Stranger Things Fails the Bechdel Test, But Does It Fail Feminists?
Just when we needed another excuse to camp out in front of the AC, Netflix gifted us the John Hughes–meets–Drive horror thriller Stranger Things. Parallel universes, throwback parkas, synthesizers — what else do you need for a weekend TV bender?
If you're a feminist, you need a little more. And at first blush, the Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things seems to deliver. In the pilot alone, we meet the brave and determined single mom, Joyce Byers, who is supporting two sons on grocery clerk wages. We watch an androgynous telekinetic girl escape the man using her body for experiments (played by a skeezy Matthew Modine, who makes her call him "Papa"). And we're introduced to script-flipper (and excellent shot) Nancy Wheeler, who breaks padlocks with rocks and takes zero shit.
The show also throws quite a few middle fingers up at the culture of violent masculinity. The men who prevail in Stranger Things are not Hollywood's idea of "manly." Jonathan Byers cried for a week when his deadbeat dad made him shoot a rabbit. Mike & Co. play Dungeons & Dragons. The dweeby science teacher, Mr. Clark, has a hot date to watch sci-fi with on a Saturday night. We see way more brain than brawn here — even Modine's character is more evil genius than brute. We spend most of our time with the misfits of Hawkins, rendering the jocks and bullies basic, pathetic, and ultimately forgettable.
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Sounds like it has all the makings of a self-aware, gender-conscious riff, but when it comes to the Bechdel Test, Stranger Things barely scrapes by. If you're unfamiliar, this test was created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Fun Home fame) and requires that a film 1) feature at least two named female characters who 2) engage in conversation about 3) something other than a man. Held up against the test's rubric, Stranger Things's grades are probably more akin to Tommy H. and Carol's than, say, Nancy Wheeler's.
The show is peppered with almost-passes — Nancy and her mom talk briefly (about the assembly for Will, or her antics with Steve). Joyce and Karen Wheeler meet for missing-kid casserole, but talk only about their sons. Nancy calls Barb's mom to inquire about her daughter's whereabouts, but we never learn this woman's name. Before Eleven gets in the makeshift sensory deprivation tank, Joyce and Nancy both thank her, but El's muteness keeps it from conversation status. The closest the show comes to passing is when Nancy asks her classmate Ally about Barb. We only know this person's name because Nancy uses it to get her attention, and this is Ally's only three seconds of screen time in the series.
Adding insult to injury, the show also features zero non-straight people; the bullies gay-shame Will and slut-shame Nancy; and the ineffectual cops engage in some hokey commodification of each other's wives. Which isn't even to mention the way our beloved Barb's disappearance is treated more like a lost iPhone than a missing person. Taken together, these things stand to leave a pernicious influence on the viewing audience. But do they obscure what the show does right? When it comes to measuring patriarchal culpability, is it possible the test alone is not enough?
Plenty of films pass it, but still manage to fail marginalized people (Sex and the City 2's lurid cultural ignorance comes to mind). The Die Hard and Sin City franchises pass, despite treating both male and female bodies as ornaments. And although they seem to provide positive role models, all but one of the Harry Potter movies and the three OG Star Wars fail, ultimately reducing women to tokens whose sole purpose is to prop up male story arcs.
The women of Stranger Things, on the other hand, provide the show's central story arcs (save for Will Byers, who is barely on the screen). Eleven is, arguably, the most compelling and memorable character on the show. Joyce is sincere, implacable, and complex. Her emotional unraveling is real, relatable, and unapologetic — she refuses to let anyone get away with calling her crazy or a bad mother, and even in her absence, the writers ensure that Hopper and Jonathan defend her against misogynistic detractors.
And Nancy. Nancy who seems the least likely to buck gender stereotypes when we first glimpse the Easter egg palette that is her bedroom. It takes a few episodes to notice Nancy's willful and decisive nature — when Steve is pushy in the bathroom at school or during their study sesh, she sticks to her convictions and he backs down. When they do sleep together, she makes the first move. She decides when it's time for her and Jonathan to go after the monster.
Choosing Steve is not a knock on her character, either. This girl likes Toto and Top Gun, not Evil Dead and New Order! For whatever reason, Steve does it for Nancy. And when you tease it out, the Steve choice is powerful. Throughout the show, we see Nancy doing things because she wants to, amid a chorus of people telling her what she ought to do. Both Barb and Jonathan apply this pressure ("This isn't you," says Barb. "I saw a girl pretending to be someone she's not," says Jonathan). Steve, though flawed, seems fine with whatever person Nancy wants to be — whether that's cramming for a test or shotgunning beers.
The Duffer Brothers have also pointed out that it was probably hard for Nancy to be around Jonathan after they found Will — the two were united by their mutual stake in the Upside Down, but Jonathan got what he was searching for; Nancy did not. The girl's best friend just died! She is no doubt wrestling with a whole meatloaf of anger, guilt, and bitterness. Steve's obsequiousness is no doubt soothing. Ultimately the most feminist treatment we can give this relationship choice is to respect and honor it, not assume we know what's best for her. At the end of the monster hunt, it's Nancy's choice to make.
The existence of these three women in one season of television seems like a conscious effort at unseating gendered power, especially in 2016, when less than half of released films are passing the test. But can all of the show's victories be meaningful, presented as they are in the wishful-thinking atmosphere of fantasy? In a reality where only 43 percent of the top 100 sci-fi films pass Bechdel's criteria, I think the answer is yes. Two men making a fantasy film has not, in the past, meant that young boys with speech impediments, people of color, and fully-clothed women get to be the heroes — in fact, it usually means the opposite. It seems like directors who grew up LARP-ing are more likely to use their films to live vicariously through tough guys who slay the villain and get the girl than to take down normalized gendered violence. With Stranger Things, the D&D-obsessed Duffer Brothers aren't using the show to live like the other side, but to say you don't even have to be on that side to save the day. Which is a victory in itself for anyone societally Other.
Unfortunately, these newcomer directors seem too distracted paying their Spielbergian due diligence to give things like latent sexism much thought here. If the show gets picked up for season two (which seems like a preposterous unknown at this point — there are entire think pieces devoted to Barb, whose screen time is equivalent to the Eggo brand), it would be easy for them to right some of these wrongs and ace the Bechdel on the next go around. Maybe Nancy can make them some flash cards.
Season one's problems are not minor: It's a real shame that it fails to shine a light on the multigenerational menagerie of strong women at its core by giving them the radical permission to interact. It's also tough to stomach the misogynistic behavior flying around. But a lot of that behavior serves to situate the show in its time period — and not in the way that apologists defend in "historically accurate" (read: sexist) projects. Here, there is sexism that the women (and men) push back against. The characters call it out. In that way, Stranger Things is in stride with The Force Awakens, with Rey admonishing Fin for repeatedly taking her hand. The patriarchy persists in Hawkins, as it does in our modern world, but these examples of women laughing in the face of it do make an impact — now if only they could laugh about it in the same room.