In the first three days following its release on Oct. 27, 15.8 million people sat glued to their screens to watch the first episode of the second season of the sci-fi drama “Stranger Things.” Since its original release in July of 2016, the show has been a pop culture phenomenon, earning Netflix vast viewership and soliciting innumerable reactions on social media.
Despite the success of “Stranger Things 2,” it disappointingly followed an age-old trend of romanticizing every female character, regardless of her individual strength.
Maxine “MadMax” Mayfield was a new character this past season, and while many found her to be an unnecessary addition to the “party,” any true “Stranger Things” fan would agree that she exhibited bravery consistently throughout the show. She was authentic to her character, stood up for herself against her stepbrother and defended her friends against monsters (human and non-human). However, Max quickly became the center of a love triangle between herself, Dustin and Lucas, sweeping her courage and conviction to the side. “Stranger Things” simplified a strong female character into a romantic object of not one, but two boys. The worst part is that Max is only 13 years old, suggesting that her youth does not exempt her from playing a traditional woman’s role in media.
Unfortunately, the newest character was not the only victim of this trend. Veteran characters such as Eleven and Joyce Byers suffer from the same exploitation.
El became the object of Mike’s desire a season earlier (when she was only 12), even though her character notoriously saves the group of boys from any danger they meet. She is arguably mentally and physically stronger than any boy her age in the show, but her character is still romanticized.
Joyce Byers plays the role of a strong single mom who would do anything to protect her children. However, it would be impossible for a show to just let a single mom as attractive as Winona Ryder to go by without any romantic interests. Of course, a boyfriend comes into play for the second season: Bob. But after his death, fans hope for Chief Hopper to finally make his move, because the sexual tension between him and Joyce had been building up for two seasons.
These strong female characters are all isolated in their empowerment. When El meets Max for the first time, she immediately hates her because she’s jealous that Mike might like Max. Obviously, he doesn’t, and even if he did, Max already has her fair share of male suitors between Dustin and Lucas. The show pits these two girls against each other because of a boy, failing the infamous Bechdel Test, which analyzes if women are fairly represented in a film or TV show. The three simple criteria of the test are that 1. There must be at least two women, 2. The two women must talk to each other and 3. They must talk to each other about something other than a man. El and Max barely even get around to a real conversation because of boy-induced envy.
The most problematic aspect of romanticization is that it distracts from the central storyline of these female heroines, suggesting that their individual storylines are less important than their potential romantic — and might I mention, heterosexual — relationships. Max initially entered the show trying to form a genuine friendship with the boys and escape her troubled home life. El spends the season trying to find a place she can call home and reconcile her powers, past trauma, and identity. Joyce struggles to balance her responsibilities as a single mom to a child suffering from PTSD and intermittent involvement with a different dimension. Nancy Wheeler, too, goes on a quest to avenge her best friend but along the way, gets together with Jonathan, a guy who’s been pining after her since Season 1.
However, all of these storylines would clearly be incomplete without a love interest. (And in Max’s and Joyce’s cases, several love interests.) Romance is extraneously inserted into female storylines to the point that it becomes an essential aspect of any female character’s storyline. Media culture should re-write the heteronormative narrative that audiences have grown to expect and love from female heroines. Hopefully, “Stranger Things 3” will not overlook the strength of its women and will focus less on their love stories and more on their personal stories.