The trailer for Stranger Things season three is out, and I am slightly bewildered by how much hype it instilled in me. For the promise of new even spookier monsters, sure; for the atrocious psychedelic magic of the ‘80s aesthetic, absolutely. But what has me most excited is not any of that but a few small character-based cuts: images of Eleven and Max hanging out, being friends. And why does that excite me so much? Because it (potentially) heralds a shift away from one of the most frustrating aspects of the series: for all its focus on relationships, Stranger Things has historically been really meh when it comes to depicting them between women.
A lot of this simply comes down to where the show has so far placed its emotional focus. Now, what Stranger Things does do fantastically well is family dynamics, in all their complicated glory. I wrote about this after the first season, and the same neat techniques are applied to skateboarding Max and her mullet-toting stepbrother Billy in season two. We get a sense of the power dynamics in their household very quickly, fleshed out in greater shown-not-told detail later when their parents are finally introduced and the last few questions about the why and how of the stepsiblings’ behaviour slot into place.
However, while the family relationships provide an all-important background that informs a lot of what goes on, the show places a substantial amount of weight on romantic relationships–almost enough, in places, to push the significance of the family dynamics, or indeed, any other kind, to the background. I don’t want to write these romances off as overdone or unnecessary; in fact I’ll even reluctantly admit that, the further it moves away from the “jock versus sensitive artist” love triangle setup it was in season one, the relationship between Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve has the seeds of something interesting in it. And yes, fine, I’ve also fallen prey to the tantalising suggestion that Joyce and Hopper could Have a Thing (their actors have gentle chemistry), though I’m haunted by the knowledge that this would mean Joyce’s only significant, positive adult relationship is with her love interest. Doesn’t Joyce have, you know, friends? It seems not. The same could be said for Nancy, now that her most interesting dynamic is with her two boys, but we can get to that in a moment.
Uncomfortably, where I feel this skewed focus shines out the most is with the younger circle of the cast. There is an undertone of the magic of friendship with the main four boys, but, especially by the end of season two, it felt like this was placed in the background while the various puppy love dynamics were given full weight. This is especially glaring when it comes to Eleven. Eleven’s personal quest seems to be, above all else, to find a family, after her clinical and cruel upbringing in the lab where she was essentially treated as a human weapon. Her friendship with Mike in the first season was very cute and potentially very interesting, and it seemed a shame, to me as a viewer, to immediately chalk that protective instinct and compassion Mike has for her up to a crush.
The mutual resolution of their feelings—complete with smooch at the end of season one!—also seemed quite sudden. Eleven has only just learned what a “promise” and a “friend” is, and is putting together a less nasty image of what “family” is, so why foist romantic love on her as well in such a short timeframe? And why frame that as what saves the day when she could have just as easily leapt to protect Mike out of a feeling of family and friendship? I’m not saying we shouldn’t have stories about young love—it certainly happens in real life—but the immediate leap to romance, something Eleven really doesn’t comprehend, seemed like a bit much, and seemed to speak to a sentiment that their relationship just couldn’t have been as meaningful if they’d just been friends.
There’s a distinct lack of platonic connection in Eleven’s life: she doesn’t connect as personally with the other lads in the group, and is written to be actively antagonistic to other children her own age. Obviously with the bullies in the first season, this makes sense, but when it comes to her relationship with Max–the only other major female character in the younger age group–it falls headfirst into some frustrating tropes. Namely, the fact that Eleven’s romantic feelings send her straight to possessiveness and envy, at the expense of Eleven’s relationship to characters who aren’t Mike. As this post eloquently points out (“Duffer brothers delete your blog” is as scathing a critique as I’ve ever seen), Eleven’s immediate leap to jealous fury when she sees Max and Mike simply talking to each other is unwarranted and feels like a cheap trick based on sexist ideas. Instead of exploring a potential connection between the only two same-age girls in the cast, the writers instantly pit them against each other as romantic rivals. Reader, I sighed. Heavily.
The ending of season two (the last we’ve seen of the story, at time of writing) mostly focuses on a) the friendship between the boys, and b) the romantic relationships within the kid-group, both Max-and-Lucas and Eleven-and-Mike. This pretty much highlights the emotional priorities of the series as a whole: romances, then friendships between male characters, with family as background force. The emotional high at the end of the series rests on those two tween couples smooching. While Eleven does get a nice resolution with now-adoptive-dad Hopper, her big moment of fulfilment and catharsis is with Mike. And some of this is personal preference (and some of it is me being grossed out by the knowledge that the directors encouraged the actors to kiss even though they expressed discomfort with it) but it just felt, to use the official academic terminology, mehhhhh.
