Winona Ryder in Stranger things.

Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers in Stranger things.

by Rafaella Gunz

Content warning: contains spoilers. 

Netflix’s Stranger Things, released last month, has become a true viral phenomenon. The show is a sci-fi nostalgia-fest set in the 1980s and features the comeback of ‘80s darling Winona Ryder.

While there have been plenty of think pieces about the feminist themes in Stranger Things, specifically the badass roles Ryder (as worried mother Joyce Byers) and Millie Bobby Brown (as mysterious heroine Eleven) play, there is one theme missing from the discussion: many of the show’s central female characters aren’t believed when they speak their thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Joyce isn’t crazy

It starts with Joyce. After her son, Will’s, disappearance, she believes he’s contacting her through the electrical wires of their home, first through phone calls then by blinking lights. Of course, her older son Jonathan, the Police Chief Hopper and her abusive ex-husband, Lonnie, don’t believe her. They tell her it must be “in her head.”

Neither is Nancy (R.I.P., Barb)

Then there’s Nancy Wheeler, whose little brother Mike is Will’s best friend. Nancy was both not believed and was in some denial herself. When her best friend, Barb, had a bad feeling about Nancy’s new “friends,” including her crush, Steve Harrington, Nancy brushed her off. They were all at Steve’s house and when Barb suggested they leave; Nancy refused and told Barb to go off by herself. Barb disappeared.

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When Nancy confronted Steve and his friends with her worries about Barb, they ignored her concerns, saying she’s probably “fine” and “just skipping class.” But Nancy knew Barb wouldn’t do that. Although Nancy didn’t take Barb’s concerns seriously, Steve and his friends blew off Nancy’s concerns, too. Nancy faced doubt again when Steve saw her and Jonathan together. Nancy told him they were just friends, which was true, but Steve didn’t believe her. He and his friends went downtown and spray-painted slut-shaming messages on local businesses.

Eleven’s right about Will

Eleven (or El) faces similar treatment. She escaped Hawkins Laboratory after spending her life being experimented on, and met Mike, Dustin, and Lucas as they searched for Will. It’s clear that El wasn’t able to express herself very well due to her minimal vocabulary. But still, she tried to explain to the best of her ability what happened to Will. When the group saw the body of Will (which ended up being fake) dragged from the water, they immediately turned on El, calling her a liar.

We later learn that El is the daughter of a woman who went to Hawkins Laboratory to participate in the Project MKUltra drug tests because she needed money. While there, she was pregnant. Dr. Brenner of Hawkins Lab took the baby (El), realizing she had telekinetic powers. When her mother tried to go to the media about this, she was dismissed and assumed to be mentally unstable.

Even though these female characters wound up dismissed as liars, emotional, or crazy, all of them ended up being right. Will was communicating with Joyce, Nancy was right to worry about Barb and Eleven wasn’t lying about the fact that Will was still alive.

“Stranger Things” and real-life parallels

While the show is sci-fi, these situations mirror real-world scenarios in which women aren’t believed. One clear example is with sexual assault. When Barbara Bowman, one of Bill Cosby’s many alleged sexual assault victims, first came forward, no one believed her. In her op-ed for the Washington Post, she writes about how it took 30 years and a male comedian’s joke for her claim to be taken seriously. It’s this kind of denial of women’s lived experiences that dissuade many from coming forward and reporting acts of sexual violence at all.

Another example is with domestic violence. Amber Heard, Johnny Depp’s ex-wife, came out publicly against the actor’s violent tendencies. Still, many people don’t believe her and insist she’s lying. As with cases of rape and sexual assault, it’s this type of backlash that keep women in abusive relationships.

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Even medical doctors tend to take women’s pain less seriously, according to The Atlantic. This speaks to the long history of women being diagnosed with hysteria instead of having their thoughts and feelings taken sincerely. This sexist practice was often “treated” through masturbation — often performed by male doctors.

Considering Stranger Things had three female writers, it’s entirely possible that this theme was intentional. Either way, it speaks volumes about how women are so often not believed when they speak up — even when they’re entirely correct.

Rafaella Gunz is a recent graduate of The New School in NYC, where she majored in journalism and minored in gender studies. Her work has previously been published on Ravishly, Slutist, Feministing, Guerrilla Feminism, The Tab, and DeadState. Visit her website: ellagunz.com.

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