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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The Case of Philosopher W, Part II: The Feminist Moment

Yesterday, I wrote about W, a philosophy PhD whose tenure-track offer was rescinded when she asked the hiring institution for a number of goodies.  Much of the commentary on W’s case has focused on the perils posed to women by negotiating. (See yesterday’s links to the philosophy graduate student site Philosophy Smoker, which contains run-downs on the media responses.) Many articles about it use Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to lean in and negotiate hard as the journalistic hook. (Women negotiate far less than men–7% versus nearly 60% .) I’m concerned that much of this commentary on W’s situation misses a few points. Let me say why.

W did negotiate. Her statement about why is a poignant testimony to how much feminism has worked in making young women highly aware of the need to proactively ask for more: “This is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it, and, for that matter, how I think it should work: you ask about a number of perks and maybe get some of them…I just thought there was no harm in asking.”

Yes, absolutely right. But the lack of reasons in the e-mail leads me to believe perhaps advice to women about negotiating has done, to date, only part of the job. She knew to ask. But she could have used advice on how to ask effectively. I think that educating young women about negotiating sometimes leaves out the “articulate the benefits and be attentive to the [institution’s, other person’s, whatever] needs” portion of the process because (the thinking goes) women need to put themselves first. To think about the other’s needs might lead to people-pleasing and scanting yourself, many women’s pitfalls.

There is a real risk of that, yes. But, real life negotiations aren’t simply expressions of healthy proactive interest either. After all, a request for a reduced teaching load might well have genuine negative repercussions for the department. (The department in question was tiny–a 4-person department split equally between female and male.) It’s an implicit request that another faculty member take the course , or that they ante up for an adjunct, or not have coverage. (I know adjuncts are poorly paid, readers. So I’m not trying to say it’s a big ante. But in a small college, it might make a difference.) I’m sympathetic to W’s situation, but I also can understand the reaction of college faculty and administration who looked at the e-mail and, if they were expecting a full-time colleague whose tenure track began next fall, saw that she was asking for nearly 50% time spent otherwise in the usual 6-year pre-tenure run.

It also wouldn’t have hurt to explicitly state up front that she was opening negotiations and knew they were counter positions that the institution could take, rather than simply sounding as if she was giving a laundry list that would have left them without an instructor for at least a year and a half. That could read to a committee thinking that they wouldn’t have coverage in the very area it’s trying to cover.

There is no harm in educating yourself in being smart in the negotiating process, as one of the better business commentaries points out. The list sans reasons makes me wonder if it doesn’t hide tentativeness, still; to give reasons is more bold than simply to ask. For a young post-student, especially, buttressing one’s own case with reasons might seem a bridge too far. So I think that the how of negotiation needs to be stressed, both as feminist point and student point.

I sometimes worry, too, that the emphasis on gender inequality as a causal explanation leads young women to worry needlessly, as if their gender is an implicit trap. It minimizes the very real progress that has been made in women being able—expected –to negotiate. The recursion of a gender explanation often assumes that women need basic advice they have in fact been receiving for decades now. (The advice to women to negotiate did not start with Sheryl Sandberg—she’s a bit new wine in an old bottle. I’m in midlife, so I have vivid memories of being told in the 1990s and even the 1980s to be assertive. Classes were given in this and everything.)

Perhaps what we need is parsing elements within gender more attentively. Sadly, recent studies show that women who negotiate are perceived much more negatively than men who do. Well, I’ll certainly keep the studies in mind, but because I also know a lot of women who negotiate successfully, so I wonder if the data couldn’t be broken down and parsed in different ways. Is there a difference in negotiation styles that women could learn from? Do men give more reasons, or more fully assume that they will be in an institution that wants their contribution and thus articulate that contribution as a matter of course? I’d love to hear other ideas on this.

In a final gesture of solidarity and education on this issue, I’ll give an example of a recent negotiation I did, and one in a very male world. (I owe my own negotiating stance to feminism; in fact, I could echo W that “this is how I thought negotiating worked, how I learned to do it.”) The old car I’d been driving around during graduate school died, and I had to buy another one. This was a big deal to me, as I’m in transition between graduate school, don’t have full time work, and don’t have a lot of money for a car. (I’m not trying to equate a tenure-track offer with a car; I realize it’s big apple and smaller orange, or bigger and smaller potatoes.) Still, a car is a major life purchase.

So, I researched used car prices, read a book (seriously) on buying a car which included a chapter on negotiating, and researched going prices for my old model. I managed to knock a substantial amount off the asking price of the new vehicle by and get more than initially offered for my old one by citing Kelly Blue Book values for similar cars. In each instance, frankly, the prices asked were already reasonable, I just managed to get a better deal. And the people involved did not fall over, or act as if there was anything unusual in my negotiation.

So we know to negotiate. We need our reasons and our evidence.