It’s not every day that you find a show with a genuinely inspiring female lead, much less one that’s portrayed by a 13-year-old actress who’s been called the next Meryl Streep.
But on Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven not only subverts practically every sexist trope in the horror movie canon, but she also manages to do it without sacrificing her femininity.
The Duffer Brothers and the Stranger Things writers have created not only a cultural phenomenon of a show but also arguably the empowering female character on television right now.
Warning: Stranger Things spoilers ahead! If for some reason you haven’t been holed up in your house for the past week doing nothing but watching season two of Stranger Things, then back up and save this story for once you’ve finished watching. If, like me, you plan your social life (or lack thereof) around Netflix releases, then keep reading.
She always saves the day
At the Glamour Women of the Year awards in 2015, Reese Witherspoon pointed something out that has haunted my viewing experiences ever since. “I dread reading scripts that have no women involved in their creation because inevitably, the girl turns to the guy and says, ‘What do we do now?’ Go back and watch any movie, you will see this line over and over,” she told the crowd. And it’s so true!
From Daphne in Scooby Doo to Sloane in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a truly alarming number of women have been asked to utter this question, with all of its sexist implications. But Eleven’s character is the antithesis of this unfortunate (and blatantly untrue) caricature. Not only did she kill the Demogorgon at the end of season one, but she saves the day again this season, showing up with a bang of an entrance just in the nick of time to save the gang from an impending pack of Demodogs.
While Stranger Things has a very dude-heavy cast and often presents coming-of-age experiences like having a crush or being bullied from a male point of view, it’s a young girl who is widely acknowledged to be the most powerful member of the group.
She proves strength and femininity aren’t mutually exclusive
At the same time, Eleven’s power isn’t her only character trait. She’s allowed to have emotions, too, which is kind of revolutionary. In a misguided effort to telegraph their competence, writers and filmmakers often depict strong female characters as unfeeling, and/or unconcerned with the traditional trappings of femininity, which is really sexist if you think about it.
The message is that being powerful and being feminine or emotionally vulnerable (something that’s typically thought of as a feminine trait) are mutually exclusive, which couldn’t be less accurate. In real life, it’s okay to be human, even if, like Eleven, you have some super-human abilities. It’s refreshing that Eleven is allowed to care about her looks – from the “pretty” dress she chooses in season one to her punky season two makeover (more on that later) – while also displaying feats of great strength, like flipping a van with her mind and saving her friends from certain death.
Similarly, she simultaneously shows vulnerability around the people close to her, like Mike and Chief Hopper, and is steely to those she perceives to be a threat, like Max and Dr. Brenner and his team. She can be a brat sometimes. And while it shouldn’t be newsworthy to find a female character who is allowed to express a full range of emotions without being seen as impotent, it kind of is.
She’s on a quest for self-knowledge
Eleven has arguably the most complex, emotionally-charged storyline of the any character on the show, and season two provides us with an unprecedented look into her tragic backstory. Because of her abilities, she can “visit” people like her estranged, severely traumatized mother, from whom she was taken as a baby, and we never see her shy away from those experiences.
Placed in the same situation, I’m not sure all of us would be strong enough to confront the secrets of our dark past in such a head-on manner. But her quest, however detached from the laws of physics it may be, also makes her relatable. Aren’t we all constantly on a search for our truest selves? Don’t we all have dark things from our past that we must decide to either confront or ignore? If only we could all be so steadfast in examining our own lives.
But she doesn’t let her past define her
At the same time, Eleven doesn’t let her messed-up childhood define who she is, a state of enlightenment that most of us spend years in therapy hoping to achieve. This is evidenced when she chooses to leave her “sister” Kali and her crew of aspirationally disheveled punks in Chicago to go back to Hawkins and reunite with her friends. “I’m sorry but I have to go back,” she tells Kali. “My friends need me.”
“They cannot save you,” her sister argues, no which Eleven responds, “No, but I can save them.” No only is that some next-level heroism, but it shows that, after years of being controlled by the likes of Dr. Brenner, Eleven is done letting anything – be it Demodogs, other people, or her own past – stand in her way.
She has an innate sense of style
Okay, so looking good obviously isn’t essential to empowerment, but how we present ourselves to the world says something significant about how we feel on the inside. So of course, despite the fact that she’s basically dressed in random hand-me-downs all the time, Eleven has the kind of natural style that money simply can’t buy. Not only can she pull off Converse, slicked-back hair and a blazer like nobody’s business, but she also somehow makes less obviously cool items like overalls or a ratty blonde wig work. It’s called panache, and Eleven has it in spades.