Stranger Things became a nationwide hit when it was released on Netflix last summer and it’ll be back for its second season in less than a month. All my friends were watched it and raved about how suspenseful and intriguing it was. They eventually convinced me, a person who rarely has time to watch a series all the way through, to dedicate some time to it. I discovered they were right, and I binge-watched the first season within a few days.
Stranger Things is creepy, moves fast enough to be interesting, and offers a complex plot that engages the viewer. I enjoyed it and was able to understand the hype around the series.
Except, one thing bothered me and skewed my opinion of the show: the way the writers and producers cast Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce Byers. She was constantly frazzled, helpless, and dependent on men for stability and guidance.
Joyce is understandably upset when her son, Will Byers, suddenly goes missing. But throughout the season, Joyce is so emotionally overwrought that she is constantly terrified and seems unable to do more than hyperventilate and approach a mental breakdown.
Stranger Things cast one of its main female characters as stereotypical trope of a woman who is emotionally unstable and unable to cope in difficult or stressful situations. Haven’t we moved past this degrading, dismissive narrative?
Joyce has the potential to be so much more than just the frightened, exhausted, and hysterical mother. It is not exciting to watch movies and television that put women in the same false boxes over and over. It restricts female agency and takes away from the show. It also reinforces untrue ideas that women are incompetent and run purely off of emotion.
Another glaring issue that plays into my dislike of the decision to make Joyce a constant wreck is the fact that men, particularly Chief Jim Hopper, serve as foils to her emotional instability. Although Chief Hopper is a mediocre white man with substance abuse problems, he is portrayed as rational, in control, and the voice of reason. Especially when he is dealing with Joyce. He instructs Joyce’s older son, Jonathon Byers, to take care of Joyce because she “needs him.” Apparently, Chief Hopper believes that a grown woman needs extreme support from her teenage son. He even tells her, in a calm tone, that she is being “emotional” while she is anxiously attempting to explain that she heard Will’s voice on the phone after he has disappeared.
Note to all men everywhere: never tell a woman she is being emotional when she is voicing a concern. Just don’t.
During the season, Chief Hopper, despite his own internal struggles with the death of his daughter, his divorce, and his alcoholism, manages to “keep his cool” and work on the investigation of Will’s disappearance. He is portrayed as strong, whereas Joyce is portrayed as weak and even crazy (i.e. when she believes Will is communicating with her using the lights in the house).
There is absolutely nothing special about Chief Hopper, yet he is the one who “helps” Joyce stay calm and focused. He is simply a white man in a position of power.
Casting Joyce as the helpless woman and Chief Hopper as the man who comes to save the day does significant damage to the portrayal of women in television and media. It succumbs to false gender stereotypes and outdated gender norms. It celebrates male mediocrity while reinforcing the destructive stereotype that women are emotional and need men to guide and take care of them. It takes power away from women and puts it in the hands of men who determine how to handle high-stress situations.
Here’s to hoping that the second season of Stranger Things will give us justice for Barb and for Joyce Byers.