Updated: Sep 10, 2020
By Shiva Chopra
Image retrieved from syfy.com
We are all painfully aware of the classic makeover montage that appears in practically every teen movie, a transformation that made a common appearance in the 80s and that is still prevalent today. Take Stranger Things for example. The Netflix series pays heavy tribute to movies of the 1980s, and since reusing tropes will always be part of the strategy, a makeover montage was inevitable. The main character Eleven, played by Millie Bobby Brown, is doe-eyed, scrappy, brave, and heroic. Her head is fully shaved because the scientists who brought her up were continually connecting and disconnecting cable-strung nodes to her head. Her inescapable makeover is different from your typical odd-girl-to-beautiful-girl — she was born in a barbaric and probably genderless way by force. A makeover nevertheless is a makeover.
In Season 1 Episode 4, one of her friends, Mike, is helping Eleven put on his sister’s makeup and clothing so that she can go on an outing to his school without any apprehension. The end result is frilly, pink, and stereotypically feminine. She touches her revamped hair, now a blonde wig, in front of a mirror. "You look pretty," Mike assures her. "Pretty?" She questions, not certain whether to trust him or not. It's a phrase that she'll say on several occasions in the show — looking at her reflection, seeing Mike's way of looking at her. She is at home with a long tradition of young female protagonists whose intrinsic value is determined by her romantic appeal to boys, someone who has to look desirably feminine before she can assert her worthiness entirely. Why should she fret about trying to attract boys when she's an actual child — one that's concerned with saving people in extreme danger, no less?
While Eleven did not make the decision to shave her head, the show assumes that the hyper-feminine is the norm of girlhood, a default and a clear preference. Pop culture tells us that to be masculine is to be strange, odd, gross, and awful. Consequently, prescribed femininity is a solution; when a girl is beautiful, she will be available to men. And even today this thought still remains. In popular film and television, boyish females remain rather uncommon. When they turn up, their boyishness appears to be an issue that needs to be fixed. If the masculinity of a child can not be balanced with mandatory femininity, she is a hopeless case: at best the butt of a joke, at worst something grotesque. This sentiment is exemplified in characters like Barb, whose expendability embodies the disgust with the less-feminine woman.
Another character to explore is Barb. Barb was the “ugly duckling” of the series. She wasn’t overly feminine and never completely conformed to the stereotypical image of beauty of the 80s. She almost immediately gets killed off, with little emphasis being placed on Barb herself, the focus instead shifting to the external effects of her disappearance. When Barb goes missing, only one person notices. If it were a more feminine character, for example, her best friend Nancy, who went missing, everyone would immediately notice as she is more popular, beautiful and fits in. Barb’s existence in the show is only to drive forward the narrative of a more feminine character, Nancy. Her death is designed to bring Nancy closer to a love interest. Her character is definitely not done justice, partly due to her not being obviously, in-your-face kind of feminine.
Queerness — which may include the sexuality of a character, or merely be symbolised by an unconventional gender presentation — was vilified in the history of movies. Stranger Things takes incredible influence from movie design in the 80s, but it also borrows ridiculously dated gender politics, which are far less enjoyable to watch. Eleven is characterized by her connections with men almost exclusively: the cruel scientist she calls "Papa," the squad of nerds who go from condemning her to defending her, and most noticeably, with Mike. He develops a crush on her after observing her fully girlified, kisses her, and asks her to the dance. While Mike still likes Eleven without her blonde wig that she luckily discarded by the end of Season 1 due to inefficiency, her makeover encouraged him to view her as somebody capable of femininity instead of just another one of his friends. Why should any sense of confidence or affirmation come from a boy's way of looking at her? The heroism of Eleven — and eventually her possible sacrifices — are obscured by her regression from a stand-alone victor to a lamented love for Mike.
Queerness, sexuality-nonconformity (not being white too, for that matter) — these factors are too alien to make the final cut in a fictional world where monsters and alternate dimensions exist. The more women and girls we see accepting unconventional interpretations of gender, the less vilified such interpretations would become. And while Seasons 2 and 3 expand on the gender identities and sexualities of their leading characters, there is still a long way to go in the world of television as a whole. Characters should be allowed to represent the prospect that a girl might be manly, queer, detached or even some mixture of all three without her being involuntarily feminized, given a love interest, or labelled a monstrosity.
Written by writer Shiva Chopra