** Contains Spoilers**
Stranger Things 3 has fast become an iconic TV drama, combining elements of horror, science fiction, teen drama, and the 80’s into a show like no other. 4.7 million households have streamed the Netflix show, so its cultural reach is vast. When it comes to gender representation, this new season of Stranger Things is a mixed bag.
The start of the new season offers a much more in-depth look into the lives of the characters living in Hawkins, Indiana, circa 1980s. This focus on character development, paired with the aging and growing teen stars of the show, gives the show’s creators the perfect opportunity to offer up the young protagonists as adolescents breaking away from traditional gender roles, and serve as positive role models for the show’s younger viewers. In many ways, it is successful. Max (Sadie Sink), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) are strong, powerful, smart young women who, as Eleven states, “make their own rules,” as well as stand up to the men who try to shoot them down. Throughout the start of the season, these strong female leads gain agency, using their power and smarts to uncover the stranger things of their small town.
While Stranger Things features strong female teens, it sends a damaging message about masculinity with its primary adult love story. Chief Hopper (David Harbour) is the embodiment of traditional masculinity. He is unable to talk about his emotions, drinks to drown these emotions, and is verbally and almost physically abusive toward his love interest, Joyce (Winona Ryder). Millions of little girls and little boys who watch this season of Stranger Things will receive the troubling and outdated message that if a boy is mean to you, it potentially means he likes you.
While this season of Stranger Things plays Chief Hopper’s toxic masculinity for laughs, it provides a thoughtful look at the intergenerational effects of toxic masculinity with Billy (Dacre Montgomery). In Season Two, we see Billy physically abusing his sister and other teens. In season three, viewers learn that Billy acts in this way as a result of growing up in a household with an abusive father. We see Billy as a child, shrinking under his father’s ridicule and witnessing the physical abuse of Billy’s mother.
Stranger Things is complicated when it comes to gender representation—presenting laudable female characters, but both embracing and critiquing toxic masculinity. The show could be improved with a more critical eye toward the messages it sends to young people about dating abuse and violence. If we treat caustic flirting as the norm in the media worlds we create, it reinforces this damaging norm in the real world.
Review written by 2019 Summer Intern Juliet Thiessen