‘Stranger Things’ season 3 challenges masculinity

Elena Waldman

“Stranger Things” has reveled in its seemingly universal approval. It doesn’t share the same virtue-signaling tendencies as “13 Reasons Why” or “Riverdale,” both of which sprinkle buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” throughout the dialogue to assure audiences they are, in fact, woke. Of course, a show about monsters and tweens with supernatural powers doesn’t need to establish itself as socially progressive, but somehow “Stranger Things” does so better than its Netflix original counterparts. 

The new season of “Stranger Things” is still packed with the same children-fighting-evil tropes as the last two seasons, but this time, the primary antagonists are the Mind Flayer of the upside-down and the Soviet military. The nod to the Cold War is much less subtle now than in previous seasons, but as a show set in the ‘80s, the references to both the popular culture and political context of the time offer a dark yet rewarding dystopian take on history. Despite being set in a time long before standards of traditional masculinity were challenged like they are today, the third season refreshingly looks deeper into rejection and power structures through character development. 


Of course, the obvious reversal of conventional gender roles has been present since season one. The all-powerful Eleven, or “El” (played by Millie Bobby Brown), is still the savior of the young friend group. Now a young teen, El has adapted to standard American life, is (mostly) fluent in English and has refined her telekinetic powers. Much like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter types, characters who were deemed “the chosen one” and were appointed the task of saving humanity, El is considered the secret weapon who will ultimately stop the Mind Flayer and Soviet spies. But instead of El existing to stop the enemy, the current adversary exists because of her. When Mike (played by Finn Wolfhard) says “He’s not building this army to spread,” Will (played by Noah Schnapp) confirms his theory with “He’s building it to stop Eleven.” 

Season three delves further into the role of masculinity in relationships, as shown in the budding companionship of Steve Harrington (played by Joe Keery) and his ice cream store coworker, Robin (played by Maya Hawke). Steve, the previous popular jock and infamous lady-killer of the show, has already developed humility and respect for his unpopular peers. When Robin rejects his romantic advances and admits she is gay, he accepts her and the two continue to be friends. While characters coming out isn’t seen as subversive anymore, the fact that the show’s main heart-throb is not given a proper love story ending, like we’re so used to seeing, is. The introduction of a gay character actually disrupts the hegemonic love story of boy meets girl, and although the two continue to be friends, the romance story that the audience expects is not delivered. 

“Stranger Things” also understands something that many shows with LGBTQ characters don’t, which is that someone’s sexual orientation isn’t their defining quality. The gay best friend archetype is overdone, and audiences are admittedly sick of being pandered to. Season three rejects the tired tropes that LGBTQ characters are often limited to and instead shows Robin as a character with enough wit, decisiveness and grit to be worthy of joining the team of good guys. 

Elena Waldman can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @WaldmanElena.