This post spoils Stranger Things and assumes you've seen it. This is your chance to get out.
With the second season Stranger Things on the horizon the first season has been on a lot of people's minds. Recently a friend argued that the show was unwatchable, to her, because of how poorly the female characters were written.
I am not here to say she's wrong. The female characters are clearly underwritten. I will argue that Eleven is the star of the show, but she is written in such a way so that she starts off virtually incapable of speech, and by the end of the show can barely string together a couple sentences. Nancy and Joyce are critical to the plot, are empowered throughout, and never occupy a pure 'damsel in distress' role. But they're never fleshed out.
I want to break this down a bit more. Let's start with the bad.
Does the show pass the Bechdel test? I mean, maybe..? That uncertainty is pretty damning by itself. I'm not going to look it up to see if Stranger Things technically passes. Here's the ambiguity: Joyce (Winona Ryder), Jim Hopper (the chief cop guy), and a tertiary female character have a conversation about a woman and her missing daughter. Sort of. Joyce and Eleven have a conversation about how brave Eleven is...for going to the Upside-down to find Joyce's son. Every other time two female characters are on screen they're talking about hooking up with a boy or a missing boy. So, not great.
Two characters are given flashback sequences to fill in back story. Eleven and Jim Hopper. Jim is introduced as a drunk who's bad at relationships. It's mentioned that his daughter died, but he doesn't admit to it. He's not super likable initially. Then we get his flashbacks. Jim's story is about the loss of his daughter. It provides some emotional connection to the character, and recasts him in a more sympathetic light. It also provides a (flimsy) reason for him to give so many damns about Joyce's son and later, Eleven.
Eleven's flashbacks are mostly about her treatment in the military experiments. The government clearly considers her a weapon and treats her as such. They send her after the demigorgon knowing that it will likely kill her. I don't think this raises our emotional investment in Eleven beyond the narrative up to that point. It does serve to provide specific explanations as to why she doesn't speak much, and how the gate was opened initially. Personally, I would have been just as happy with an extra couple minutes of Eleven opening the gate and escaping the facility in the first episode.
We're not told of any of Nancy's interests beyond school and boy named Steve Harrington. She is largely unconcerned with Joyce's son disappearing, and uses it as an excuse to sneak out of her parent's house. She becomes invested in the story when her friend Barb goes missing. Literally no one else in the story seems to give two shits about Barb's disappearance, including Barb's mother. That tidbit actually makes me angry and sympathetic to those who choose not to watch this show over it's treatment of women. But it gives Nancy a reason to be in this story that isn't tied to a man. So, great. I guess.
The other women in the story, Barb, Nancy/Mike's mom, the women in Steve's group, the Ives sisters, and Agent Frazier (played by Catherine Dyer, who does a great job despite having so little to do) are largely incidental. I imagine they were on the board in the writing room as single line plot elements. Barb may have gotten a couple of sentences under her name. She's one of two (maybe three, if you count Dr Brenner) characters we're expected to have an emotional reaction for when they die.
Now the apologetics. If I can criticize a piece of fiction I can also talk about what I think it did well.
A criticism I disagree with is the female characters are only there because of their relationship to the protagonists. This show has ten characters who appear in every episode, all of them could be viewed as the protagonist. With the exception of Eleven, this story could easily be about a community banding together to find two missing kids. but if we have to narrow down who our heroes are, I choose Eleven and Hopper. Eleven defeats the villains (I guess technically hubris gets Dr Brenner, but Eleven sets the stage) and Hopper gets a redemption arc and co-saves Will.
Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) is defined by her relationship to the missing boy. Because she's his mother. This sentence reminds me of the "Taken" movies with Liam Neeson. Anyway, if "mother" isn't a feminine role that lends itself to strength I give up on trying to understand gender politics. Joyce is an employee at a retail store. She's a single mother of two. It's never explicitly stated, but heavily implied that her hobbies include working her ass off to support her family. As the child of a woman who was a single mother for part of the 80s, this squares with my recollection of the time.
Joyce behaves like the kind of bad ass I'd like to believe my mother would be in the same situation. She secures her ability to focus solely on her missing son. She confronts her (implied) abusive, deadbeat ex. She follows evidence even though she appears crazy for doing it. She correctly identifies the fake body the military uses to attempt to cover up the incident. She insists on taking part of the investigation. She braves arrest by a secret government agency and the Upside-down to find her son.
