When I first entered the world of Stranger Things, one of my biggest fears was that it would be a huge bro-fest. The ingredients were all there: a sci-fi show written by a pair of brothers—the Duffers—that centered around a group of nerdy boys. Yes, I know it was the 1980s, but nerdy girls who play Dungeons & Dragons do exist. And, in a way, I was right—the series is mostly about a bunch of boys looking for another boy. But to my surprise, it was the women who ended up stealing the show. (Except for Barb. You deserved better, Barb.)
The show’s emotional anchor is chain-smoking Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), mother of Will Byers, the child whose disappearance in the first episode gets the plot rolling. Joyce is the first to realize that her son has fallen into the clutches of supernatural forces, trapped in an alternative universe known as the “upside-down.” Throughout the show, she communicates with him through the phone and the light bulbs in her house—one blink for “yes,” two for “no”—and goes so far as to turn her wall into a giant Ouija board. In one scene Joyce even sees Will’s captor, a faceless monster nicknamed the “Demogorgon,” entering through the wall from the parallel dimension. But she is gritty and refuses to abandon her house and her son.
Tenacity is one of Joyce’s defining characteristics. She is unwavering in her conviction that her son is not only alive, but talking to her through electrical appliances. Conviction isn’t quite the right word; it implies faith rather than fact, and Joyce is only following what the evidence tells her. Hopper, the town’s emo police chief, and Jonathan, her eldest son, try to convince her that her senses are lying to her—that everything she’s experiencing is in her mind. But Joyce stays grounded: She sees some crazy shit and comes to the correct conclusion that, well, crazy shit is going on. “I don’t care if anyone believes me,” Joyce declares. “I won’t stop until I find my boy.”
Whether or not the men in Joyce’s life will believe her is one of Stranger Things’s main tensions. And, unanimously, they do not. At least, not until they confirm her assertions from other sources—Hopper from his own detective work, and Jonathan from his classmate Nancy, another young woman doggedly following the trail of a lost loved one. (Joyce’s ex-husband, meanwhile, also tries to convince her it’s all in her head, but adds creepy greediness to insult by suggesting they could make a lot of money off a wrongful death lawsuit.)
Although the outside world thinks Joyce is crazy, she is the most empirical of the bunch, which makes her frustration all the more palpable. Even in the morgue, it is Jonathan who lets his emotions overwhelm him, running out of the room to throw up when he sees his brother’s body. Joyce—calmly, coldly—asks the coroner to lift up Will’s arm to see if his birthmark is there. She correctly assesses that the body is a fake. (It’s a dummy planted by the secretive government agency whose experiments opened up a gate to the Demogorgon in the first place.) Of course, we aren’t totally sure if she’s right—we can’t be—until Hopper later cuts into the body to reveal it is stuffed with bright white cotton. Even the viewers are wary of trusting her claims.
In clear contrast to Joyce, Hopper’s journey follows the modus operandi of testosterone-fuelled cop-dramas—punch enough people and they’ll eventually lead you to the truth. His snooping takes him all across town, while Joyce has found out almost the same exact information like, a million years ago, without even leaving her house.
We could forgive the other characters for their skepticism; after all, Joyce is claiming she can talk to her son through the walls. But this dynamic—a woman’s frantic claims falling on the deaf ears of men—feels all too familiar, and amounts to a thematic echo of real-world phenomena. Take, to name one example, sexual assault: When women report assault to male cops, they are often met with suspicion. Giving victims of harassment the benefit of the doubt has emerged as a tenet of social liberalism, even seeping into the presidential campaign. There are countless stories about women on college campuses whose claims have been brushed aside, about victims who have been asked, “Are you SURE it was rape? It might have just been a bad hookup.” It’s all the worse if a woman is insistent and clamorous—one study showed that expressing anger decreases women’s social influence, while it actually increases men’s.
Joyce isn’t the only one ignored. Nancy, an older sister of Will’s close friend, is also disregarded when she sees the Demogorgon. She realizes that it has taken her best friend while they were at a party at her boyfriend’s house. When she is interrogated by the police, they focus on the fact that she was sleeping with the boy, rather than the fact that her friend might be in dire straits. “Was this before or after you took your clothes off?” asks a dopey cop.
Later in the show, Hopper and Joyce visit Terry Ives, a mother who once claimed that the government stole her child at birth. No one believed her, and when we meet her, she is catatonic. The show appears to be asking: What happens when we don’t listen to our wild-eyed women?
As the fearsome, mistrusted mother, Ryder would have completely stolen the spotlight if it weren’t for Millie Bobbie Brown, the 12-year-old actress who plays the character Eleven. At the beginning of the series, her character escapes from the government facility where she was raised and she quickly falls in with Will Byers’s crew of nerdy heroes. When she stops a noisy fan with her mind, we discover that she is telekinetic.
Eleven’s relationship with her new friends is, again, an exercise in trust. She struggles to convince the boys that Will is still alive. Luckily for Eleven, these kids spend a majority of their time in fantasy worlds—the planes of D&D, the pages of X-Men—and belief in the supernatural comes relatively easily. However, for much of Stranger Things Eleven is kept at arm’s length, branded as the crazy “weirdo.” Compounding this wariness—these are pre-pubescent boys we’re talking about—is the simple fact that she is a girl. It’s not hard to see Eleven, insistent and peculiar, as a young Joyce.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the most moving moment of Stranger Things is between the show’s two most misunderstood females. After Eleven manages to make contact with Joyce’s son in the “upside-down,” she emerges from a makeshift sensory deprivation tank trembling in fear. Joyce holds her close—a gesture of maternal comfort that Eleven has almost surely never experienced. It is a mother’s instinct to console an orphaned child, yes. But it is also an act of faith between two women. “I got you,” Joyce says—because no one else does.