Eleven, Max, and the Smurfette Principle

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Camila Grimaldi, Editorial Staff Writer

[SPOILER WARNING for Stranger Things Season 2]

Earlier this year, I found out that Stranger Things would welcome a new young female cast member in Season 2 and got even more excited for the return of this beloved show. The thought of another strong role model for young girls to dress up as on Halloween was exhilarating. After all, spiking Eggo Sales are evidence enough of the influence a strong female character can have on a show’s fanbase. When Season 2 finally came out, I was not disappointed. Max was cool. She made me want to take up skating and dye my hair red. And then, finally, the moment came for Eleven (the role model I wish I had in middle school) and Max (the person I wish I had been in middle school) to meet. I was thrilled at the prospect, despite some signs of tension that had been laced throughout the previous episodes. I have always been an optimist. The moment neared and my heart rate increased. These girls will be friends! They will rule the world! They have both been hurt by abusive men and must get their vengeance, together!

Not only were Eleven and Max established as rivals, they literally interacted once in the whole show, and even that was one-sided and full of resentment. My chance for authentic female friendship, forged in the fires of feminism, was gone. Deeply bothered by this narrative choice that was causing unrest in a deeper part of my creative conscious, I pushed the thought to the back of my mind until I came across this (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/10/stranger-things-sexist-eleven-max-season-3-smurfette-1201892995/) Indiewire article by Liz Shannon Miller that outlined exactly what I had felt was wrong with Season 2 and its handling of Eleven and Max. Truthfully, my discontent had never been about this specific show’s poor handling of two female characters. Instead, my frustration had stemmed from the fact that I had seen this before, and too many times.

The Smurfette Principle, first coined by Katha Pollitt in her article for the New York Times, is the idea that most fictional works focus on men, and there is only ever one female character that exists in relation to the male characters. This character’s identity is usually rooted in, or is solely comprised of, the fact that she is the “girl among boys.” There are some major stereotypes associated with this role. For one, this character is often shown as a tomboy. Her sense of humor mirrors that of the male characters, whilst drawing attention to the fact that such behavior makes her different from “other girls.” Most disturbingly, the very presence of the sole female character must be justified through her relationship to another male character in the narrative. Most commonly, she is the love interest of a male protagonist. Other times, she is the blood relative of a male character, and thus brought into the narrative that way.

I could give a million examples of female characters that fit into this principle, but maybe the most well known are seen in: TV shows like Seinfeld (Elaine), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Dee), Silicon Valley (Monica); in most Marvel movies, Star Wars (Princess Leia); and in books like It (Beverly Marsh) and Ender’s Game (Petra) … the list goes on and on. I love every single character mentioned in that list, and yet, they propagate a major issue of female representation. And though some of these stories are self-aware about the lack of female characters, it is still shocking to see exactly how little demonstrations there are of female friendship in any narrative with a male protagonist.

Obviously, there are exceptions, as there are for every trope. The visibility of female writers and directors has increased in the last few months, and female-led movies have also surged, though we still have far to go when it comes to presenting diversity in these roles. Most of the characters I have mentioned throughout this piece are strong and multi-dimensional. However, most of their individuality comes from the fact that they are women. Little complexity is given to these characters apart from the fact that they are women in a man’s world. Eleven, despite all her awe-inspiring super powers and killer dialogue, is simplified significantly in the second season. She becomes jealous when seeing Mike with another girl, consolidating her role as his love interest. Moreover, her lack of interaction with Mike transforms her into more of an abstract idea than a real character. The mention of her name inspires Mike to be brave and undergo a dynamic change. This narrative responsibility of motivating  the male character falls on the female character far too often. Women exist in relation to the male experience. Although the Duffer Brothers worked hard to have Eleven go on her own journey in Season 2, the predictably disappointing conflict between her and Max only reasserts the fact that both the writers and the audience do not leave space for the coexistence and collaboration of two amazing female characters. I, for one, only pray that Season 3 will bring us the Max/Eleven friendship we deserve, and that they can rise above to have their own individual story arcs, separate from the dominantly male cast that surrounds them. Come on Duffer Brothers. It’s your move.