“Funny” Anguish, Female Exceptionalism, and Stranger Things 2

Spoilers. Large ones.

Last time I watched an entire season of Stranger Things in a short amount of time, I wrote this thing about the weird trope of young women having sex while someone they’re responsible for in some way dies, or, almost dies. I called it “girls murdering people by having sex” and in this season, Nancy literally tells Steve that they killed Barb. So. I’m right.

This time around, I would like to not be insightful and instead complain about the two things that bothered me. First, the minor thing: the cat’s death.

As soon as they introduced that cat I knew she was going to die. As soon as they introduced Dart I knew he was going to kill her. What I have a problem with (apart from transparent AF storytelling) is more how the show reacts to the death of the cat than the actual death of the cat.

dustin and momdustin's mom

Dustin tells his mom that far away neighbours spotted the cat and sends her off to look. She’s crying, anguished, worried sick, and because of how every other scene between Dustin and Mom-Dustin has played, this too looks like it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe it’s because I’m me, but I don’t actually see anything funny about this. Even if Mom-Dustin never finds out how her cat died, she’ll be left imagining the worst. She’ll never have closure. And knowing how her cat died, while providing closure, sure, will never relieve the sorrow she’ll always feel that her cat died that way, even if she has a new one.

Even if you’re not inclined to sympathize with people feeling reasonable amounts of attachment to their pets or feeling a reasonable amount of worry for them, you do have to note that aspects of Mom-Dustin’s character are also problematic here. She’s an older, single woman, with a cat. She’s adorable, generously affectionate, and in a season filled with bigger dudes, she’s pretty much the biggest woman present (and, she’s, like, not that big). Depicting her worry and sorrow like this, like it’s something to laugh at (and I’m not going to give the show the benefit of the doubt here; again, every other scene between her and her son is played for laughs), is cruel. Ugh.

It would probably have been better if there had been a point to the Dart subplot apart from padding up the run-time, and giving Dustin something to do that isn’t just him being a little shit (and whether what he does with Dart, up to and including facilitating his friends’ escape with candy, is him not being a little shit is debatable). It adds nothing. Learning that Dart feels some amount of empathy or childhood nostalgia is useless if all that comes of it is we watch him die next to a chocolate bar wrapper and are… supposed… to feel… sad? This isn’t nuance added, it’s just, there. Just a little mini adventure in the interest of selling chocolate bars. At least the cringey KFC part was legitimately sad, and not just because four helpless actors were contractually obligated to pretend to enjoy KFC.

And then there’s that female exceptionalism.

I didn’t notice it when I first watched the first season, but then reading this was eye-opening. Eleven is the only girl in a group of four boys and the reality is, she’s only allowed to be there because she’s quirky, quiet, and deadly. That was made very clear in this new season with the addition of Max.

Max’s first appearance concerned me because it seemed like it was carrying on the female exceptionalism of season one Eleven. Max is angry, lashes out, flips off her step brother, and is really good at video games. Everything seemed to be leading up to that dreaded “she’s not like other girls” thing that goes unspoken – but, actually, it gets spoken in Season 2.

I forget what he calls them, but Steve has come up with two categories in which to place all girls ever – it’s fine though, because the only important thing about it is that when Dustin asks, “So which is Nancy?” Steve’s response is, “Nancy is different.”

Uuuuuuuuugh.

Unlike with Mom-Dustin, here, I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt. Steve and Dustin’s whole conversation about how to “get girls” or whatever is absolutely ridiculous, and I think what it’s really trying to get across is not that Max and Nancy are somehow different, but instead that these two boys have a flawed and uninformed outlook on one half of the population. At least, that’s how I’m going to take it, to preserve my peace of mind.

It doesn’t hurt that when Max actually does join their group, she acts like a regular person and not a brooding, intriguing, aloof mystery. She has fun trick-or-treating and joking around, is curious, and wants to be included in whatever the little group is doing. She’s honestly more real than Bev Marsh is in this year’s It, and, minus all of the rejection and rudeness she endures (which I have to talk about in a second), Max is a lot more like what Bev should have been. Until near the end, anyway.

trick or treating

Max starts out as a good answer to the female exceptionalism of season one because what happens when she joins the group is utter dickishness. Dustin and Lucas are both happy at first but start competing for her attention. Mike is pissed because he thinks she’s there to replace Eleven. Eleven is pissed because she thinks she’s there to replace Eleven.

My girl. My boy. You can have more than one girl in your group.

Dustin decides that Max likes Lucas better than him and gets all sad about it. Unlike Ben Hanscom who endures Bev’s crush on not him with grace, Dustin becomes prickly and pathetic about it too. He lashes out at Max just like Mike does.

