Stranger Things, Eleven, and female archetypes

Stranger Things has to be one of the better and more refreshing Netflix originals I’ve seen this year — this is a show that really explores a lot of modern social anxieties through the lens of science fiction, which is one of my favourite things. It’s a brilliant exploration of the 1980s, telling a story of the 1980s, not just about them. It has some immensely talented actors of all ages, and a plot that’s really dynamic and intriguing.

It also has Eleven, who inhabits a very specific pop culture archetype that I discussed many years ago in ‘Whedon’s Brunettes,’ looking at a particular sort of woman who shows up again and again in Joss Whedon’s work. He’s not the only one who relies heavily on this archetype, though, and what frustrates me about Eleven (who is a great character in many ways!) is the reminder that this is a manifestation of femininity that can be applied to women of any age, that sexism is inescapable almost from the moment of birth.

Eleven inhabits the mysterious broken girl who is strangely powerful yet needs assistance from people around her to survive the basic everyday realities of the world trope to an extreme degree. It’s possible to be an incredibly painfully archetyped character and still a good character, and Millie Bobby Brown is absolutely outstanding in the role, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about that archetype and what it means for pop culture as well as Eleven herself.

Starting with her very name — she is a girl so voiceless and so powerless that she doesn’t even have a ‘real’ name, and the boys must christen her with one. The use of numbers to identify people is incredibly dehumanising, and that’s the whole point, as Eleven has been trapped as an experimental research subject throughout her childhood, by people who view her as a blunt instrument, not a human being. She’s given no orientation of training or experience in how to navigate the real world, because they view her as useful for only one thing, and one thing only.

This means that when she escapes into the world, she’s not just nameless, but entirely helpless. She doesn’t know how to communicate, how to support herself. She’s endlessly fascinated by mundane things — at times, she reminds the viewer of E.T., with her deep absorption with the objects and phenomena that are unremarkable to the people around her. This is a projection of Eleven as a broken, damaged person who’s slightly unstable, mysterious, strange, literally alien. No one knows what to make of her or how to interact with her.

At the same time, she’s imbued with this immense, intense power. She can move people and objects, use telepathy across great distances, even kill. She’s a grenade with no pin, someone who doesn’t fully understand her strength, who is grasping for an orientation in a hostile world while still being incredibly dangerous. People both want and fear her for her power, whether they need her help to save a lost friend, or want to utilise her for military purposes. Eleven at some moments almost feels like a puppet of fortune and circumstance, with no autonomy beyond a fondness for waffles and a willingness to rob grocery stores for them.

There’s a certain sense of innocence and naiveté about her — that’s a big part of how her character functions. And within context, it makes sense, and fits with who she is. But it also plays out in a larger pop cultural sense in which female characters like her — wounded, damaged, in need of help even as they are incredibly powerful and hold secrets people will kill for — are a dime a dozen. How would the dynamic of Stranger Things change with a gender flip, with a bunch of geeky girls trying to rescue one of their own and stumbling across a boy who is both a blank slate and incredibly dangerous? How would our relationship to the show shift? Eleven has a bit of a cult following for her sometimes incredibly astute observations on the world paired with her whimsical, nearly manic pixie dream girl like persona, but would people feel the same way about a male Eleven? Eleven herself is a strange juxtaposition of feminine trope and the masculine, clearly uncomfortable in the wig and dress the boys put on her to disguise her, introducing a note of the tomboy, but also a note of complexity, which is for me where she gets really interesting. At the same time that she inhabits this archetype, she’s departing from it, too — she’s not a model of stereoypical feminine beauty.

The way she uses the knowledge she holds, though, plays right back into that stereotype. There’s a sort of end game with a lot of these characters where they alone hold the key to a huge puzzle, and they alone are able to break through, often in a way that involves sacrificing themselves for the characters around them. This definitely happens with Eleven, who reaches the pinnacle of that archetype in a way that I predicted from the moment I saw her appear onscreen. This is often, as it was for Eleven, the moment where characters break free and assert their independence, using knowledge as power to take down the man.

What interests me about Eleven is what is going to happen next, because Stranger Things is coming back, and I have really high hopes that they are going to take the archetype they just played out in a highly stereotypical way and turn it completely, shall we say, upside down. This could be an amazing opportunity to strike back at a sexist pop culture dynamic and I think Brown could play it to perfection, so I’m desperately hoping that the creators take their ability to twist and pull and play with pop culture and channel it to do something really cool with her. If they don’t, it’s going to be a reinforcement of something very sad and very old in pop culture, and it would be a waste of a character with tremendous potential.