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Stranger Things Is Great at Subverting Toxic Masculinity

Stranger Things 2 boys

There’s been some understandable criticism of the flawed portrayals of women and girls in both seasons of Stranger Things. The first season was critiqued as using women as little more than plot devices, and a recent review of the second season referred to Joyce (Winona Ryder) and Nancy (Natalie Dyer) as “one-note characters.” There is certainly evidence to back up those claims. But while the way Stranger Things portrays women could be more nuanced, the show’s powerful deconstruction of toxic notions of masculinity makes it a decidedly feminist—though still arguably imperfect—piece of television.

In the final episode of Stranger Things 2, the party is getting ready for the big school dance. We see Joyce teaching Will (Noah Schnapp) to dance, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) practicing his “moves” in the mirror to the chagrin of his little sister, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) putting in next to no effort, and Dusty (Gaten Matarazzo) searching his house for his newly acquired Farrah Fawcett hairspray. Dusty’s dressed up to the nines and has primped his hair to the max. This is clearly meant to be his big night. This is his “glasses come off,” “beautiful all along” moment. But when he gets to the dance, things don’t go quite according to plan. He ends up sitting on the bleachers of the gym, in tears. It’s a heartbreaking and genuinely relatable moment that summons to mind the difficulties of early adolescence and the struggle of not quite fitting in. It’s also the final scene featuring a male character crying in a show that is surprisingly full of such moments.

Now, teenage boys crying in movies was not an uncommon trope in the 1980s. The Last American Virgin ends with its lead male character in tears. Mick O’Brien (Sean Penn) in 1983’s Bad Boys cries repeatedly, and Andrew McCarthy’s Jonathan in 1983’s Class and Blane in Sixteen Candles shed tears on screen. In all of these examples, the tears signified the sensitivity and emotional depth of the main character. So while the male tears in Stranger Things 2 might seem like an homage to the decade it’s inspired by, the frequency with which we see this take place on screen, and the sheer number of male characters to cry, makes the show feel unusual.

The tears in Stranger Things 2 do not only serve to showcase the sensitivity of its primary leads. Dusty, for instance, is often presented as the wisecracking comic relief character. His antics at the dance could be played as the actions of a typical bumbling lothario. Dusty’s dance scene could be compared to much of what Anthony Michael Hall’s “Farmer” Ted goes through in Sixteen Candles, where the rejections Ted faces are played for laughs. But Stranger Things doesn’t allow Dusty’s attempts at wooing girls to be played as ill-advised jokes. There is clearly a complex, insecure person underneath the outgoing façade—a person who tried hard to look good, who mustered up the courage required to ask girls to dance, only to be laughed at by both his friends and the girls. It’s understandable that he’s upset. Moreover, Dusty’s night does not go the way of Ted’s. Nobody suggests he drive a Caroline home; no comedy writes off his humiliations. Instead, he does get the chance to dance with Nancy and to feel marginally better about himself for a minute. It’s a bittersweet moment and reflects all the challenges of growing up, and especially growing up “different.”

But Stranger Things does not save crying for its likable characters. Billy (Dacre Montgomery)—the stereotypical ’80s bully, with his glorious mullet, overly tight jeans, dangling earring, and implied racism—cries on screen, too. His father is physically and verbally abusive. Billy gets pushed up against a wall, and insulted until tears come streaming down his face. What makes this moment powerful is that it does not redeem him as a character. We aren’t expected to root for him, simply because he has been shown to be “sensitive” through his tears. In the next few minutes of the episode, Billy is back with a vengeance and more abusive than ever, forcing Lucas up against a wall in a striking parallel to his own night. When Max finally stands up to her step-brother, by injecting him with a sedative and smacking a baseball bat with nails in between his legs, we as audience members feel very little pity for our mulletted bully. The abuse we witness is not used to excuse his actions, and it’s not intended to showcase some kind of hidden depth. The moment does not turn Billy into an anti-hero (though admittedly a third season might). Rather, it deftly deconstructs the notion that men—particularly terrible men—are emotionless and “manly” all the time. Even bad people have complex emotions.

There is no male character in the Stranger Things 2 universe who subscribes wholly to traditional notions of masculinity. Perhaps Chief Hopper (David Harbour) comes closest, but we repeatedly see him battle to control and come to terms with his emotions, and we do see him cry. We see him worrying about his weight repeatedly: in jest to Eleven, and again in the diner in the final scene. He’s definitely strong, and a cop, but he’s not the archetypal “man’s man,” and the anxieties he expresses reveal that does not see himself as one. Bob (Sean Astin), the other adult male protagonist this season, strays even further from traditional notions of masculinity. But Bob is also brave enough to go and put himself in physical danger when that’s needed to save his girlfriend and her son, and his heroism is in no way downplayed. In short, both adults straddle expectations around masculinity, and so serve to deconstruct pre-conceived expectations of it.

After spending a season toying with the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle, Stranger Things resolves it by pairing Nancy with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton)—the more sensitive and less archetypically masculine of the two. Nancy comforting Jonathan while Joyce desperately tries to “exorcise” the Mind Flayer from Will’s body demonstrates his character’s sensitive nature in relation to the women in his life. However, throughout this season, it is clear that Steve (Joe Keery) subverts expectations around masculinity, as well. Instead of pitting the two boys against each other in preparation for a genre-appropriate fistfight, the boys learn to tolerate one another and respect Nancy’s choices. When Nancy gets drunk and tells Steve he’s “bullshit,” he asks Jonathan to take her home. It’s both a surrender and an admission for how much he still cares about Nancy. Later, Steve revels in his role as the “babysitter” and shows little shame when he loses a physical fight to Billy and gets patched up by the children. In short, Steve is a complex male character with complicated feelings, which we are lucky enough to see.

A lesser show—especially one similarly inspired by decades gone by—could easily rely on stereotypes. But Stranger Things 2 uses its source material to deconstruct traditional ideas of masculinity and to push for a more emotionally deep and ultimately less patriarchal world. And for that, it deserves a major round of applause.

(image: Netflix)

Natasha is a freelance writer, teacher, grad student, feminist and shameless binge watcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Twitter: @natskoryk. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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