'Stranger Things' Eleven Showed Me A Hero For My Daughter
Are you all as excited as I am about the news that Netflix confirmed a second season of Stranger Things, Stranger Things 2, due out next year? I literally did a happy dance upon hearing the news. I understand that Stranger Things 2 is supposed to be more of a sequel than a continuation of the series, but it seems like it will pick up the story a year later, and a number of the characters will return. This has me, and a whole bunch of other Netflix viewers, extremely excited. But while I wait, I'll most certainly be re-watching Stranger Things… if not for myself, but for the message Stranger Things' Eleven sends to young girls like my own. In fact, I may have started re-watching it already.
There are a whole lot of reasons to love Stranger Things. Let’s count some of those reasons: There is the awesome '80s esthetic; there’s the dark-and-troubled police chief refusing to give up on a case, sneaking into places he doesn’t belong, and researching potential leads on microfiche in this place called a library; there are the smart, goofy, and adorable under-supervised children tackling adult problems better than the adults; there’s the plot centering on a scenario that literally every parent ever has feared: the disappearance of their child, and a determination we know we’d summon to never give up on our kid as long as there was some glimmer of hope. All of these are reasons to love Stranger Things. But, for me, my love for the show is, at its heart, all about Eleven.
Before I explain anything more, just a warning, this article contains spoilers if you haven't finished the season yet!
To me, El’s character in Stranger Things is all about finding great power in unexpected places. Eleven is at once unbelievably strong and completely defenseless. Yes, we’ve seen heroes before that show their weaknesses and complexities, but there is something remarkable about seeing that kind of adult complexity in a superhero child, knowing that much of her vulnerability stems from the fact that she is just a child — who is afraid, who craves love, who lacks control over the world of adults, and who, when really frightened, can, you know, open a portal into another universe. There was just something about this all-but-silent solemn girl that haunted me between episodes.
My daughter, whose disabilities make her so vulnerable, is also impressively determined and, despite her appearance, shockingly strong and capable in really surprising ways. Like El, she’s not had a choice but to be strong in ways that are unfair to any child. Like El, she exists in a world that seemingly was not designed for her. Like Eleven, my daughter creates an unexpected balance of confidence and fear, strength and vulnerability.
It took me awhile to understand my attachment to Eleven. And then, watching Papa carrying her down the hallway, her body exhausted from the exertion of killing two men out of fear, her arms hanging limply, a look of complete and utter surrender on her face, I understood: I too live with that kind of hero (sort of).
Now as far as I know, my daughter isn’t launching vehicles with her mind or anything (yet), but, I saw my daughter in El. As it happens, my daughter, whose disabilities make her so vulnerable, is also impressively determined and, despite her appearance, shockingly strong and capable in really surprising ways. Like El, she’s not had a choice but to be strong in ways that are unfair to any child. Like El, she exists in a world that seemingly was not designed for her. Like Eleven, my daughter creates an unexpected balance of confidence and fear, strength and vulnerability.
In the 5-and-half years we've spent together so far, I've had to tell myself a lot of stories about my daughter in order to get through the medical emergencies, the unknowns, and the realities of her disabilities. But the hardest stories I have to invent for myself revolve around seeing her participate in medical tests, procedures, and treatments. The hardest part is asking her to participate in a world she didn't ask to belong to. I ask, of course, only for her safety and health, but that fact doesn’t help my guilt over what she has to experience. I struggle a lot with the stories we tell ourselves about how sick children are brave, because it's awfully hard to understand whether someone is brave when they don’t have a choice.
My love of Eleven didn’t center around the amazing powers that appeared when she was pressed, although those are awesome, but it was built in a series of quiet moments — moments I recognize as the mother of a child who is different.
When El doesn’t have a choice but to walk herself up the steps toward her fear, when she looks to Papa to acknowledge her obedience, when she performs despite her physical exhaustion or hesitation — we know she has no choice because of an implied threat, but also because it's the reality of her containment. We know what happens when she doesn’t obey. But then again, we also learn what happens when she's pressed too far.
