Here’s looking to you, Stranger Things.
You’re familiar with the scene; it shows up in the third act of romantic comedies and filler episodes of your favorite shows. It’s played for laughs except when it’s treated with deadly seriousness, in which case it usually leads to at least one character becoming an emotional kamikaze, making reckless bad decisions without communicating the source of their distress.
I’m talking about jealousy. Not the slow-simmering, discreet jealousy that real people feel in big and small moments for a variety of reasons, but a type of TV jealousy. TV jealousy features one character overhearing approximately two seconds of dialogue that leads to an episodes-long misunderstanding. TV jealousy most often involves women, who are portrayed in these plots as possessive, insecure, unfriendly to other women, and relationship-obsessed. More and more, it undermines the progression of well-written characters for the sake of shallow drama. In 2017, post-golden eras and Peak TV and hot takes about the importance of portraying complex women, this type of jealousy is both lazy as a writing choice and obsolete as a plot point.
If you’re not already thinking about Stranger Things 2, you should be. The Netflix behemoth’s second season managed to be both gloriously cinematic and movingly personal, moving beyond the bare homage of its first outing to craft a voice of its own. It also, in its third episode, had one of the most egregious and toxic displays of female jealousy I’ve ever seen.
Here’s the setup: superpowered Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) was raised in a secret lab without normal human contact. She escaped, met a group of friends, fell in puppy love with one of them (Finn Wolfhard), and was promptly whisked away to safety by local sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) when it became clear that the feds weren’t done with her. We know this, but it’s worth remembering to better understand why Eleven decides to bust out of her sanctuary in the beginning of episode three. After years of isolation, she had finally found friends, people her own age who were funny and patient with her and thought she was cool. And after a year of hiding, she wanted to see them, so much so that she risked death or imprisonment to find them.
All of this makes Eleven’s eventual moment of jealous misunderstanding outlandish and frustrating: when she does catch up with Mike, he’s talking to the new girl, Max (Sadie Sink). So Eleven does what any girl who didn’t grow up programmed with knowledge about jealousy or relationships or heterosexuality or monogamy would do–she telekinetically knocks Max off her skateboard and onto the hard gym floor, says nothing to Mike, and doesn’t try to make contact with any of her friends for the next five episodes. Wait, what?
With due respect to these tremendous young actors, Eleven’s reaction to Mike and Max’s interaction is mind-blowingly ridiculous. First, let’s set aside the fact that this is the only moment of the season during which Mike and Max have a polite conversation–making the timing here suspect at best–because of course Stranger Things isn’t known for its realism so much as its heightened ‘80s movie vibes. One could argue that El got her envious streak from all those couch potato hours logged at Hopper’s cabin, but that doesn’t hold up. Although Eleven is shown watching TV this season, she seems as engrossed by Oreos commercials as she is by soap operas, and the Duffer brothers wouldn’t let a direct thematic connection like that go unnoticed. So if Eleven doesn’t understand basic concepts about human society and relationships–which she doesn’t, as she learned what the word pudding meant about one minute before having her first kiss, and is still figuring out how to tell time–her action must have been written with the intention of appearing instinctual.
Justifying this vindictive act as instinct further implies that violence is instinctual to Eleven. We know from earlier in this same episode that it isn’t since she’s still mourning a squirrel that she had to eat to survive nearly a year afterward. If killing a squirrel feels wrong to her, why does trying to concuss a girl she’s never met seem like second nature? That would only make sense if the second explanation were true–that Justin Doble, who wrote this episode, wants viewers to see jealousy as an instinctive trait. While fighting over a mate is common in the animal kingdom, this is a distinctly human type of jealousy that would only make sense if Eleven had years of internalized misogyny–in this case, enough social conditioning to decide that any female speaking to a male she had once kissed is an enemy, a bad person, or worse–under her belt, and was also a meaner person. She doesn’t and isn’t, so this sequence and the events that follow (she decides to leave Hawkins rather than look for any of the other boys or, you know, ask Mike for his side of the non-story) are obvious low points in an otherwise stellar season.
There’s no way to overstate the danger of introducing a role model for young girls on one of the most popular shows on TV and then playing her impulsive, unfounded violence toward another girl off as a funny, relatable moment. Eleven doesn’t have to be perfect, but it would be great if male writers didn’t use her otherwise empowering character to perpetuate centuries of oversimplified, unrealistic visions of female relationships. In a recent interview, Sadie Sink expressed unhappiness with the antagonistic scene, while Millie Bobby Brown listed “have a good relationship with Max” as her number one hope for Eleven in the third season.
Relationship jealousy has been a (largely male-written) plot point since long before Stranger Things; the “are they cheating?” misunderstanding was on its way to becoming a sitcom staple as early as the 1950s, when it appeared on I Love Lucy. Besides acting as an unsatisfying plot crutch, the trope of over-the-top jealousy has been so ingrained in pop culture and so parroted by reality stars that it’s no doubt already bled into the way people, especially young women relate to one another offscreen. One study demonstrated that when talking, the average pair of female friends makes more than one statement per minute reflecting negative media and cultural messages they’ve internalized about women. Young fans of Stranger Things are lucky to have a clear-headed, outspoken cast, but it surely won’t be the last series to incorporate this sinister trope and play it off as normal.
It’s time for this tired jealousy plot to either gain complexity that parallels the quality of the story it serves, or better yet, just retire.