Season three, now streaming on Netflix, aims to correct that. New characters Erica (Priah Ferguson) and Robin (Maya Hawke) have been added to the mix and given meaty parts, there’s a whole storyline about Nancy (Natalia Dyer) battling sexism in the workplace, and Eleven and Max have become best friends. In fact, much of the action this season involves the female characters taking charge – like when Robin solves the Russian code or Nancy convinces Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) to investigate the rats with her.
Stranger Things is such a beloved, massively popular series that criticism of the Netflix original has been surprisingly minor – unlike, say, Game of Thrones – though there’s one area that had room for improvement: the depiction of its female characters. As this Vox review points out, past seasons have treated the girls of the group with something of a “there can only be one” mentality, like how Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) freaked out when Max (Sadie Sink) joined the gang.
“I feel like all the women are starting to take action,” Cara Buono (who plays Karen Wheeler) tells Glamour. “They have to be persuasive…I think that’s a really great theme of this season. I think it will bode well for future seasons and to see where that leads.”
Dyer credits co-creators Matt and Ross Duffer for this new theme. “They are sensitive to their female storylines, which is not true of all male writers and directors,” she says. When she read the scripts for this season, she felt Nancy’s issues with sexist coworkers at her summer internship would be relatable for many women. “I’ve often been asked lately if I drew from any particular experiences for those scenes,” she tells us, “and I’m like, ‘Just being a woman in the world, you can draw on that pretty quickly.'”
Dyer adds that season one Nancy didn’t have the same drive and confidence she carries in season three. “She’s grown a lot, and it really helps her speak up and find her truth and sense of justice and dignity,” she says. “She realizes it’s her right to be here and be respected and be a human and be heard and not degraded.”
As determined as Nancy is this season, there’s a moment when she doubts herself – and it’s her mother, Karen, who gives her the pep talk needed to push forward. “The dynamic between Nancy and her mother in past seasons has been more of the teenager hiding things and pushing her mom away,” Dyer says. “So it was really nice to have that moment.”
Dyer says she’s glad the show included a moment many women likely experience – a time when you’re feeling down and just want your mom to comfort you. “Like, ‘Tell me how you got through this. Tell me what you did,'” she explains. “There’s that oral history of the mother passing on knowledge; in some ways for women it’s almost like a secret knowledge of how to survive in this world. There’s such a beautiful dynamic in that scene.”
As for Buono, she hopes the pep talk has just as much an effect on Karen as it does Nancy. “Karen’s speech clearly inspires Nancy. And, who knows, maybe going forward we’ll see Karen get to be a little selfish too,” she says. “Maybe she can do something for herself and get back to something she wanted to do and take a risk now. She’s giving advice to Nancy – but maybe she’ll take her own advice.”
Of course, another crucial bonding moment this season comes from Max and El’s new friendship. They connect as most teen girls do: trips to the mall, talking about their crushes, having sleepovers. “We’ve only ever really seen boy power on the show,” Brown tells Glamour. “It’s so important to have those boys and their friendship, but this season we needed to see the girls on screen too. It was so important for Stranger Things to embody that girl power – and what other way than to have Max and Eleven, two powerful forces, come together?”
Adds Sink, “I love that you get to see two girls who are both powerful in their own way get along so well.” Sink tells us she wasn’t happy with how the show left Max and Eleven’s relationship at the end of season two. “I thought it was going to go in the direction of pitting them against each other and having a weird rivalry or something,” she explains. “But the Duffers were like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the case. We’re going to have a good bond between them.’ I was so glad.”
“It was nice not to have girls that are fighting or petty – putting them up against each other and comparing them,” she continues. “I’m just glad that they’re able to guide each other and be role models to each other in their own different ways.”
Their costar Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) was also happy to see the two become BFFs. “Max is a great character,” he tells us. “And it’s great that El isn’t just the girlfriend. She’s also not just the weapon. There’s so much to El, and she learns to function and be a human being in this world – and Max helps her do that. It’s really inspiring.”
Whether it’s through new bonds or new characters, seeing Stranger Things course correct does have an impact. It matters that a hit series can show a variety of characters with a variety of different backgrounds. As Dyer tells us, “It’s not a show about sexism.” That said, “I think there’s power in showing those things reflected back at you in a show people love to watch – and it’s a fun watch. They hit [harder], in a certain way.”
Anna Moeslein is a senior editor at Glamour US. Jessica Radloff is the west coast editor.