As is the case with the majority of television shows, Stranger Things — the Netflix original show about how the residents of a small town in Indiana discover another dimension opened by a girl with psychokinetic powers— has some problems with depicting women.
The most glaring example is the death of Barb, Nancy’s best friend, which appears to be a pretty clear punishment for Nancy’s decision to stay at a party and lose her virginity. Plus, as Genevieve Valentine pointed out at Vox, the girls and women of the show don’t have close relationships with each other — the only girl in the group of children at the center of the story, for example, is a powerful superhuman, which distances her from the boys. Valentine also argued that one of the central women in the show, Joyce Byers, has a single-mindedness when it comes to retrieving her son that shows a lack of character development — suggesting she doesn’t have a life outside of her sons.
It’s true that Byers could use some additional background information. I do wonder how long she has been divorced, whether she still dreams of a better job, or if she ever considers moving out of a town where she seemed out of place from the first episode.
But few of the characters in Stranger Things are well-developed, because the series has a convenient excuse for keeping its characters simple. The series is a throwback to ’70s and ’80s movies, and although it subverts some of the tropes — such as allowing the callous jock, Steve, to grow and become more empathetic — it mostly stays true to its genre.
Joyce’s weary eyes and blunt language belong to a woman who has experienced classist and sexist attitudes her whole life and is sick of humoring them.
In this context, the lack of background information on Byers doesn’t take away from the strength of her character. In fact, she may actually be one of the most feminist characters in the show.
The show begins with Byers demanding answers from an apathetic police chief in a town where her class status stands out like a sore thumb. Byers carries a couple stigmas with her, especially for the time period when this story takes place. She’s a single mom and she’s poor. She lives in a small town in proximity to mostly middle class to affluent nuclear families. Her son is mocked, not simply for his enthusiasm for Dungeons and Dragons, but also for his clothes, which is probably tied to his poverty.
The show doesn’t explore the family’s class status in any depth, but it also never tries to mask the effects of poverty or anxiety on Joyce. She doesn’t look like a beautiful actress wearing some unfashionable duds. With credit to Winona Ryder’s performance and the hair, makeup, and wardrobe crew, she truly looks like a woman who has been pushed to her limit. Joyce’s weary eyes and blunt language belong to a woman who has experienced classist and sexist attitudes her whole life and is sick of humoring them.
Because of her status as a single mother, and the assumptions we make about single mothers as a society, it isn’t unlikely that Joyce knows many of the residents of Hawkins may interpret her son’s disappearance as her fault instead of a rare and tragic development. The police chief suggests that perhaps he is with his father or skipping school, assumptions Joyce challenges repeatedly. In spite of the fact that she carries little influence, however, she continues to demand that the town take notice. She is intellectually curious — her skepticism of conventional wisdom is apparent when asks the police chief what he plans to do if none of his theories for her son’s disappearance pan out. Once she is certain that he is communicating through the house, she has confidence in her conviction that he is still out there. She believes in her own intelligence and instincts — to the point of stubbornness — in a way that is common for male characters but still uncommon for female characters.
We know the trope of the smart, capable woman who doesn’t have enough confidence in her own abilities to be the protagonist; a gutsy, if arrogant, man often takes that place in the show. He may consult the woman for her expertise, but she is never the hero. But in many ways, Joyce Byers is the hero of this show.
When Eleven appears, she’s lost and confused, and it is only through Mike and the other male characters that she develops a view of the world and begins to make decisions accordingly. Nancy eventually takes action when she discovers that Barb will never come back, but by that point most of the other characters already know more than she does and have participated in actions much more key to finding Will and Barb than her wandering around the forest with Jonathan.
It would be difficult for a man to continue against such odds, but it’s even more impressive to see a woman do it.
In contrast, the first person to take action was Joyce, who never relented despite having a police chief tell her she’s overreacting to the disappearance of her son, having her ex-husband ignore her repeated calls about their missing son, having the mother of her son’s friend treat her as if she were experiencing a mental breakdown, and having her own son berate her in front of a neighborhood crowd for refusing to believe her child was dead. If not for her insistence that the police chief investigate further, and her refusal to stay behind at home while Hopper conducted his work, their investigation may not have yielded as many leads and Hopper may have never found Will Byers. Although the police chief finds it strange that the local coroner didn’t perform the autopsy, it’s only after Joyce’s refusal to identify the body as her son that pushes him to examine the child himself and discover the body isn’t real. The fact that she continued to keep her cool and practice critical thinking despite the town’s and her own son’s doubt that Will was still alive shows enormous strength.
It would be difficult for a man to continue against such odds, but it’s even more impressive to see a woman do it. When it comes to being believed, women are climbing a much steeper hill. It’s easy for female viewers to put themselves in Joyce Byers’ shoes and feel a sense of triumph when other characters discover she was right all along.
Often, motherhood is presented as the only avenue through which women can display passion and advocacy, since arguing for their own well-being is considered selfish. So it makes sense to look at Byers’ character through a critical lens. But that doesn’t mean all mothers fighting the odds to save their children are unworthy of feminist adulation — and we shouldn’t dismiss the depiction of maternal strength on television.