Many times over the years I could not help but believe, hope, and pretend that my daughter, in these difficult moments, had the ability to tap into something “other” in the moments when she's poked, prodded, and tested. Many times I’ve imagined her being able to hold off the hands of medical professions with nothing more than her will. And many more times I’ve wondered what the point of a child experiencing this type of pain and fear could possibly be.
As I watched Eleven, she seemed to be showing me glimpses of my own daughter and glimpses of the narrative I’d written for her. The places where those glimpses overlapped were fascinating. For me, my love of Eleven didn’t center around the amazing powers that appeared when she was pressed, although those are awesome, but it was built in a series of quiet moments — moments I recognize as the mother of a child who is different.
As it happens, yesterday evening I held my daughter as electrodes were glued to her head for overnight EEG and sleep monitoring. I held her as the wires attached to her body slowly increased in number, and I found myself thinking about Eleven, about the many scenes where she submits to testing fearfully, but obediently.
To me one of the most interesting and devastating things about El is her often vague recognition of her difference. Anyone who loves a child who is different understands the feeling of seeing said child face his or her difference by watching, and longing for, what other children do with ease. Every single time El puts on her wig, trying to appear to be something she's not in order to blend in, I see that recognition. It's so abstract and so unfamiliar, that I feel her struggling to understand what, exactly, it is that makes her different.
It is, of course, what's different about her that makes her so very spectacular. There are so many moments when these parts of her personality try to strike a balance, as she doggedly alters the compass needles, or fixedly scans the walkie-talkie for signs of Will, or enters the ad-hoc isolation bath in the school gym. Each of these moments allows us a glimpse into that solemn-and-complex weight she carries with her. She is so very different. Yet in ways big and small, so very much the same.
But we also see the intensity behind what makes Eleven who she is in similarly subtle moments. Her uncooperative blank stare in response to Dustin’s request that she make a model Millennium Falcon fly is hysterically coupled with her boredom later, as she makes the Falcon levitate with apparently zero effort; her ability to create a bond of loyalty with Mike after having been so betrayed by the “bad people”; her fearlessness in laying claim to the Eggo Waffles. We see it as she cowers at the bottom of Mike’s closet, tears in her eyes, promising she's OK.
It's in these subtle moments that we see who she is: a frightened child. A powerful frightened child, of course, but a child nonetheless. This is the reality those of us who parent children who have to face the kinds of things that make adults weak in the knees see: the secret, quiet moments that remind us that our children, for all the talk of their bravery and strength, are still just children.
When my daughter is older I'll sit down to watch this show with her and before we begin, I'll tell her that I love Eleven because she is a reminder that our heroes aren’t always the fastest, the loudest, the strongest, or even the bravest.
As it happens, yesterday evening I held my daughter as electrodes were glued to her head for overnight EEG and sleep monitoring. I held her as the wires attached to her body slowly increased in number, and I found myself thinking about Eleven, about the many scenes where she submits to testing fearfully, but obediently. Eleven honed her powers in this way. And at some point, Eleven couldn’t do what was asked of her anymore. My daughter’s sweet obedience, punctuated by the occasional wiggle, or gasp, or attempt to look back at the tech with her telepathy stink-eye, made me so very sad. It also made me wonder what amazing things are in store for her as she continues to grow and change and hone her own abilities.
It made me wonder whether Eleven would choose her powers, all things considered, and whether my daughter would choose hers. I don’t know. But I can say that I am so happy Eleven is in my world. I can say I am constantly proud and humbled that my daughter is exactly who she is. And I do know that when my daughter is older I'll sit down to watch this show with her and before we begin, I'll tell her that I love Eleven because she is a reminder that our heroes aren’t always the fastest, the loudest, the strongest, or even the bravest. The are the ones who find strength where they are broken... and learn how to use it.