Hollywood's Problem With Unfeminine Girls
In Netflix’s '80s-throwback sci-fi horror series, Stranger Things, its young hero gets a girly makeover and wins the heart of a boy. For decades, masculine-looking girls in film and television have been a problem to be solved — or at worst, queer monsters to be vanquished. WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
We all know the Classic Makeover Montage well. A beautiful actress we’re supposed to believe is a homely slob because her hair’s a little frizzy is bestowed with a flatiron and some makeup — after a parade of product placements, she’s the belle of the ball. There is perhaps no feminine transformation as famous as the one in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, that gold standard of high school movies and launcher of a thousand teen cliches. Ally Sheedy’s Allison goes from Hollywood’s idea of a gross, greasy basketcase to pretty in pink under the guidance of a queen bee played by (who else) Molly Ringwald. An unattractive weirdo is effectively cured when she becomes beautiful in the eyes of teenage boys.
Netflix’s sci-fi horror series Stranger Things, the breakaway hit of the summer, is a hefty homage to '80s genre films — and since repackaging tropes was always going to be part of the plan, a Classic Makeover Montage was inevitable. Directed and written by creators Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things follows the aftermath of a boy named Will Byers’ disappearance in 1980s Indiana. His friends — a motley crew of uncool, Dungeons & Dragons–playing middle school boys — attempt to find him with the help of an escapee from a government facility, who has been groomed into a telekinetic weapon. The escapee’s name and approximate age is Eleven. Played by a very talented Millie Bobby Brown, Eleven is wide-eyed, scrappy, loyal, and brave. Her hair is completely shaved, since the government experimenters who raised her were constantly attaching and reattaching wire-strung nodes to her head. Her imminent makeover, therefore, is different than your basic weird-girl-to-beautiful-girl — she was raised in a brutal and presumably genderless way by force. But a makeover is a makeover.
To be masculine-presenting, pop culture tells us, is to be weird, abnormal, ugly, bad (in another word: queer).
Will’s friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard), in whose basement Eleven has sought refuge, helps her put on his older sister’s makeup and clothes so she can take a trip to their school without rousing suspicion. The end result — frilly, feminine, pink — has Eleven looking like a miniature version of Ally Sheedy, brand new and beautified, emerging from Saturday detention with the Brat Pack.
Eleven touches her new blonde wig in front of a mirror in Mike’s house. “You look pretty,” Mike tells her. “Pretty?” she asks, not sure whether to believe him. It’s a word she’ll repeat a few times throughout the series — gazing at her reflection, seeing the way Mike looks at her. While she struggles to comprehend other words the boys introduce, “pretty” is one that Eleven understands immediately and intimately. She was robbed of an entire childhood, but having been denied prettiness seems to be one of her short life’s greatest sadnesses.
Eleven is at home in a long history of young female characters whose ultimate worth is dictated by her romantic appeal to boys — someone who must first become desirably feminine before she can fully claim that worthiness at all. That premise is all the more galling in a show where Eleven is a) the hero, and b) prepubescent. Why on earth does she need to be worrying about attracting boys when she’s a literal child — one preoccupied with saving people in mortal danger, no less?
Even though Eleven didn't make the choice to shave her head, Stranger Things presumes that the ultra-feminine is girlhood’s default, a natural and obvious preference. To be masculine-presenting, pop culture tells us, is to be weird, abnormal, ugly, bad (in another word: queer). Prescribed femininity is therefore a cure-all: If a girl can be pretty, she can be available to men. And in 2016, as in the '80s, a girl is still supposed to be both.
Boyish girls remain rather rare in mainstream film and television. When they do show up, their boyishness tends to be a problem to be corrected. Sometimes a tomboy's masculinity is merely temporary, a costume to be put on and taken off — like with Andrea, played Alana Austin, in the Disney movie Motocrossed: she dresses up like her twin brother to race as him, inspiring the lesbian awakenings of so many '90s kids. As with Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man, Motocrossed's girl ends up safely femme and partnered with a boyfriend by the time the credits roll.
