Let’s start by clearing something up: I do not think that being a strong female character and having a love interest are mutually exclusive. I also do not think that displaying vulnerability equates to being weak. It is very possible to have all three of these elements merge together to create a brilliantly multi-faceted character, and it has been done immaculately in the past.
Now that we have that out of the way: I am increasingly nervous about the character direction of Max in upcoming ‘Stranger Things’ season 2.
When I first heard that two new leading characters were being introduced in season 2, one of whom being the “tough and confident” Max, a girl of roughly the same age as Will and co., I was intrigued to say the least. While I’m just as big a fan of the show as the next person, I was always rather skeptical of its depictions of women. It seemed to me that the show’s leading women lacked substantial characterisation independent of the central plot.
Hear me out.
It’s important to note that we’re living in an age where less than 57.6% of films pass the Bechdel Test, the 3-point criteria for which is so absurdly simple, you’d think it impossible to fail. All that is required is that a film must 1) feature at least two named female characters who 2) engage in conversation about 3) something other than a man. As I said: absurdly simple. Yet, the pass rate drops to a dismal 43% when implemented among the top sci-fi films of the era. And, unfortunately, ‘Stranger Things’ barely makes the cut; scraping a pass based almost entirely on minor technicalities such as brief conversations between Nancy and her mother concerning Will or Steve, sympathetic exchanges between Joyce and Karen that primarily concern their sons, Nancy’s phone call with Barb’s mother (though she is never named) and a one-sided “thank you” between Eleven and Joyce before her dip into the sensory deprivation tank. The show’s shining almost-pass is the fleeting encounter Nancy has with her classmate, Ally, regarding Barb but her three seconds of screentime call to question whether this exchange is significant enough to count.
It seemed that the bulk of Nancy’s plot line concerned her Steve/Jonathan love-triangle, with the slut-shaming she endures, the discovery of her sexuality and her growing decisiveness falling to the wayside. In fact, most progression highlighted in her character has more to do with her journey to becoming a better friend to Jonathan and a better sister to Mike, with the mass of her internal instability being left unresolved.
Joyce Byers existed almost exclusively in relation to her two sons, something which fell under heavy critique from Paste Magazine in 2016 who stated “She’s been written into a place of total amnesty from any possible narrative consequences, and also any possible growth… she’s defined almost completely by her role as a mother, first in her consumption with her lost son, and in the second half of the season as a maternal figure to Eleven.” which is hard to argue against even though a strong case can be made for her dedication to saving Will and her adamance at not being labelled a “crazy mother”.
Lastly, the fan-favourite, Eleven; with her 42 lines in the whole first season, she remains a cherished character while simultaneously being a blank slate, muted and defined through her interactions with her “Papa” and Mike. The sense of curiosity and discovery that should’ve by all means followed her throughout her ventures into the outside world were notably lacking, rendering El a character that we ultimately project onto rather than learn from.
This is not to say that these leading women aren’t all strong in their own right but, rather, that they have facilitated some fairly probing observations concerning substantial characterization for women in sci-fi. Perhaps the only female character who was not intrinsically tied to a leading male character was Barb, and she was killed off with moderately insignificant afterthought.
What I’m getting at here is that the show did not grant its female leads a considerable form of interiority, and it appears that this trend is carrying over to season 2.
Which, finally, leads us back to Max and the possibility for a hard-hitting young woman who could potentially be more intricately characterised seeing as she is introduced separately from the hunt for Will. TVLine revealed that she’d be seen riding a skateboard alongside the boys’ bikes and that her “appearance, behaviour and pursuits seem more typical of boys than of girls in this era.”. A tough female character who subverts gender norms? Yes, please. However, a March 2017 article in Mirror discloses that Max draws the romantic interest of both Dustin and Lucas, presenting us with… another love-triangle. Or, at the very least, a slapstick bit for comic relief. Fantastic.
I’ll reiterate that, in theory, I think it’s wholly possible to have Max remain every bit as remarkable even with the love-triangle situation going on, we aren’t yet even sure whether the romantic feelings she attracts will be reciprocated. However, taking into consideration that the show has a history of allowing interpersonal relationships to eclipse character expansion and that sci-fi culture in itself remains misogynistic, I’m left unconvinced and uneasy.