Maybe I wanted more of a slow-burn as Eleven relearned her humanity and worked her way up to a full and mature understanding of romantic attraction. Maybe I wanted at least one of the girls in the group to not be parcelled neatly off into a romance—Max, after all, even for all the development she gets, really is pigeonholed as The Girl for most of the series, since it’s framed so much through the boys’ perspectives. Maybe I was bummed that Max and Eleven don’t even glance at each other throughout this scene, leaving their relationship as an antagonistic one, and something the series didn’t feel the need to resolve because Eleven’s relationship to her now-boyfriend is just all the more important. Again, I can’t complain that she doesn’t also have a nice familial bond to balance it out, because her messy dynamic with Hopper is a delight, but it did stick out to me that the most important relationships in her life were with two dudes, and the most important one was framed as being her romantic partner.
As well as this prioritising of romance, Stranger Things has a problem overall where it gives us these really interesting female characters with a variety of strengths, but then doesn’t let them talk to each other. Speaking specifically on female friendship, the only ones we’ve seen have been swept under the rug pretty quickly: Joyce Byers is friends with Karen Wheeler in a very shallow sort of way (it’s not Karen who she confides in about the monster stuff, is it? She ushers her out of the house pretty quickly), and the only other friendship between major female characters was between Nancy and Barb… and we all know what happened to Barb.
You could say that their friendship is given great importance in the narrative because Barb’s disappearance (and later death) is what motivates Nancy, but we also don’t ever come to really understand how that friendship worked or why they cared about each other. By contrast, Nancy’s relationship with the boys in her life gets infinitely more development… ironically, while they investigate Barb together. She’s even third-wheeling from beyond the grave!
All of this is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see Max and Eleven clearly depicted as friends in the trailer for season three. If we do get the development of a platonic relationship between them, it would be a major step forward for the series in a lot of ways. If nothing else, they’d make a wonderfully terrifying team-up, with Max’s guts and Eleven’s telekinesis, which packs a lot of potential for the supernatural shenanigans that are inevitably going to go down. More than that, though, Eleven having an ordinary, goofy, supportive relationship with someone of her own gender and her own age is a beautiful step towards normal life for her. The same could be said for Max, who’s lived through her own abusive situation—though obviously on a different level to Eleven’s, the two still have common ground to bond over and can understand each other in ways I don’t think the boys in the group could. There is potential for something unique and very sweet here.
That being said, of course, I’m also excited for the prospect of Eleven becoming better friends with Will (lord knows they’ve got some gnarly shared trauma to bond over, if they want to), or hey, even better friends with Lucas or Dustin as individual people. The trailer’s focus on the group of young pals sets up their friendship as a central focus for the third season, rather than the romantic pairs. That might not ring true for the show itself, but it has me cautiously optimistic. There is repeated imagery there of the girls interacting positively with each other, which implies that their dynamic as romantic rivals has been tossed out the window, and that the number and types of relationships in Eleven’s life is expanding beyond “dad” and “boyfriend”. A variety of different types of friendships would be stellar, but I’d be happy with just a bond with Max after all this.
Nancy and Joyce still seem fairly isolated (and/or linked up with the boys in their plotlines) but I can only hope that this shift between Max and Eleven heralds a bigger change throughout the cast and the way the series handles relationships between ladies. Give Joyce some female characters to confide in! Ditto for Nancy! Not that I want a brand new character to pop up and fill the Barb-shaped hole in her life, but, come on. Why not?
The fact that a few shots of two teen girls eating ice cream together has me so pumped kind of speaks to the gravity of the show’s issue with lady friendships. This is not to discredit the interesting dynamics between various male and female characters throughout the cast, but they ought to be complemented by equally thought-out dynamics between the women and girls. They’ve been sorely neglected so far, and I can only hope that season three takes big, redemptive steps to fix this issue. Cool monsters and intrigue can only get you so far—interest in the relationship dynamics is always what has kept me hooked into the show’s tropey supernatural mystery, and I want to see this world populated with a variety of them that goes beyond this go-to isolation of female characters and the emphasis on romance. Watch this space, I suppose.