“What’s Wrong With You?” Girlhood, Genre, and ‘Stranger Things’

Stranger Things is part of a long cinematic tradition of boyhood, including steamrolling more nuanced portrayals of girlhood.

Mark and Ross Duffer, twin creators of Netflix’s cross-genre summer streaming hit Stranger Things, were told by multiple executives that adults wouldn’t be interested in watching a show headlined by kids. They were encouraged to either remold it for children, or give the lead to the adult detective.

The show not only received high marks for its pacing, acting, and vintage, but the Duffers proved their point: a series geared toward mature audiences could rest the lion’s share of its drama on the shoulders of pre-teens.

The eight-episode first season, set in the 1983 fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, tracks the events surrounding the mysterious disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). Like Twin Peaks, Stranger Things has central characters, but its narrative work is an ensemble effort. Winona Ryder and Charlie Heaton star as Will’s mother and older brother, each spiraling in their own way, working apart when they should be working together. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) is haunted by the loss of his own daughter and willing to engage supernatural clues despite the cynicism of his deputies. Meanwhile, Will’s friends Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) leave their D & D campaigns in the basement and go full-on Scooby Gang Jr. The harder characters push against the possibility of Will’s death, the stranger things become.

A secretive military facility, a weaponized telekinetic girl, and a dimension-hopping monster all feature in one big, dark trip into your attic box of VHS tapes. Eighties movies fans will immediately recognize entire scenes, props, characters, and arcs inspired by Alien, The Explorers, Nightmare on Elm Street, and E.T, among others.

Stranger Things also re-conjures another familiar theme: our enduring fixation with American boyhood.

Free-spirited scenes of boyhood conjure a fantasy of the adventure-having, lesson-learning childhoods we had, or wish we had. Child characters allow us to feel wise with experience and nostalgic at the same time. They force corruption and hypocrisy into the open. They shame the jaded and selfish, and make us believe in stuff again. Many “boyhood” classics like The Goonies, The Sandlot, and E.T. leave you with a sheen of tears and a “those were the days” feeling.

Yet, while sentimentalized American boyhood produces compelling films and shows, its spotlight often comes at the expense of American girlhood. It steamrolls it. In boyhood media, girl characters are often second fiddle as the love interest, the sister, or the interloping tomboy.

When was the last time you watched a group of 12-year-old girls (plural) take center stage in major live action TV series or film? I’m not talking about high school roles played by 20-somethings or a stint as the daughter-who-appears-in-two-episodes of a network drama. I mean screen-dominating, monologue-getting depictions of young American girlhood.

Just this month, Rob Reiner’s classic coming-of-age drama Stand By Me turned 30 years old. The film, which follows four small town boys searching for the body of a kid their age, features some of the most classic and masterful child performances ever, and is a perfect example of how powerful a movie about boyhood can be. It’s also on the Stranger Things mood board.

The issues facing Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Vern (Jerry O’Connell), and Teddy (Corey Feldman) are serious: uncaring or abusive home environments, physical and emotional bullying, feeling trapped by circumstances of class, shamed for expressing their feelings. We want young boys to know they’re loved and supported, to feel empowered by their talent and curiosity, to be provided with every opportunity to succeed.

It’s worth pointing out that this is the work of feminism, to recognize, challenge, and dismantle toxic gender roles and barriers. Consequently, the same considerations we give our best onscreen investigations of boyhood, we owe girlhood big time.

Classics like Matilda, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Parent Trap, and Akeelah and the Bee prove that girls can carry films with drama, heart, and mass appeal. No surprise there. Although Stranger Things isn’t a series aimed at kids and families like the above titles, one of the show’s biggest strengths is its ability to engage the shifting ground beneath kids and families. Since three of the four leading kids are boys, however, boyhood consistently dictates our gaze. The girlhood of Stranger Things is impaired by the very ’80s boyhood genre attachments that conjure much of the show’s other charms.

Joining Will’s friends on their mission to find him is Eleven, a lab-raised girl their own age, played with astonishing restraint and pain by Millie Bobby Brown. Eleven’s been sequestered for years in a military compound, and put through a terrifying series of tests to make her the perfect killing machine. Her escape parallels Will’s disappearance, complementary inciting incidents whose shadowy connection looms large.

Found by the boys in the woods sporting a buzzed head and filthy hospital gown, Eleven holes up in Mike’s basement, spooking the kids with her nosebleeds and lack of explanations. She’s been starved of human interaction for years, barely speaks, and is oblivious to household appliances and social cues. As the four become friends, however, she activates a slow-burning ballet regarding gendered differences, appearances, and interactions.

