Blonde Wigs, MK Ultra, and Eggo Waffles: Stranger Things’s El and the Mysterious/Monstrous Feminine
When it comes to the character we have all come to know and love as “El,” it’s difficult to pin down just one feminist theory that best describes her construction. She’s edgy, so she’s definitely monstrous. She’s also confounding, so she’s mysterious (which might also explain why she can be perceived as monstrous). She’s also blunt, violent, and forceful, in a way that might be interpreted as “masculine.” That specific mix in a character is rare. It is something we really haven’t seen very much of in mainline horror franchises.
But Stranger Things inverts everything we know about horror franchises in some respects. It’s the one and only 80’s milieu I’ve ever experienced where the virgin dies and the bonehead jock and pretty-girl couple somehow survive. But at least the pretty-girl doesn’t stay so pretty. She gets roughed up a little.
In any case, El’s mystery implies far more than mere monstrosity. An examination of and storytelling elements that define and comprise “El” leaves only more to consider.
We could delve into the overtravelled concept of the unheimlich juxtaposition of gender roles as Freud might analyze here, or we could explore the idea that the workings of women’s anatomy have remained mysterious to many cultures for far too much of human history.
But it might be better to explain the idea of the “monstrous feminine” as presented by Barbara Creed here, and see how El is actually representative in some sense, of the “mother.”
El is not fully masculine, you see, but if you put her in a dress and wig, she doesn’t stay pretty for long either. She always reverts back to her intended, designed nature. Able to care and able to kill. What most women actually . . . are, when it comes to those we love.
This is a key understanding when it comes to where, Eleven, as portrayed by Millie Brown, in her construction differs, than a lot of “mystery woman” tropes. She’s not just a passive construction that represents the mystery of a creature that can nurture as much as she can bite. She’s a character that has a sense of agency in a world she’s never before experienced. She’s equally mystified by everything that’s around her. But unlike some tropes, her sense of agency and activity is violent.
Let’s repeat this: the workings of the everyday 80’s pastiche horror-world that is Stranger Things are as much mystery to El, as she is also a mystery to all people she encounters. This is important.
This scenario is much like the workings of a kyriarchal world with men leading the helm. Like most collective centers of public participation might be to any woman who grew up in the 80’s and was told she could “do anything,” but adopted more traditionally masculine senses of self and presentation in order to navigate the world in which she might, if people just saw her as human.
But are we yet seen as fully human, fully capable of exercising agency in our present world? Maybe. Sometimes. Media still helps. It still humanizes what we can’t and don’t always understand. So do our interpersonal relationships.
As Mike patiently explains to El, “A friend is someone that you’d do anything for. You lend them your cool stuff, like comic books and trading cards. And they never break a promise.” Stranger Things never does.
We love the promise of its suspense. We grow to anticipate every moment when lights might flicker, whenever Joyce, as portrayed by Winona Ryder is channeling her son’s spirit with Christmas Lights and fervently holding onto hope even when presented with evidence otherwise–or when Dustin is triumphantly declaring and outright owning that his friend with superpowers is “crazy.” It speaks to every moment women have done a thing that couldn’t be explained by a masculinized world.
But I think that many of us love El, and her hybrid monstrous and mysterious construction because, in a way, she is wish fulfilment for all of us who have identified to some degree as inwardly male in a generation where being outwardly feminine was outwardly dresses, bows, Hello Kitty and Barbie. Her dirty dress, ridiculous wig, and voracious manner of consuming Eggo Waffles resemble a patronus for all of us who didn’t identify with that weird arbitrary, but homogeneously presented construct of femininity.
When it comes to the actual monsters in her world, Eleven speaks. She says the words “No,” and “No More,” so eloquently, and they’re backed up by a beautiful exercise of agency and personal sense of will to enforce them.
She’s also entirely representative of that moment you always wished for when the group of guys you run with finally says, “We never would have upset you, if we knew you had superpowers.”
Perhaps, in some ways, she’s more like a spirit of her time.