Stranger Things craftily subverted a classic female archetype

Stranger Things hit Netflix with a huge splash this summer because it fed a lot of complicated needs we have — a deep nostalgia for the 1980s, a fascination with the supernatural, an abiding affection for Winona Ryder. But along the way, it played with a lot of really interesting thematic elements, and one in particular hasn’t gotten nearly enough press — the way it toyed with a very specific kind of female character archetype, leading audiences down a primrose path and then slapping them in the face. It wouldn’t have been possible without Ryder in the role of Joyce Byers, the ordinary Indiana mom confronted with things far beyond her understanding and coping ability.

For those who haven’t watched (and I really do recommend it, unless you aren’t a fan of body horror), Stranger Things is a complicated metaphorical pastiche that draws in elements of beloved 1980s classics in an homage that feels more in the ’80s than of the ’80s. Our characters are confronted with a monster (or a metaphor of a monster) that has to be defeated as it slowly sucks a town into its gaping maw, sowing confusion, discord, and chaos as government agents attempt to bring it in check. The film contains a lot of classic elements of the era, including the group of kids who mysteriously seem to have largely invisible and inactive parents…but that’s where things start to fall apart, and Joyce Byers comes in.

When Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing, the whole town gets thrown into the search, but Joyce senses that something sinister is afoot. We already know that something is deeply wrong as observers, but Joyce is confronting a town full of people who have no reason to believe in the supernatural, which is where things get interesting. At first glance, Byers is the classic depiction of a ‘hysterical’ female character. She’s screaming and shrieking and throwing things around, spouting conspiracy theories and seeing things that aren’t there, freaking out her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) with her fervent assertion that something no one can see is really there, lying just beyond the veil of everyone’s understanding.

She retreats into conspiracy theory land, holing up in her house and refusing to see adult reason. She’s punching holes through her walls, turning off everything electrical, setting up Christmas lights to talk with her son beyond the veil. As observers, we see the monster and we follow the kids who are interacting with it as they try to track down their missing friend, but we can also dispassionately see what appears to be a young mother’s fall into instability as she becomes desperate over her missing son. That’s the image the adults around her see as they begin to express concern and fear about her — this is a woman who appears to be slipping off the deep end.

At times, the characterisation is almost too good — there were times when her behaviour feels like it’s crossing deep into the realm of being gratingly obnoxious, but that’s part of the brilliant setup with her character. Stranger Things takes a tack a lot of films of the era did, putting the truth of the narrative in the hands of the children and showing adults up as clueless and behind the times — often missing the narrative altogether because they’re so wrapped up in adult things. Joyce, the exception, is in a sense childlike with her connection to and understanding of the monster, at least until Chief Hopper (David Harbour) becomes convinced that she’s telling the truth.

Instead of being simply ‘crazy,’ Joyce is just closer to, and unafraid to acknowledge, the monster, the thing that’s causing the nightmares consuming the town of Hawkins. She’s vindicated as the truth becomes apparent, which definitely probes an established chronology when it comes to this particular character archetype: Woman labeled crazy and unstable by the people around her, shrieking and carrying on, who actually knows something everyone else doesn’t, gradually convincing the people around her that the things they are ignoring are real, that they need to band together to confront whatever it is that has them under attack.

The series plays with polar extremes of this genre: The largely (and sometimes entirely) invisible parents of kids letting them do more or less whatever they want, cast against the somewhat controlling and needy mother who turns out to be absolutely right when she identifies a threat to her child and the community. What intrigues me about Stranger Things, though, is that her ‘crazy’ behaviour doesn’t magically resolve with the rescue of her son from the upside down. We come to understand not just that she is right and everything can return to normal, but that she is right and her behaviour is a natural and understandable response to something that is terrifying and all-consuming.

This isn’t a ‘she wasn’t crazy after all’ but a ‘she had a completely rational response to something.’ Her seemingly bizarre behaviour with lights and electrical items around her house reflects the fact that she’s strategising, figuring out a way to communicate with her son. When she slashes holes in her walls, it’s to attack the monster — and when she’s left with a gaping view of the outside instead of a dead supernatural creature, it reflects the interdimensional nature of the thing that’s stalking her. She is a woman who is applying cold intellect to a literally monstrous problem, and she’s unapologetic about the behaviours that some people might flag as hysterical or annoying — of course she’s screaming, her son is missing. Of course she throws things around in frustration, because that’s what people do. She’s not overwrought because no one is listening to her and she’s seeing this thing happening all around her, she’s an ordinary woman facing outsized issues. This subtle play with a classic trope was really intriguing to watch, and it was a sharp confrontation of some very ancient stereotypes.