In other cases, masculinity in girl characters can be attributed to their sportiness, but the films have to work extra hard to assure that — don’t worry! — even though the girl is tough and strong, she’s still pretty and sought after by boys. In 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, Keira Knightley’s short-haired and tomboyish Jules, a soccer player, is continually suspected of being a lesbian, particularly by her mom; Jules continually denies the accusations, which becomes one of the film’s running jokes. Despite an insane amount of chemistry with her best friend and teammate Jess, played by Parminder Nagra, viewers are constantly hit over the head with the apparent fact of Jules’ heterosexuality, particularly when both Jules and Jess somewhat inconceivably fall for their male coach.
Then there are the masculine-leaning girls who are just one of the boys, a bro among bros. In another John Hughes–penned '80s film, Some Kind Of Wonderful, Mary Stuart Masterson is Watts, a working class teen tomboy who’s BFFs with Eric Stoltz’ Keith. Watts helps Keith try to land a popular girl, the way a good wingman does, but in the end Keith realizes that he’s actually in love with his best friend — which he expresses by giving Watts a pair of earrings originally intended for the girl he’d been pursuing earlier. Watts is thrilled. What through-and-through tomboy doesn’t covet a pair of expensive, girly earrings?
If a girl’s masculinity can’t be corrected with compulsory femininity, she’s a lost cause: the butt of a joke at best, something monstrous at worst. Queerness — which could encompass a character’s sexuality, or simply be signified by a deviant gender presentation — has been demonized throughout horror film history. The monstrous queer has cropped up in everything from Oscar-winning films like Silence Of The Lambs and Monster to ‘80s slasher movies, inciting highbrow and lowbrow terror in near equal measure. Just as queerness in any shape or form is a threat to heteronormativity, a figure like Dracula is a threat when seducing the men and women he preys upon, whom he renders — through penetration and the exchange of bodily fluids — just as villainous as he is.
If a girl’s masculinity can’t be corrected with compulsory femininity, she’s a lost cause: the butt of a joke at best, something monstrous at worst.
Eleven in Stranger Things isn’t a threat the way a lot of classic horror villains are, but what matters is she sees herself that way. When experimenters force her to push the bounds of her telekinesis, she unwittingly creates a tear in space and time, opening a gate to an alternate dimension (“the Upside Down”) which leads a monster out into the real world. As days pass and Will Byers still hasn’t been found, Eleven is wracked with unspeakable guilt. “I’m the monster,” she tells Mike, tears pooling in her eyes. Her monstrosity, she feels, is made visually apparent by her shaved head — she’s defective, something hideous and unlovable. In one scene, after she’s run away from Mike and his friends, worried that she could hurt them or otherwise make matters worse, she leans down over a pond in the woods and screams at her reflection. If only, if only she were normal. If only she were pretty.
Stranger Things, which references the work of directors like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, borrows ‘80s film aesthetics to marvelous effect — but it also borrows absurdly outdated gender politics, which are a lot less fun to watch. Eleven is defined almost exclusively by her relationships with men and boys: the evil doctor she calls “Papa”; the group of geeks who go from rejecting her to defending her; and, most significantly, with her friend Mike, who, after seeing her properly girlified, gets a crush on her, kisses her, and asks her to a school dance. Even though Mike still likes Eleven without the wig, which she's thankfully abandoned due to impracticality by the end of the season, her makeover allowed him to see her as someone capable of femininity, rather than just another bro. Regardless, why must any sense of her empowerment or validation come from the way a boy sees her? (And, reminder: These kids are in, like, sixth grade. They are babies.) Eleven’s heroism — and ultimately, her potential martyrdom — is overshadowed by her downgrade from stand-alone victor to mourned love interest.
