when she’s doing her vision thing. Seems like something to worry about, but what the hell do I know).

Max derides Mike for saying anything, claiming he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I found myself wondering how Max would know better.

Then they both approach Nancy, and Max asks, “Can you guys settle an argument? Who do you think should decide El’s limits? Mike or Eleven.”

Mike says, “The way you framed that is such bullshit.” Funny enough, I agree with him. All he said was that he was worried about her — he never told her she couldn’t do anything.

Then Nancy chimes in: “El’s not stupid. She knows her own abilities better than any of us do. And she’s her own person. With her own free will.”

Ah, those catchphrases again.

The whole scene comes off like a parody. Like the writers thought, “We need to insert some feminism here,” and looked up a few lines in the Dictionary of Strong Independent Women.

A male figure should be able to express worry for someone he cares about without instantly becoming an overbearing asshole. Or a woman-hater. But the stock-image feminism of the show makes it seem like feeling concerned for a person is the same as refusing their right to live as an individual.

Not to mention, it turns out that Mike is RIGHT that it’s a bad idea for El to expose herself to the Flayed. But whatever. We’ll soar on past that one.

Mike Becomes a Feminist

Some Flayer stuff happens and El ends up injured in the aisle of a grocery store. Mike sits with her and has this whole speech that might as well be taken from a 2019 feminist pop song.

“I like that you and Max are friends now, it’s just that I was jealous at first. And angry. And that’s why I said all that stupid stuff. I wanted you all to myself. And now I realize how unfair that is, and selfish, and I’m sorry.”

Mike has now completed his feminist transformation.

Some intense stuff happens with the MindFlayer, and El ends up injured in the aisle of a grocery store. Mike sits with her and has this whole speech that might as well be taken from a modern-day feminist pop song.

“I like that you and Max are friends now, it’s just that I was jealous at first. And angry. And that’s why I said all that stupid stuff. I wanted you all to myself. And now I realize how unfair that is, and selfish, and I’m sorry.”

Mike has now completed his feminist transformation. Like a teenage boy in 1985 would totally do. Of his own free will. None of this writing is informed by the present social and political situation. Not at all.

OK, I’ll cut the sarcasm. The writing in Stranger Things 3 is idealistic to the point of being ridiculous. Their feminist utopia is so hard to believe that it becomes difficult to stomach. It lends nothing to the feminist movement because it’s not based in reality.

It’s like the writers thought, “We need to insert some feminism here,” and looked up a few lines in the Dictionary of Strong Independent Women.

The third season tastes like a dry bottle of satire of real feminism. And it makes me angry. The next time the Duffer Brothers decide to include something they know nothing about, I hope they call in a consultant. Or hire more women for their writing staff. This was too painful to go through again.

To end on a positive note: Robin and Erica (Lucas’s sister) save the day because they are actually well written and interesting.

Tiffany Verbeck uses her awesome storytelling skills gained from a master’s degree to write on personal finance, lifestyle, and creativity: tiffanyverbeck.com.

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