This post contains spoilers for the first season of Stranger Things.
It’s impossible to talk about Stranger Things, the eight-episode Netflix sci-fi drama series released this month, without talking about all the ’80s references. Like the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, Stranger Things is an homage to all things Spielbergian—broken families, kids having secret adventures on bikes, supernatural beings, government conspiracies, heartfelt endings. After the series debuted, journalists began publishing comprehensive guides to its many, many allusions, a testament to the show’s dedication to authentically reconstructing the past.
But even if you’ve never seen E.T. or The Goonies, or lived through the 1980s in suburban America, Stranger Things has plenty to offer. Set in a small Indiana town, the story centers around the mysterious disappearance of a young boy named Will, the search effort that ensues (led by his mother, played by Winona Ryder), and the arrival of an odd young girl with strange powers. In the hands of its directors, the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things is at turns touching (when it explores teenage love and friendship) and harrowing (when it follows the creature that turns out to be terrorizing the town).
Over the first seven episodes it’s easy to get swept up in how well the show reanimates beloved movie tropes and channels the feel of the 1980s. But by the finale, it becomes clear that the series has an ugly side that can be traced to the show’s treatment of its most vulnerable and enigmatic major character: the 12-year-old girl with magical abilities who goes by the name “Eleven.” Judging by her arc, which involves near-constant suffering, Eleven seems like Stranger Things’ biggest blind spot. The show harbors empathy for its many characters: Ryder’s harried mother Joyce, Police Chief Jim Hopper, Will’s best friend Mike, Mike’s teenage sister Nancy. Yet despite a rich backstory, Eleven is the show’s most thinly sketched protagonist, and it sometimes feels like Stranger Things’ reverence for 1980s pop culture is to blame.
In her first scene, Eleven is walking alone and barefoot in the woods, wearing only a hospital gown. She has a shaved head, can barely speak, and has a tattoo of the number “011” on her wrist. By the time Will’s friends Mike, Lucas, and Dustin find her, she’s already witnessed the fatal shooting of a kindly restaurant owner who tried to get her help. When they ask her what her name is, she points to her tattoo. (They call her “El” for short.)
Through brutal flashbacks, the show reveals that a secret government program was studying Eleven for her telekinetic powers. It also emerges that her mother was the subject of an earlier experiment that used LSD on patients, and that the government covered up Eleven’s birth. Growing up, the girl is treated as a prisoner, only dragged out of her tiny, bare room in a windowless bunker when it’s time for scientists to conduct experiments on her. They use her to spy on communists and make contact with inter-dimensional beings, but the latter mission goes awry, and Eleven accidentally frees a monster from a dark netherworld, causing Will’s disappearance.
Though deeply traumatized and physically and psychologically underdeveloped, Eleven becomes uneasy friends with Will’s group—especially Mike, who’s incredibly protective of her. And at first things seem hopeful: The boys realize she’s their key to finding out what happened to their missing friend, so they help hide her from the government agents trying to track her down. But mostly they’re impressed by her abilities. “We never would’ve upset you if we knew you had superpowers,” Dustin tells her. Eleven is often treated like a liability—a major character relegated to the corners of the story unless it’s time to save the day with her mind.
Eleven is clearly the token girl of the group—recalling the “Smurfette Principle” trope that pervaded children’s TV during that decade—but the show doesn’t display much self-awareness on this point. There’s even a textbook “makeover scene” involving a wig, some makeup, and a dress that leads the boys to behold a transformed Eleven in awe. In some ways, El’s background makes her more complex than the average young female protagonist. But because of what happened to her, she doesn’t talk much, leaving her a cipher to almost everyone who meets her—and to the audience. Her silence makes her mysterious, but it also flattens her character.
Stranger Things clearly draws from beloved coming-of-age narratives like Stand By Me and The Goonies. But the show is most generous in exploring the confusion and thrill of adolescence when it comes to the boys. Eleven herself doesn’t get to “grow up” herself; she’s there to help her new friends learn important life lessons. The best evidence for this comes in the climax for the series’ disappointing finale, “The Upside Down.” With the monster going on a rampage through the town, the group hides in a school classroom. Having just killed a horde of evil government agents, Eleven is almost unconscious. “We’ll be home soon and my mom … she’ll get you your own bed,” Mike tells her, clasping her hands. “Promise?” Eleven asks, crying. “Promise,” he replies. Moments later, the monster rushes in. The end seems near when an inexplicably revived Eleven slams the monster into the wall. Nose bleeding, she turns to the horrified boys behind her. “Goodbye, Mike,” she says. The monster explodes, and when the dust clears, Eleven is gone, too.
Later, Will has been recovered from the alternate dimension, and the boys visit him in the hospital. “We made a new friend,” Mike says. “She stopped [the monster]. She saved us. But she’s gone now.” Then, they begin excitedly regaling him with tales of how cool Eleven was, comparing her to Yoda, recounting how she made a bunch of government agents’ brains explode. It’s at this point the viewer realizes: The real Eleven has been erased and rewritten as just another action hero. Stranger Things spent several hours unspooling the visceral horrors Eleven encountered in her young life, trying to make her pain and sadness real. But in its final scenes, the show undid all of that. It made her into a bizarre martyr: the tragic, silent girl who suffered for abilities she never asked for, who seemed to only exist so she could nobly sacrifice herself at the end of the story.
No doubt, Eleven’s “death” was meant to be the sad-but-uplifting sort—but the casual treatment of her departure after so much buildup suggests that Stranger Things cared less about her than it initially implied. The show built Eleven to add more danger and excitement to an otherwise typical tale of boyhood adventure, only to conveniently dispatch her. (Oddly, Eleven’s story closely mirrors that of the female protagonist in last year’s pallid Goosebumps film.) In aping earlier cinematic glories, there’s always the risk of replicating more subtly retrograde tendencies.
Stranger Things is unwittingly guilty of this mistake, overwhelmingly privileging the happiness, desires, words, and lives of El’s friends over hers. Still one of Netflix’s better dramas, the show will continue to find avid fans, eager to relish its attention to period-specific detail and its compelling central mysteries. It’s also further proof that there’s no shortage of talent and creativity in the age of Peak TV. But there’s a higher bar for original stories—even homages—to clear when it comes to incorporating the lessons Hollywood has learned recently about depicting female characters who are as layered as their male counterparts. For all its charms, Stranger Things doesn’t quite meet that standard.