Within nine episodes full of tension, grief, a bitching soundtrack, and just so much pure delight, there was one moment of season two of Stranger Things that crawled under my skin in a bad way. It happens in chapter 3, “The Pollywog,” when Eleven makes it all the way up to the doors of the Hawkins Middle School gymnasium. There he is: Mike Wheeler. The boy with whom she’s been trying to make contact for almost an entire year. The boy whose absence in her life is what inspires her to break all of the rules of safety set for her by Hopper.
There he is. Steps away. Mike. Frickin’. Wheeler.
OH BUT WAIT.
THERE’S ANOTHER GIRL.
MIKE WHEELER IS SMILING IN THE PRESENCE OF ANOTHER GIRL.
And so, our beloved Eleven– kickass superhero Eleven, who sure didn’t seem to understand most of the nuances of a romantic relationship last season– psychically knocks Max off of her skateboard, and walks away, forcing us to endure six more episodes before we finally get the relief of Eleven’s reunion with the rest of the Party. Because Mike smiled at another girl.
Look, I adored season two of Stranger Things. I’m already going through it for the second time, and I can’t wait to fall in love with Bob Newby all over again, only to have him brutally Jurassic Park-ed. I can’t wait to re-experience the team-up of Dustin and Steve, which is a partnership so wonderful that I’m still not sure any of us deserves it. I can’t wait for my heart to swell and break and melt and pound from Will Byers’ first sighting of the Mind Flayer all the way to the Snow Ball.
But fuck that chapter 3 moment with Eleven, Max, and Mike, and fuck it hard.
This moment does a disservice to both Eleven and to Max. This moment turns Max into an obstacle, not just for Eleven, but for the audience who’s rooting for Eleven. Even this early into the season, Max is set up as the object of desire in a love triangle with Dustin and Lucas. There’s no indication that she has any chemistry with Mike. In fact, he’s mostly been a dick to her. This is the only instance in the season that suggests any sort of friendly connection between Mike and Max, and it only exists to delay Mike’s reunion with Eleven. I know I wanted Mike and Eleven to reunite sooner rather than later, so I found myself irritated at Max as a result. That’s not fair to a character who we’ve barely gotten the opportunity to know.
And come on, Stranger Things. I love you so very desperately, but I don’t buy that Eleven’s the kind of person who gives up like that. Sure, she’s been watching a lot of television in her time in Hopper’s cabin, but when we left her at the end of season one, she was very naïve about romantic love. It rings false to me that Eleven immediately springs to jealousy at the sight of Mike smiling at another girl. Again, she’s been attempting to contact him every day for almost a year, she’s putting herself in danger by going to find him at all, and she’s ELEVEN. She’s tackled decidedly bigger threats than an unidentified redhead on a skateboard! JUST WALK INTO THE GYM, GIRL. THIS IS NOT WORTH THE NOSEBLEED.
This scene reinforces the notion that women are always supposed to be in competition with each other, especially over the attention of dudes, and it’s lame. Having once been a middle schooler, I absolutely don’t want to diminish the power and legitimacy of young love. I’ve definitely hated other girls purely because I thought that a Cute Boy liked them more he liked me. It’s legit that Eleven’s feelings for Mike are strong enough to cause her to knock another girl to the ground. In sixth grade, I threw a cheerleader’s jacket into a bathroom trash can. We all suck from time to time.
Nerd-girl-competition in pop culture is its own specific brand of bullshit. It’s a hard club to get into at all, what with the constant questioning of a Nerd Girl’s credentials and motivations, so there’s usually only one Girl Spot available. Mike is resistant to let Max join The Party, because the absent Eleven already has that slot filled. What’s the point of having another girl around?
For Dustin and Lucas, the point is motivated by their crush on Max. Max isn’t “like other girls,” you dig? She’s cool. She rides a skateboard, and she’s good at video games, prompting my least favorite line of the season: “But girls don’t play video games.”
Will Byers, you are God’s perfect muffin-child, and I would die for you, but do better.
As a “not like the other girls” breed of Girl, my adolescence was accompanied by feeling like the attention of a Nerd Boy was the most important thing for me to attain. Who else would have me, after all? I was the kind of dork who wore costumes to school to celebrate the releases of the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. Popular boys weren’t ever going to give me the time of day, so I had to land a Nerd or die alone.
This made me really resentful of other Girls, Nerd and Non-Nerd alike. My friends and I all hated Arwen when we were in middle school. To us, Arwen was “like other girls,” and therefore didn’t deserve the attention of Aragorn. It was a flat out injustice that Aragorn didn’t end up with sword-slinging Eowyn. We had absorbed the message that there’s only room for one awesome Girl character. Yeah, Hermione’s not the only eligible girl at Hogwarts, but look at the other options. Rowling goes out of her way to make Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown terrible. You can’t get more “like other girls” than Parvati and Lavender, and so we don’t want them to end up with the love of our dear magical Nerd Boys.
Being The Girl is usually the dominant factor of why that character is special. So, if you’re not The Girl, what’s special about you? Why should anyone like you? If there’s already a The Girl, what do you bring to the D&D table?
I love Stranger Things so much, and so I really want it to do better on behalf of its young female heroines. Eleven and Max don’t need to be framed as “not like other girls” to be awesome. They fight monsters and abusive stepbrothers, and those factors aren’t enhanced by how cute the boy characters find them.
I’m already ready for you, Stranger Things 3. We’ve got a lot of loose ends to tie up here. Among those, I hope, is a more in-depth integration of MadMax into the Party on her own terms and as her own person, outside of her relationship with Lucas or any other male character. And, if there’s time in the midst of all your monster-fighting badassery, maybe Max and Eleven can be friends? I don’t really see a story-driven reason right now for them not to be. Mike Wheeler’s cute, but he’s not that cute.