Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

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More on Amy Schumer and Twelve Angry Men

In my last post, I discussed the Inside Amy Schumer parody of Twelve Angry Men. I want to say more about both today, because the more I think about it, the richer I think it is.

As I mentioned last time, I think part of the richness of the parody is how much it picks up on metaphors of citizenship and physicality that are already present the original film, just not so explicit. The jurors are representative men, and as such their physical imperfections represent them as average citizens. They get to do the things average citizens get to do. Speak. Vote. And voting’s less explicit daily analog, weigh in on an issue.

However, perceived physical imperfections in women often mark them as less than, and result in their being ignored and simply unrepresented. They cannot speak, or are unheard if they do. Amy plain jane amy sSchumer often mines exactly this vein, as exemplified in the Miami Vice parody “Plain Jane,” where the eponymous character (see picture) states, in voice-over, that she is “invisible to the perfect” and, in fact, other characters sit on her because they literally don’t see her on a bar stool. One picture is worth a thousand words; see this great clip here.

Well, um. I think the richness of the parody, though, is exactly how much it works within the ambiance of the original film, which is two-fold. Yes, looks are democratized; no one has to be handsome or hot to weigh in. But something else happens in the film about looks as well. Looks are also made a symbol of the inner man. And it is precisely the reliance on image as marker of inner worth that has particularly hit women hard—they are the carriers of it.

What do I mean about looks being made a symbol? I alluded to it briefly in the first post. Most of the characters look slightly odd in some way; only Henry Fonda has a classic symmetrical look—and his impressive looks mark him as morally better, and as the leader.

Outer looks as a symbol for the inner man is quite intentional in the film. I watched the Criterion 12 angry men jammed togetherCollection of Twelve Angry Men and, for anyone interested in film art, there is a highly informative second DVD included that includes interviews with (among other people) cinematographer John Bailey. Several interviewees mention the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who director Sidney Lumet worked with to create a slightly eerie claustrophobic effect. Indeed, the pictures smash the people together to create a kind of “society and conformity oppress us” feel. (And, as a dance fan, I have to say that one memorable scene, below, where all the jurors distance themselves physically from a hold-out who wants a guilty verdict, and their moral disapproval is shown by distance and silence, looks highly influenced by the physical presentation of ballet.)12 angry men ballet

So, although there are plenty of words in Twelve Angry Men, film art has meant that meanings are often carried through images rather than words. The status of movies as a central art of the twentieth century has meant that images are more and more important to us. Nineteenth-century books are often a word torrent (390 pages is nothing!) with a single graphic in the frontispiece. In twenty-first century Web pages, on the other hand, images are often both frequent and gargantuan. Moreover, on news sites especially, the picture is often shorthand for the entire thing, rather than the headline. One’s looks, also, have increasingly become a short-hand symbol for the entire person. This is true for both women and men, but Schumer tackles the grittier issue facing women, of being invisible depending on how one looks, or being mediated only by your physicality, with no representative place in the world if you don’t have a physicality deemed acceptable. And this is partly a gender problem, but also part of a cultural turn toward image rather than words.