Courtesy of Netflix

September 1, 2016

GOLDFINE | Winona Ryder, My Action Hero: Stranger Things’ Subtle but Cunning Deconstruction of ‘Female Hysteria’

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When a woman goes crazy in a movie or on TV, we greet the sub-plot with a sigh of comfortable familiarity. Our intellectual subconscious breathes an “ahhhh.” We relax. We see what’s going on; we likely knew all along. As cinephiles and society-existers alike, we have been dutifully trained to unconditionally accept that a woman having lost her mind is a highly plausible explanation for her doing or saying, well… anything really — and also that such a turn of events is a Dark, Provocative and Highly Legitimate plot-thickening cinematic juncture. Even when some of us get suspicious and gain a sense that there’s something fishy going on here with all these batshit women all up on our screens — the sights and sounds of a woman losing her mind and doing and saying crazy stuff still makes a fundamental sense to us in a way that it shouldn’t.

The nascent cultural conventional wisdom that women are essentially emotionally and psychologically fragile, and vulnerable to an overflowing psychbank of feminine pathologies has deep, deep roots in our society from cinema to psychology. Men have been explaining women’s behavior that they didn’t understand with physical or pathological disorders since literally the beginning of time and show almost no signs of slowing down! From Hyppocrates (5th century B.C. doctor who explained women’s “hysteria” with the idea that the uterus was a poisonous, organ which, especially when sexually deprived, made women lose it) to David Lynch (cinematic architect of all things female, tragic and tortured) — such wisdom and its cultural by-products rages on.

The quiet nausea I associate with watching women fall apart on-screen is the lot of the modern feminist TV viewer. It’s also the reason why watching Winona Ryder not only not descend predictably into a hysterical grieving-please-bring-my-boy-back-officer state of insanity after the disappearance of her child — but instead ascend to a higher plane of tenacious, bug-eyed, disbelief-suspended, momma-bear action heroinism over the eight episodes of Netflix’s summer banger, Stranger Things, felt restoratively good and culturally powerful. It also made for great, visually stunning and morally gripping television.
For some context, in case you didn’t go on the Internet this summer, Stranger Things is a Netflix-original ’80s style sci-fi thriller, dripping with light wash denim and bowl cuts and set in the cinematically fertile grounds of a small midwestern town; the stuff of an X-Files megafan’s wettest dream. The show combines the small-town social politics of Jaws and E.T., the feverish prom-and-football drama of Sixteen Candles with the government conspiracy/science fiction heebie jeebies of a Dan Brown/Stephen King tv-baby. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a working-class single mother struggling financially and to connect with her adolescent sons. One of them, Will, goes missing 15 minutes into the first episode. While the majority of the show follows Will’s nerd-boy-gang plus runaway government science experiment, Eleven, and the local sad-sack-good-guy sheriff’s respective quests to find him, it also centers Joyce’s story.


Courtesy of Netflix

The entire town offers Joyce their condolences while immediately insisting that she calm the fuck down. But here’s the thing: Joyce/Winona won’t calm the fuck down because her 12-year-old was snatched by a faceless Barb-eating monster and tossed into a cold, sticky, decaying alternate dimension. The town doesn’t know that, though.

The most rewarding and impactful moral and psychological tension of Stranger Things comes from watching the entire town perceive Joyce falling into a maternal hysteria and go mad with grief, while in actuality, Joyce is scheming how to get her son back, whatever it takes. The more she discovers, and the closer she gets to finding Will, the more convinced of her neurosis and degeneration the town is.

Her story is morally paralleled by the story of the character, Eleven’s mother, from whom Eleven was taken as a child to be used for mind-control experiments by the secret government department (indirectly) responsible for Will’s disappearance. We see Eleven’s mother years later; broken, catatonic; a cautionary tale for what happens when women’s truths and pain are ignored; a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are made to ask the question if she lost grasp on reality because of the loss of her child, or because of the agony of gas-lighting.
The mothers of lost children in Stranger Things wreck the cinematic wisdom of female hysteria. They deflate it. They make a mockery of it. Because never has someone appeared to be so perfectly insane Winona/Joyce appears to be — as she graffitis her walls and strings her house with Christmas lights in order to communicate through the blinking lights with Will whose in a parallel universe, tells her neighbors she’s getting calls from her dead son, slashes holes in her walls with an axe trying to beat back a faceless monster that no one else can see, and refuses to believe the dead body recovered from the local quarry, identical to Will’s is her son, while being so fiercely lucid; shrewd, innovative and calculating.


Courtesy of Netflix

Her character appears to the town, and initially to the viewer, as pastiche of grieving, hysterical mother, and crazy-lady-who-lives-just-outside-of-town tropes; the bug-eyes atop dark circles and dirty flannel, the shouting of nonsensical stories, the fierceness of belief that she is right and everyone else is wrong, the harried skittishness, performing every motif associated with it (re: Christmas lights, writing on the walls, calls from dead people).

However, the show only paints such a perfect picture in order to rip it to shreds; showing the foolishness and inherent flaws in our assumptions. As it’s revealed to us that exactly what Joyce suspects is true, and that she’s been taking not only entirely situationally rational, but innovatively genius measures (i.e. Christmas light ouijja board) to find her son — Joyce’s total rightness about the situation, and her powerful willingness to accept truths and follow clues that others would not, because of her unique subject position: as community outsider, as mother, as woman, is striking and touching. Her mother’s love becomes a radical politic, as she submits to other’s perception of her as crazy mother-in-grieving by her community. She has no time for gossip or appearances or men’s thoughts about her behavior; her son is alive and out there.

The shows creators masterfully pull the strings of our perception. They offer us the schema of the hysterical, mad women that the Lynches and Shakespeares and Freuds have made us so familiar with — along with the town, we fill in the rest — then make us squirm as we see Winona/Joyce for what she is: a woman reacting quite appropriately and rationally to the severity and oddity of her situation, scared, but trying relentlessly and thanklessly to save her child, while everyone around her points and stares, shaking their heads at the crazy lady in the hardware store.
Stranger Things adeptly wields the that frightening, cognitively dissonant gap between what the audience knows about Joyce, and what everyone in world of the show knows, to a powerful, and I think, political affect. Its bold undermining of the narrative of female hysteria adds a robust moral problem (which, under Winona Ryder’s care is arresting) to the show, and poses unanswerable questions about gender, power and credibility.

Jael Goldfine is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgoldfine@cornellsun.com. Objectivity Bites appears Thursdays this semester. 

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