I have to preface this with a couple of things so let’s start with the awesome: Stranger Things on Netflix is amazing and you should watch it if you haven’t already. *shhhhpoilers below for some things including Stranger Things*
But also, something happens in it that makes it the fourth narrative I’ve seen to dabble with this “girl murders someone by having sex” trope that apparently exists, so I felt now was as good a time as any to discuss it.
And one more thing. Apparently water, or, maybe more specifically, rushing water, is generally accepted as a metaphor for female orgasm. Which makes this:
Disney’s most iconic animated orgasm.*
You can’t help seeing it now, can you. Sorry.
Look, I don’t know about that, but it’s an important sidenote to this weirdness.
Because there are four stories that come to mind that do this weird thing: that one artsy Ellen Page movie, Mermaids, The Casual Vacancy, and now Stranger Things. In each of these, a girl has inappropriately timed (and, often, inappropriately placed) sex while someone she’s responsible for, usually a younger sibling, wanders off and drowns.
So I’ll start with the Ellen Page movie because I can’t remember much about it and won’t even google it to see what it is I’m supposed to be talking about. Start this thing off right.
The movie shows perpetual split screen images of Ellen Page doing stuff a few seconds before and after so that everyone gets a headache, and ultimately you learn the reason she’s feeling so fragmented (hang on. Is it called Fragmented? Now I have to look. OK it’s called The Tracey Fragments see I know things) is because while she and her small brother were out walking in the woods in the middle of winter some guy she liked showed up so they had sex and her brother wandered off, fell in the river, and drowned.
Because I watched it all of one time and remember it vaguely, we’ll pretend that the movie doesn’t have anything interesting to say about its premise. Just, girl feels guilty forever, we’re not sure why, then we find out and we get it. She screwed up. She had a responsibility which she shirked in order to have sex. It’s sort of the ultimate “you didn’t mean for anything bad to happen but your negligence is almost as bad if not perhaps worse than if you’d intentionally done the terrible thing” story for girls. And apparently it keeps getting told.
It was told more interestingly in Mermaids – the one that came out before The Tracey Fragments. Mermaids is the only one where no one dies, but it’s a very close call. Young Winona Ryder is forever at odds with her mom, Cher, and one night she and her little sister Christina Ricci get drunk and wander down to the convent where Christina Ricci collects rocks from a rushing stream while Winona Ryder has sex with the convent caretaker guy she’s liked the whole time. And Christina Ricci, a champion swimmer, and also a drunk, like, eight-year-old, almost drowns.
Like Tracey, this happens as the climax of the film. It brings the conflict between mother and daughter to a head, and they get over it and heal. Ryder says, “Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I am really, really sorry. It was a big mistake.” That’s not to say that they skirt over it – you’d have to watch the movie to know how well they do this. The Tracey Fragments might be artsy but in my opinion at least, Mermaids is the one that handles the guilt of the whole thing so remarkably well.
(this is the part that happens after the guilt)
It helps that Ryder’s character spends the entire first three-quarters of the movie feeling guilty about her lust for caretaker dude and obsessed with Catholic lore. It also helps that Cher’s mother figure is certainly not let off the hook herself for being kind of awful at communication. In the end, Ryder learns that there are much worse things that can happen than having sex with the guy you like, and Cher learns to listen to her kid. It’s probably the most compelling mother-daughter movie I know of.
Then there’s The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first book post-Harry Potter. Reading it was a little surreal, because as it turns out, Rowling is really good at writing characters for you to despise. I mean, we knew this because of Umbridge but who knew she could write everyday characters with such petty little concerns and propensity to hurt others for the hell of it?
The Casual Vacancy also climaxes with murder-by-girl-having-sex when the closest thing we have to a hero (apart from the actual hero Sukhvinder, who is amazing) Krystal, in a moment of desperation, has sex with Fats in some woods while her toddler brother Robbie wanders off and drowns.
I suppose I was supposed to be horrified by the plausible and truly horrifying thing happening on the page before me the first time I read it but mostly I just felt that vague sense of familiarity. “Yep. It’s happening again.”
That isn’t to say that I didn’t like it. I really like this book. I like how small and sad it is, and although I heard all the criticism after its release that it wasn’t about anything big enough or worthy enough of Rowling and her audience, I can’t agree. It’s one of the most damning things I’ve read on poverty and middle-class complacency.
What’s more is that the part with Krystal at the end doesn’t come out of nowhere – like Winona Ryder in Mermaids, we watch the inevitable happen, only that Krysal I think comes out of the story almost blameless.
