First of all, the new season of Stranger Things was excellent. #SteveTheBabysitterForever. Aside from a few nitpicks (Eleven being too ancillary to the plot, her weird midseason field trip that influenced literally nothing, etc), I found myself with only one major issue: Eleven/Jane and Max. Light spoilers ahead.
Last season we basically had three female characters- Joyce Mom-Of-The-Year Byers, Nancy Surprisingly-Savvy-At-Monster-Hunting Wheeler, and Eleven. They were integral to the plot, defied simplicity or trope, and were all around allstars. This season, we added Max, the new girl in town who’s -gasp- good at video games. Naturally, half the boys immediately fall in love with this unique specimen. We’re going to sidestep the frankly bizarre subplot about her family (were her parents always there? Also, is the “insidious” nature of her relationship with Psycho Never-Buttons-His-Shirt just step-siblings? Why was any of that necessary? Like, at all?) to focus on how this new girl affects our existing fave, Eleven.
Eleven spends (arguably too much of) this season isolated from the rest of the cast (and the plot, if we’re being really honest). Jim Dad-Of-The-Year Hopper makes her stay in the cabin for safety reasons, and thus Eleven’s only contact with her gang is a one-way psychic spy session. She’s unaware that there’s been a new addition to the team until she decides to go find her friends at their school and discovers Max riding her Very Cool skateboard in circles around Mike. Jealous, Eleven does her magic thing and causes Max to fall off the skateboard.
This scene, alone, isn’t great, but it is somewhat explainable. Eleven’s only contact with women up to this point has been Joyce, which is not her fault, and Eleven also knows from last season that her boy gang is incredibly insular, so in her emotional (and female-isolated) state, seeing Max as a member of their group, not to mention kid-flirting with her favorite boy, is upsetting. She lashes out, but she’s been lashing out a lot recently and we could write it off.
Max, on the flipside, is definitely jealous of Eleven, even before she heard the whole story. I mean, who wouldn’t be. However, the next time Eleven shows up and the first time the two girls officially meet, Max holds out a hand in greeting. It’s probably the friendliest Max has ever been, and Eleven, in her Greaser getup, walks right past her. They do not interact again, not even at the denouement dance.
That…. sucks. And while we could argue about Eleven’s limited worldview and social understandings from here until season 3, it super did not have to go down that way. The Duffer Brothers have created an incredible, complex world, full of incredible, complex people, but no matter what era or story we’re in, there can only be One girl per Boy Gang. Period.
Having grown up a girl, this mindset of “other girls are my competition” is far from foreign. I was absolutely guilty of it, especially as I’d aligned my identity with the label Tomboy. According to culture (and the kids around me), Tomboys were in short supply, and they were really only special if there was only one per Boy Gang. Boy Gangs were cool and always getting into capers and were the obvious pinnacle of the adolescent social scene, regardless of the popularity level of the individual Boys. I regarded every other girl in my class with suspicion and fear, especially the ones who also wore ripped jeans or played sports. At any moment, I could be usurped. I got to the Boy Gang game early, but that was no guarantee, because Boys have no loyalty, especially not to their Token Tomboy. I resented every girl who ever joined our playground basketball games, or who joined our lunch table, and even those who dated my friends, because their mere presence, let alone participation, threatened my placement in the group. I knew I was a token even before I understood what that meant, and I was taught to want that.
Let me repeat that: I knew I was a token, and I was taught to want to be.
The number of friendships I didn’t initiate or actively ruined due to this mindset will haunt me forever. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be the only girl in a group of all guys, but I internalized that Boy Gangs were socially superior to Girl Gangs. Belonging to a Girl Gang was an inferior state of being, and for the time that I was a part of one, I ditched them as much as possible if given the opportunity. I never learned to talk to women, not really, and that’s something I still struggle with today. At parties, I continually gravitate towards guys, and most of my close friendships since moving to New York have been with men. Turning off the voice in my head that says I’m too brash for other women, too aggressive or vulgar has proved difficult.
It wasn’t until college that I truly understood how toxic this worldview was, because everything in culture reinforced that I was right- There Can Only Be One. And I was going to be that One if it killed me and every female friendship that came near.
I get that Stranger Things luxuriates in its tropes. I get that the Smurfette Principal is one such trope, and that a second Smurfette competing with the original Smurfette for screen time is another one. But while some tropes are fun and campy, others are dangerously irresponsible for formative minds, especially the formative minds of young women who are already constantly deluged by a culture that wants to keep them as far apart as possible. And before you tell me that it’s “just a show” and it “has no real world impact,” I don’t have time for your brainwashed patriarchal nonsense. Read this, listen to women, and shut up.
Other women are not my competition. And media needs to stop reinforcing this false, harmful narrative.