Nancy. Man, Nancy. She feels really tacked on until the last couple episodes. Even then it feels like she's there to fill out Jonathan's story a bit. Right up to the last episode. She's just found out her friend Barb has been killed by the demigorgon. Her rescue mission? It just got turned into a revenge mission. Jonathan is ready to sit back and let his mom and Hopper handle it. Then Nancy's like, "Naw son. Now's our chance to wreck that monster's shit!" Between Nancy and Jonathan, I'd argue Nancy is more effective at monster slaying, but Steve ex machina ultimately executes Nancy's plan. None of them are Eleven, but who is?
No one. That's who. Her name implies she's the 11th test subject of a secret military experiment. Maybe she's the successor to Wolverine? She's telekenetic. She can astral project. She can travel across dimensions. Don't be fooled by the framing, Mike is her love interest.
There is an approach to writing where you give your main character the least possible amount of dialog. They're rarely the source of exposition. They're frequently learning about the world they find themselves in. In this approach, the audience adopts your main character as their lens into the world. And since this is escapism, they get to do the coolest shit. As you watch you think, "Huh, if I inhabited this world I bet I could do this cool shit." At least, that's the goal.
Since it's difficult to speak for your audience in their voice, you give the supporting characters the good lines. Quick, what's your favorite Luke Skywalker line? Now what's your favorite Han Solo line? What's your favorite Neo line? Now what's your favorite Morpheus line? Which role in those two pairs was easier to recall? Which was better?
Despite having nothing memorable to say, Eleven does the coolest shit. I'd agree that the writers may have taken this approach too far. Her motives are a bit hazy until the last couple episodes, and even then.... she appears to be acting out of altruism. Maybe it's supposed to be because she is learning about friendship. Anyway, because of this approach I have a fundamental problem seeing an argument for any other character as the intended main protagonist.
But what about Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin? They're certainly introduced as the primary focus of the series - especially early on. They're great for giving the audience exposition for the weird sci-fi stuff that's going on, as they relate everything to RPG terms. But in practical terms? When they're not busy being occupying the damsel in distress trope (it's literally all Will does, the rest of them end up there at least twice by my count) they're playing support for Eleven. It is fair to say that these four boys are the best written characters in the series. It's almost as if the writers were drawing from personal experience for these guys and making up the rest as best they could.
Another criticism I disagree with is that the boys use Eleven as a weapon. There's even a quote "She's a weapon!" that's said twice in the series! That's true. Once is by the villains. They say this, and it solidifies them as bad guys to us. The other is while the boys are packing up to find the demigorgon. One kid wants to bring a sling shot ("It's a wrist rocket!"). The others think this idea is dumb since Eleven is clearly more powerful than anything the boys can put together. Out of context it sounds like the boys are making Eleven into an object. In context, they're saying she's a bad ass. Which is true.
So yeah. This story has three fully realized male characters with no character arcs, one male character with a satisfying character arc, two female characters with middling character arcs, and a bad ass lead character with no arc to speak of.
Since I have such middling feelings about the characters of all genders, why do I like this show? I think all ten characters are identifiable, if not believable. I think the monster design is great. The pacing is spectacular; it'd be hard to trim this down to a 120 minute movie and have it be as satisfying. I like Joyce being super-mom. I like everything about Eleven. I like how the show perverts story telling tropes slightly (support cast introduced as main characters, girl chooses the dickish jock instead of the nice sensitive boy, damsel in distress is male, saved by a female, the hero and the victim have no connection, they don't even meet until the end, etc). It throws a lot of balls in the air and drops remarkably few.
The balls it chooses to drop look pretty shady. Hopefully they hear that criticism (and don't overreact to it) in season 2.
Edit: Alternate title: White male mansplans the bad and good treatment of female characters in "Stranger Things."
Edit 2: I forgot to mention context. This story doesn't get told until after "Aliens" makes it culturally acceptable for a woman to lead an action film. I think it would have been seen as progressive until "Firefly" came out. They still make tv and movies that I think do a worse job with female characters. Of course that doesn't earn this show a pass. I subscribe to the notion that we should always strive for equality in fiction, and "Stranger Things" falls short.