She’s not entirely blameless but the narrative very deliberately shines the spotlight on everyone else involved. First of all, Krystal is driven out of her home by a rapist awful garbage person, and she has to take her brother because she is worried for him. She has sex with Fats because the only plan she can conceive of to get her and her brother out of her horrible circumstances is to get pregnant with Fats’s child, particularly Fats, because he will probably be willing to have unprotected sex and she thinks his mother is kind. She envisions a future where Fats’s mother and the welfare system give her a home of her own.
Let’s start with Fats. Fats is one of the worst people in Pagford and takes some blame. He knows that it’s wrong to have sex in front of Robbie, he feels better about it when Krystal sends him a little ways off, and doesn’t stop her or himself. Later, having to learn that Robbie did indeed die, he has to feel what must be life-altering remorse and it is GLORIOUS. I don’t think it was supposed to be so cathartic, I think I was supposed to feel a little empty afterwards but I really hated him. It was nice to see him in some real pain.
Three of the other characters encounter Robbie as he wanders farther from Krystal. Samantha sees him not in harm’s way but doesn’t do anything about it because she intuits that he’s a poor child. He’s dirty-looking. She assumes it’s therefore OK for him to be alone. Later she’s consumed by guilt and her character is one of the few that learns something from the whole situation.
Shirley, another of Pagford’s most awful, sees Robbie and does nothing. She later takes pleasure in gossiping about it and is kind of stumped when Maureen (I think it’s Maureen) calls her out: “Um… you saw him and didn’t help him? And then he drowned? WTF are you bragging about?”
And then Gavin, another just truly garbage person, sees him very close to the river but he’s so caught up in his own unimportant nonsense that he doesn’t even remember seeing him afterwards because he is just that awful.
Overall the story is about how a community like Pagford fails its most vulnerable, and I mean, it deliberately and sometimes gleefully fails them. Krystal, in the end, is not the one saddled with the blame for Robbie’s death. But she does have some responsibility, and Robbie drowns like our other two little siblings not looked out for properly.
And finally we arrive at Stranger Things. This time the death isn’t explicitly water-related and it’s not the girl’s little brother or sister who dies. This time, it’s Nancy and her stupid boyfriend Steve having sex while the demogorgon drags her friend Barb into the upside-down world pool (which, admittedly, is empty). So water is still sort of there, and even though Nancy isn’t Barb’s older sister there’s still some responsibility there.
The girls plan to go to Steve’s house together so that they can look out for each other – specifically, Barb is supposed to watch out for Nancy. But Nancy starts caving to peer pressure (as you do) and convinces Barb to join the uber fun of cutting open a beer can to drink from it, which leads to Barb’s injury, which leads to the demogorgon showing up to kill her.
It is unquestioningly Nancy who convinces Barb to cut open the can, and they later have a strained conversation in which Barb tries to convince Nancy to come home with her and Nancy blows her off. That isn’t good girlfriend behaviour, Nance.
Yet again, sex is intercut with ultimately fatal struggling (that only sort of involves water this time)… and we’re left blaming Nancy?
Like The Casual Vacancy, something a lot bigger than one girl’s lack of conscientiousness in one specific moment is going on. The demogorgon is an evil entity who probably would have killed Barb even if Nancy had gone home with her. In other words, with a different villain present the blame game is a lot more fair to the girl who just wanted a good time, really.
What’s also nice about this show is that Steve ends up surprising us. Yes I am forever in love with Jonathon Bryers despite his grey area photo session there and I did yell “Really?” at the TV when I saw Nancy and Steve cuddled up at the end, but I’m happy to admit that the show letting Steve change his ways and become a good person is a much better story than the usual “Girl shouldn’t have been with this douchebag and she suffers for it and then she learns the error of her ways and is rescued by the nicer quieter self-image insert guy that she never would have been interested in without all the suffering we made her endure” version that’s been told to death. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good romance with obstacles even if it’s this old story again, but it’s definitely nice to be surprised. I’m happy for Steve, that he saved himself from eternal douchehood. And I’m happy that Nancy is vindicated in the end because she’s not just a lost girl dating the wrong guy – we learn that she has decent taste eventually. I just hope in season 2 (if it happens) he and Nancy mutually grow apart and she can live happily ever after with Jonathon. But whatever.
The point is, this is a weird trope that likely rises out of some serious fear and mistrust of female sexuality, but as evidenced by these three really enjoyable and interesting stories making use of said weird trope, even the most problematic of stories and tropes can be rescued with clever thinking-outside-the-box storytelling and, importantly, well-written and flawed characters being allowed to make mistakes and potentially grow.
Also I need to rewatch all of Stranger Things immediately.
*I learned this weirdness from Moviebob and I can’t for the life of me remember which video(s) or articles he said this in. Sorry.
PS: I don’t actually know if I’m supposed to call the monster “the demogorgon” but I’m going to and I’m going to hear it in Dustin’s voice forever and always kthnxbai