Monday, August 8, 2016

Random Thoughts: Stranger Things (A Criticism of Something Awesome)


What made Mad Max Fury Road refreshing for me?  It was how its female and male protagonists had a measure of equality.  That was why so many felt the movie was feminist.  Max and Furiosa shared the spotlight.  Even the subthemes in Fury Road touch on these ideas.  

It's great to see something that reminds what good media can do.  It can shock you.  It can get you to think about some neat things.

Stranger Things reminds me of great 80s stuff I grew up with.  And it reminds me of stuff like Fringe and Twin Peaks.  Stranger Things touches on the notion of lost loved ones.  That is something that is in one of my favorite tabletop RPGs, Changeling the Lost.

But when I think back to Fury Road, I can't help but ask Stranger Things about how it treats two female characters.  I loved the show.  Couldn't stop watching it.  But two characters felted underserved.  Should female characters be defined by the men in their lives?  When does characterization trump plot device?  Does this character lose something for the sake of the story or the sake of a trope?

I choose Fury Road to compare to because it was made by a film maker who did prominent 80s films too.  He returned to a franchise and choose to present gender ideas in a certain way.  George Miller didn't have to.  He could've relied on the 80s nostalgia of Mad Max as an excuse to use his female characters as plot devices.

Spoilers, if you haven't seen Stranger Things I guess.  The two characters I'm focusing on are Eleven and Barbara.

Barbara is the second missing character in the series.  But unlike the first, she doesn't come back.  This doesn't bug me by itself.  But Barbara's disappearance becomes mostly plot device for the next few chapters.  And rather than have Nancy get stuck in the "Upside Down", her search for Barbara there goes wrong.  Then she is saved by the only nearby dude.

I'd rather prefer the chance for them to have Nancy be stuck in the Upside Down.  Her looking for Barbara.  But instead, she's the center of a love triangle thing.  It felt like a missed chance.  But not as bad as the plan for Eleven seems.

The character of Eleven is kinda neat.  But then, you see how much of her is plot device, not a character.  Eleven's relationships to male characters define her, not anything about herself.  We don't even know what she wants.  I don't expect her to have been able to overcome that in the series.  I just kept wondering, why did she leave the lab?  Eleven tends to have so much lack of self-momentum.  Her "escape" feels just like a plot necessity.

Even Eleven's "sacrifice" at the end of the series felt more like plot motivation than character driven.  So much of the kids plot focuses on being antagonistic with her.  Yes, they get their 80s pop culture bits in with her.  But her painful flashbacks aren't the same as a relationship with the boys.  The boys (and most of the rest) never got to hear Eleven's story or at least her version of it.  They just got to use her powers to solve their plot.

That's kinda the rub that bugs me about the show.  I liked the rest of it.  The horrific monster, the strange "other" dimension, the characters, all that.  It felt like three great 80s films that merged into one.  I think it'll be one of the best things I'll rewatch too.

But choosing to dip into old tropes about women without trying to subvert them a bit, feels lazy to me.  It feels like the part of the plot that they could've changed from the 80s pile of tropes.  Without hurting the feel.  Some 80s stuff is great.  But a lot of the great 80s cultural pieces don't treat their female characters in a fair way.  Stranger Things apes that, albeit it subconsciously.

Go watch it.  It at least also proves that some series are best in smaller pieces.  Not the usual giant series we usually get for TV.  Awesome.  I hope the second season helps develop the female characters as characters, not plot devices.