We need to talk about race and gender in Stranger Things
Spoiler alert: This piece contains details about the plot of Stranger Things season 2.
Stranger Things is a show that was very obviously created by two white men. I was surprised to find that I really enjoyed the first season even though it really bothered me that there was only one person of color in the cast (Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas). The second season, which was just released before Halloween, seemed to be aware of this and attempted to rectify the issue.
The first episode of the second season opens with a woman of color using telekinetic powers to escape the police in a getaway car. The camera zooms in on a tattoo on her arm — 008 —that looks a lot like Eleven’s. I bounced in my seat when I first saw her. This is it, I thought. Stranger Things is going to kill me this season. Later, we are introduced to Erica, Lucas’ adorable little sister, who adds some much-needed comic relief to the show.
But even though more women and people of color are featured in this season, the fact that they were added in and of itself doesn’t make the show more progressive. In fact, those additions reveal more about how the white men at the helm of this show view people of color — and society as a whole. Take the introduction of the super-cool woman of color character Kali (Linnea Berthelsen). She can stop cars with her mind! She’s in a getaway car in the first episode! She only appears in two episodes! Choosing an actress of color to portray a recurring character with little screen time is better than an all-white cast, but not by much.
Race is first explicitly addressed in this season early on, when the group of male friends we got to know in season 1 dress up as members of the Ghostbusters team for Halloween. Everything is fine until Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas show up to school both dressed as Bill Murray’s character. Even though the other friends back Lucas up, Mike insists that Lucas agreed to be Winston.
“What’s wrong with Winston?” Mike asks.
“He joined the team super late, he’s not funny, and he’s not even a scientist,” Lucas responds. “If he’s so cool, then you be Winston.”
“I can’t,” Mike replies.
Lucas rolls his eyes. “B-b-because you’re not black?”
“I didn’t say that,” Mike says. Lucas doesn’t let him off the hook, though, countering, “You thought it.”
A more sinister example of racial bias occurs between Lucas and a new character, Billy (Dacre Montgomery). At the end of episode 4, after a new character, Max (Sadie Sink), argues with Lucas, her stepbrother says, “... something you learn is there are certain types of people in the world that you stay away from … and that kid is one of them.”
Some fans have argued that Billy’s comments weren’t racist — that he just didn’t like Lucas because he can be rude and abrasive. But this doesn’t quite explain Billy’s level of conviction that his sister and Lucas specifically should avoid each other. When Billy catches Max hanging out with Lucas, as well as the rest of the group of boys, he doesn’t target the whole group, but focuses in on Lucas. Billy slams Lucas against a wall and declares that he is “going to break him.” This might seem like a stereotypical ‘80s bully move, which is no doubt what the Duffer Brothers — the white, male creators of the show — were going for, but it made me uncomfortable because all signs pointed to the fact that Billy’s hatred of Lucas was motivated by racial undertones. I couldn’t help but think that he didn’t want his (white) little sister to develop a crush on Lucas because he viewed the black boy as a predator of white women, a stereotype that still endures today.
Dacre Montgomery, who portrays Billy, has said he doesn’t think his character is racist, but that’s not really the point. White people can commit acts of racism without being full-fledged, self-identified “racists.” Neither of these scenes included anyone outright stating that they hate black people, but are instead charged with the kinds of subtle racism and overt violence black people experience all the time. These are the regular nuances of black people’s lives that white people don’t see — or at least pretend not to.
But I also paid attention to portrayals other than race this season. Viewers have been complaining about the Duffer Brothers’ treatment of women since the first season, when Barb was killed off and her death glossed over. The first season was also incredibly male-centric, with Eleven, who is supposed to be the driving force of the show, receiving few spoken lines and having little agency. While there are several other female characters — including Joyce, Nancy, and, in this season, Max — these characters are often denied agency. Take Eleven, for example. Even though she should be able to explore her independence after being trapped in a government lab, she spends the beginning of the season trapped in Chief Hopper’s forest cabin. Hopper, who has become like a father figure, won’t let her leave for her own safety — which seems sweet, but is ultimately a little paternalistic, given that Eleven is the one with the superhuman powers and ability to save everyone.
When Eleven finally sneaks out of the cabin, she comes across her love interest, Mike, hanging out with the new female character, Max. Eleven immediately appears jealous, even though there isn’t anything going on between the two, and uses her powers to knock Max off her skateboard. Later, when Max is introduced to Eleven, she holds her hand out to shake. Eleven ignores it, breezing past her. Essentially, the portrayal of the only two girl members of the male-dominated “main group” involves them being pitted against each other in a fight over one of the boys.
This pattern generally holds true for the other women in the show: Their characterizations and motivations revolve around male characters. Winona Ryder’s character is built around the stress caused by trying to protect her son. Nancy’s central dilemma centers on which guy she should date, and while she’s having that crisis, her little brother is out saving people from monsters. Meanwhile, the men are cops, scientists, and monster hunters. The message is clear: Female characters can help male characters, who are the real protagonists.
While it could be argued that this lack of strong female role models reflects the ethos of the ‘80s, there were plenty of strong representations of women in ‘80s pop culture, from the girls in The Breakfast Club and Working Girl to Princess Leia in Star Wars, Ripley in Alien, and Sarah Connor in The Terminator.
Overall, these character choices seem to reflect the Duffer Brothers’ own attitudes toward people of color and women, people they should add to their writers’ room if they want to make season 3 better in terms of representation.
More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Media
More articles by Tag: Television, Sexism, Racism