On the whole, Stranger Things makes sure to scrub all possible traces of queerness from its characters. Bullies pick on Will, his brother, and his friends by calling them queer freaks, but that's largely an empty insult. Mike is safely paired with Eleven, while Will’s brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), after taking enormously creepy photos of Mike’s older sister Nancy as she’s undressing in a window, becomes her confidante and friend. Lonely hetero geekdom is romanticized in this world — stalking is merely a minor offense, something that very well might be less shameful in the show’s diegesis than gayness. Stranger Things champions the nerds and the weirdos, as so much of '80s pop culture did, but the writers temporarily put Eleven in a wig and make most characters seemingly straight as if to assure that their weirdness won’t become unruly. Queerness, gender-nonconformity (nonwhiteness too, for that matter) — in a world with monsters and alternate dimensions, these things are just too alien to make the cut.
Not every character in the world needs to be LGBT. (That’d be nice, though.) The issue isn’t just that there are no queer characters on so many beloved and critically acclaimed shows — the issue is that most characters aren’t given the opportunity to be anything other than straight or straight-passing. Even female characters on TV who are actually allowed to be full-out, openly queer are overwhelmingly feminine: Emily and her various love interests on Pretty Little Liars; Clarke and her various love interests on The 100; basically everyone on The L Word (Shane’s the one sort-of exception, and she wears a ton of makeup). Lea DeLaria as Boo on Orange Is The New Black is one of the only true butches on television today. If a female character is going to be into women, she at least has to “look straight” so her queerness isn’t too much of an aberration. When characters we’re supposed to root for step outside the bounds of heteronormativity, so often they’re forcefully shoved back into place.
But Eleven is a kid. We don’t know her sexual orientation and we don’t need to. Yet the Duffer brothers felt compelled to give her a makeover and stick her with a boy. (She might have grown up to be with both boys and girls, of course, or no one at all, but in our culture girls are presumed straight unless proven otherwise; even then, they’re belittled and disbelieved.) No matter her orientation, Eleven simply doesn't deserve to be reduced to a romantic plotline with anyone. Even though Winona Ryder made a triumphant comeback as Will’s mom, even though Natalia Dyer’s Nancy can (wow!) shoot a gun pretty well, and even though #WeAreAllBarb, Stranger Things exists squarely in a boy’s universe. And according to the laws of pop culture, boys still get to complete their heroic quest and win the girl.
Another huge hit of the summer, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, has been widely celebrated precisely because the female characters aren’t winnable. They exist in their own right, as fucking badasses who save the world, instead of prizes for male protagonists’ consumption. It’s an exciting thing primarily because women deserve to be the heroes of their own stories. But keeping all the female characters unattached also means that Ghostbusters doesn’t blanket enforce heteronormativity. Kristen Wiig’s Erin gets awkwardly flirty with Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, but Melissa McCarthy as Abby is far more concerned about her friendship with Erin (and catching ghosts) than expressing romantic interest in anyone. Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann seduces everything that moves (notably, in a way that doesn’t simply perform for the male gaze). Ask any lesbian and she’ll tell you that McKinnon’s character is so obviously queer that they left the Ghostbusters theater even gayer than when they walked in. Both Feig and McKinnon won’t confirm Holtzmann’s sexuality, likely due to studio pressure, which is maddening in its own way. But at the very least, Holtzmann — who is far from the most feminine person in the world, in her neckties and whimsical overalls — isn’t punished for her masculinity, or saddled up with a random dude.
Holtzmann’s rise comes one year after another female character was afforded similarly refreshing, and rare, freedoms: Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. After Millie Bobby Brown, the actor who plays Eleven, shaved her head for the role, she was worried she’d made a big mistake — until the Duffer brothers showed her a picture of Furiosa rocking the same cut. “The resemblance was amazing!” she told IndieWire. “It was the best decision I've ever, ever made.”
The more we see women and girls embracing nontraditional gender presentations, the less vilified those presentations will become. Characters like Furiosa and Holtzmann represent the possibility that a woman could be masculine, or queer, or unattached, or some combination of the three without being forcibly feminized, given a boyfriend, or branded a monster. Stranger Things could have easily allowed Eleven to forge meaningful friendships and kick monster ass without preoccupying her with fears about prettiness. Some tropes of the '80 really aren't worth reviving — the Classic Makeover Montage is one of them.