WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things & Stranger Things 2.
Stranger Things is a fantastic series with a great cast. I spent 8 straight hours binging season 1 with my roommate and rationing episodes of season 2 was painful with how hooked I was from the start! This being a story taking place in the 1980s, however, the character is mostly seen in the male members while the women don’t often get quite as much development as people outside of their trauma. It’s hard for a nerdy woman like me not to be bothered by this. Naturally the quartet of phenomenal boys headlining the series have the most personality and humor, but we get to see what they like and who they were before their traumatic experiences following November 6th, 1983. Jonathan Byers and Sheriff Hopper have a lot more insight on who they are before that fateful day as well compared to the likes of Nancy, Joyce, and Eleven. And you could certainly argue that ALL of the characters in this show are developed through trauma! But the fact is that the male characters tend to balance that out with more soft and endearing scenarios from Mike going through his belongings to Dustin caring for his new four-legged friend to Jonathan managing to socialize at a party he doesn’t truly want to be at or reminiscing on cherished memories with his brother Will.
Joyce is the ruthless 80s mom a lot of my friends want. She’s an awesome character and while she’s arguably not often emotionally stable, she just wants to be a good mom and get by in life. That may be what bothers me about her though, what defines her character is her manic behavior while searching for her lost son; her frayed sanity and intense maternal concern. All I can say I know otherwise is that she has bad luck when it comes to men- they either have commitment issues or they’re too good to live. And I have an uncomfortable feeling that the loss of the only man who seemed to truly focus his concern on her health was simply to further her traumatic life experiences and make her more “badass” in a way. Suffering is not the only key to a character gaining wisdom and strength, but it’s what the Duffer Brothers use for every single one of the Stranger women.
I don’t think I even need to dissect Eleven to prove her character’s dimension came from a great deal of trauma.
And while El has the chance to come out of her shell a bit and gain more character through the kindness she receives from Mike, this leads to her facing more suffering to grow from. It’s an off-putting pattern.
Mad Max, debuting in season 2, seems to be a bit more fleshed out, from her interest in gaming to her utter lack of tolerance for bullshit. That being said, her character develops from the abuse she faces from her stepbrother more so than her own agency. She, however, is still given a bit more to work with than Nancy. Nancy Wheeler is a bright, compassionate, resourceful, and courageous young woman who knows her way around a gun; if you go through the original trilogy of Star Wars, you could almost see her as Leia’s legacy. Carrie Fisher’s kind, sharp princess of the galaxy, however, did not leave me thinking, “But who are you outside of this conflict?” Nancy did. A friend of mine once answered this pondering of mine with “Nancy’s character is more often shown for what she is not.” He was referring to her not becoming a jaded popular kid, like Steve Harrington’s friends. (Does anyone even try to remember their names? I mean they were 100% terrible by design.)
Jonathan Byers, in the midst of their monster hunting, accused Nancy of being someone she wasn’t by being with that crowd. And the thing is, while my youth as a social outcast has me inclined to agree with him and gag every time the couple none of us bother to remember the names of are on screen, I don’t think Jonathan knows who she is either. (And let’s not entirely forget his creepy photoshoot in season 1, which echos George McFly from Back to the Future and a classic example of “adorkable misogyny”.) Certainly she’s too smart and kind for them, but what else? The way Steve and Jonathan covet her companionship (even though she’s the badass here and it’s more “partnership”) is a bit like Han and Luke in New Hope- minus the accidental incest bit. I suppose what Stranger Things has over Star Wars in this department is that both Jonathan and Steve build a great deal of respect for Nancy and her choices, wherein Steve doesn’t hold resentment over the prospect of her personal life moving on without him and Jonathan doesn’t harass her about her feelings for either of them (see Han Solo constantly ripping on Leia’s closeness with Luke.) You could also argue Nancy is too smart and badass for either guy, but it just feels like we’re missing something from who she is as a person.
What would benefit Nancy’s character, in my personal opinion, would be even the smallest flashback of her and Barb together. This could potentially kill two birds with one stone-
Barbra didn’t get much in the way of character development. Of course she didn’t, she was the one “good alignment” character death we got. Will couldn’t die because his survival would lead to the bulk of the second season’s events. (I’m not saying he should’ve died either, I wanted to get to know him more since we only really met him just before he vanished.) But Will’s survival and subsequent events in Stranger Things 2 gave us a lot more insight into who he was and why he was important; why the possibility of losing him is so painful for his friends and family. This doesn’t happen with Barb, however. The most we get is Nancy’s overwhelming guilt over her part in her friend’s death, not so much the loss of said friend. And what’s more, Bob Newby’s death truly makes an impact because he had a character. We got to know him. He had plenty of time to show his genuine fondness for Joyce and her family. Barb was just a throwaway. Even with her parents being brought up so many times being desperate to find their only child doesn’t really build much investment, just two parents wanting their daughter back.
There’s no real investment for a viewer to take that loss as anything more than a motivator for Nancy’s tenacity against Hawkins Lab and the monsters they unleashed. With a flashback, of say, Nancy and Barbara sharing a heartfelt moment together as friends, I feel that both of them would be given a bit more dimension, adding that missing layer of personality to Nancy and weight to Barb’s death.
I’d like this series to do better on the Bechtel test. Joyce’s support for Eleven amidst the climax of season 1, where she extended her motherly compassion to a fearful young girl, was one that truly stuck with me; though the suggestions thereafter that Joyce and Eleven bonded are still few and far between. Hell considering Mike’s attachment to Eleven, part of me was hoping she and Nancy would have something, maybe even learn something from one another (apart from what dressing pretty looks like.)
My issues with how the Stranger women are portrayed pale in comparison to my love for this series and its ingenious storytelling, casting, and design. I just hope the Duffer brothers don’t keep relying solely on grief and abuse as they develop the ladies in their story.
Freelance cartoonist, illustrator, & writer
School of Visual Arts Alumna