The only unrealistic thing about boys treating girls like they’re encroaching on their precious nerd safe spaces or lashing out at them when they don’t lavish them with the attentions they think they’re entitled to is that Max, um, stays. For some inexplicable reason.

She does try to leave at one point. But then Lucas goes out of his way to include her in the group’s secrets. They talk. He’s genuinely nice to her. He’s the only one who treats her like a human being. They actually communicate with each other. They worry about what dangerous effects their associating might have on each other. Their relationship is one of the most functional this season. It does bother me that, once again, the only boy being nice to the only girl is the one who has a (requited) crush. But still, in a sea of “everyone is being a jerk to Max,” Lucas’s parts were nice.

The inclusion of Lucas’s sister makes it better. She mocks Lucas for only being friends with boys, so, really, Lucas’s attempts to include Max could be partly him actually listening to the wise council of his sister. Expanding his horizons, getting to know people with different lived experiences, not closing off his spaces to people based on gender, and not just because he has a crush on her and is being selfish.

The best moment this season is her barbie’s make-out session with He-Man, and then when Lucas takes He-Man away she just replaces him with an owl.

lucas sister

lucas sister 2

LOL.

Here’s the problem: Max is finally accepted into the group when she physically attacks her much larger, much more dangerous step brother, threatens him with the nail bat, and then drives them to a pumpkin patch. That stuff was all cool, don’t get me wrong, but the fact that it takes this for Mike and Dustin to get over themselves sucks. None of the boys have to prove their worth to get into the nerd club by assaulting huge bullies and doing things kids shouldn’t be doing. But both Max and Eleven last season had to. Not cool, dudes.

Also, not cool, Eleven.

Look at this:

mike and max

This is the part where Max is wearing Mike down, and actually makes him smile, because she wants to be accepted. I maintain that she’d have blown these losers off a long time ago but whatever, this scene is cute. Except for the part where Eleven is watching this entirely innocent conversation, gets jealous after two seconds, and knocks Max off her board with her mind. I thought maybe we’d have a moment where Max and Eleven talk properly, but no, all we get is Max trying to introduce herself and Eleven ignoring her.

It made me get really sad, remembering the story of how Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown were on set, and knowing that female camaraderie that absolutely happens everyday in real life in response to male dickishness was never going to be portrayed on this show, even though it happens literally on set:

And for the moments the boys on set, with their silly crushes, became tiresome, Brown could turn to Winona Ryder. “I would just go to her like, ‘Ugh, the boys are getting on my nerves today!’ And she’d be like, ‘Got it — come sit.’ And we’d eat cheese.”

I’m pretty sure that if you’re the only girl in a group of all boys, the addition of another girl would be fantastic. But the show wanted to focus on the romantic tension between Mike and Eleven. Which is stupid, because jealousy that turns into rudeness and violence isn’t romantic. Like. This needed a resolution, but the two girls never even look at each other ever again. Season 3?

And then there’s the Nancy/Dustin dance. I was prepared to love it until Nancy says, “Girls this age are dumb. Give them a couple of years and they’ll wise up,” and broke my heart.

Nancy. No.

I mean, maybe in a couple of years they’ll come around because Dustin will be treating girls like human beings rather than being a huge jerk to them when he doesn’t get his way, or only smiling and winking and asking them to dance when he’s interested in them as whatever the 12-year-old version of a sex object is and not because he might actually want to get to know them as people also. But probably not. Not when the older girl he looks up to tells him the rejection he just experienced is basically illegitimate because “girls are dumb.”

I understand that the show is portraying this as, “little innocent boy just wants to dance with pretty girls but they all think he’s awkward and nerdy and then it makes him sad and that’s so sad” but the majority of his screen time with Max this season has either been him coming on too strong or being really mean, and comparatively very little actual listening and empathizing. I feel like all the popular girls have, I don’t know, noticed, that the kid is a jerk to girls, and rejected him accordingly, and not because of his hair or whatever. And where is the extended-for-audience-sympathy part where Max sits alone and cries because the boys that were supposed to be her friends are being total assholes to her and she doesn’t understand why? And then Steve or whoever sits with her and is like, “… um. Go make female friends. Seriously.”

So I’m just going to go ahead and say it. Overall, Stranger Things is totally cool with the “no girls allowed” sign. Because the girls who are allowed are different, so they don’t really count as girls anyway.

Man. I started out this post thinking I enjoyed the season overall and now I actually feel horrible. Sigh.

Pssst. People who make Stranger Things. Please watch this scene please please please. Before you make Season 3. Thanks.

One thought on ““Funny” Anguish, Female Exceptionalism, and Stranger Things 2

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