On multiple occasions, the boys are rude or angry towards Eleven, and at one point, Mike and Lucas fight over her inclusion in the group. Lucas doesn’t trust her. Mike does. Eleven’s attempt to help only makes things worse. Mike screams, “Why would you do that? What is wrong with you?”

Given the excellent acting from all the kids, it’s easy for us to share the boys’ annoyance and frustration towards Eleven’s cryptic “help”. Her distress, though, is more complicated and interesting, yet often less accessible to us. She doesn’t know what’s wrong — maybe because everything’s wrong — and she doesn’t know how to heal the damage. Further, the sentiment of something being “wrong” with her, of Eleven being the “weirdo”, is repeated many times. The boys are quick to preach about friendship, but they aren’t really ready to extend it without judgment or suspicion.

They interact with Eleven not only as an outsider, but also as a girl outsider who lacks their gender socialization, and stymies them with her appearance and behavior. One reviewer referred to her as “a queer avenging angel”. Deprived of any outward flourishes of individuality by her captors, Eleven is often read in-show as a young boy, which causes the sheriff to mistake sightings of her for sightings of Will. The show’s ending seems to follow through on this theme; that stripped of any childhood of her own, the best Eleven can do is be a tourist in the childhoods of others.

As a trans guy, I can proudly speak to a fun, rough and tumble childhood, but not to a boyhood. In this way, watching the sepia-toned representations of young American boys makes me feel weird and achy. Like Eleven, I was an unusual girl-kid seeking kinship with a group of boys. But (presumably) unlike her, I also grew up to be one.

For years, I was ashamed to claim my girlhood, that period up until age 12 when I lead an active and happy life in my body. So, watching a young girl perform gender dislocation, or the absence of gender, or the introduction to it, was really cool. It was low-key cathartic, this identification. I’m sure there are more people who will readily identify with this, or with her “freak” status, her trauma, her anger, her fear, and her selflessness. People might say I’m falling for clichés and tropes, but there’s a reason we have both; we recognize something in them.

Eleven isn’t exempt from the responsibilities assigned any girl in a boyhood story because of her ambiguities. She’s the crushee, the interloper, and the “gifted” child with superhuman abilities that others objectify. We’ve seen this girl before, in Firestarter, Fringe, Firefly, and countless others. As the show progresses, however, Eleven assumes more agency over her scenes, bringing us through her memories and nightmares, flashing back more frequently to her time in the lab.

It’s kind of a bell curve that dips hard in the finale. Eleven starts to transcend Stranger Things‘ otherwise predictable (but fun) ’80s movie rehash, but she doesn’t escape it. A scene in which Mike offers her home and family is touching, directly in line with Eleven’s needs. But the subsequent prioritization of his romantic interest felt almost tacky. Sure, affection is a human need, but give her some space, dude. She’s malnourished as hell.

In episode four, “The Body”, the boys worry that Eleven’s buzz cut may draw unwanted attention, and decide to disguise her for a trip out. They crack open the costume chest and make her over, complete with a pink dress, makeup, and a blond wig. The scene is directly lifted from E.T., but as the AV Club’s Emily L. Stephens pointed out, Eleven’s version is played “painfully straight”; ie, not for laughs. At this point, the boys have shortened her name to “El”, more humanizing, but also more feminine and easier for them to digest. When El emerges into the hallway in the wig and dress, they all gape at how “pretty” she is.

The bit is maudlin, but Brown steals back thunder with tiny introspective moments regarding her transformation. The wig comes on and off, and at several points she stares at her reflection, overwhelmed by the chasm between these two completely different appearances and the worlds they represent. It’s fitting that the pink dress belongs to Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), an honor student conversely trapped by her oppressive “normal” reputation.

Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating asserted that “boyishness tends to be a problem to be corrected” in mainstream “tomboy” characters. Stranger Things rides the fence. While El decides to keep the dress, she eventually takes the wig off for good.

The Duffers’ series has resonant themes, however borrowed, of grief, belief, and kinship. There’s genuine care invested in its boyhoods and girlhoods. Not a single episode of the first season, though, was written or co-written by a woman. Watching performances as strong as Millie Bobby Brown’s, you can’t help but wonder, what if?

Stranger Things compacts genre, delivering potent viewing pleasure amplified by the ability to binge-stream. But I wanted something, someone, to break free.

Donald Collins is an LA-based writer and trans advocate. His writing has appeared in Next Magazine and Original Plumbing, and Beacon Press is publishing his first book next summer. He works at an indie bookstore.