Eleven and Max’s shopping scenes map onto a rich history of malls in movies and TV shows such as Clueless and Mean Girls. On-screen and off, places like Starcourt served as a rare middle ground between school and home, offering teenagers independence and a chance to experiment, via stores selling clothes and accessories, with self-expression. Most mall montages focus on transformation, and Stranger Things is no different. By the end of the sequence, Eleven has traded her worn button-down for an on-trend jumpsuit splashed with geometric shapes.
But the show understands that a makeover can mean more than impressing a love interest. Rather than portraying the girls as materialistic or silly, the scene depicts Eleven exploring her taste and identity for the first time—no small thing for a character who was nearly nonverbal in Season 1. Throughout Stranger Things 3, Starcourt invokes and transcends tropes associated with malls in teen pop culture, offering evidence of the show’s empathy for its female characters along the way.
In terms of movie influences, the spirit of Amy Heckerling’s 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is palpable in Stranger Things’ mall scenes, especially when the camera lingers over the food court. Fast Times opens on a group of teenage waitresses as they game-plan an interaction with an attractive customer. “Go for it, he’s cute!” one server urges another. “Just take his order, look him in the eye, and if he says anything remotely funny, just laugh like you’ve never heard anything so funny.” If the mall allows young women to grow, scenes like this suggest such development must occur in reaction to men.
The 1990s and early 2000s brought a fresh wave of memorable mall scenes, but the scope of female characters’ motivations remained narrow. In 1995, Heckerling returned with Clueless, a riff on Jane Austen’s Emma that stars the well-intentioned and overbearing Cher Horowitz, a Beverly Hills teen intent on playing matchmaker for those around her. In a typically witty exchange, Cher’s father scolds her: “I’d like to see you have a little more direction.” “I do have direction!” Cher protests. “Yeah, toward the mall,” her stepbrother sneers.
In Clueless, one frightening scene injects life-or-death stakes into the locale when a group of boys dangle a girl over a second-floor railing. Before Cher knows it, the boy she’s been flirting with abandons her to save the day. “Considering how clueless she was, Tai certainly had that damsel-in-distress act down,” Cher observes wryly. For Clueless, the mall provides the raw materials for life-changing makeovers that might help characters win love. It also pits women against each other, presenting romantic pursuits as a zero-sum game.
In 2004, Mean Girls took a broader view of this fraught space. The movie follows Cady Heron as she tries to navigate her new school’s social dynamics without sacrificing her sense of self. When the popular Regina George whisks her off to the mall, Cady is subjected to a series of tests. “I think I’m joining the Mathletes,” Cady tells Regina, who scolds her, “That is social suicide.” Later, Cady envisions the shopping center’s main fountain as a watering hole surrounded by teens behaving like wild animals. In Mean Girls, the social order is performed—and more importantly, enforced—at the mall.