By Nan Mooney
My twelve-year-old daughter, Clementine, is obsessed with the character Eleven from Netflix’s Stranger Things. Sandwiched between two brothers, Clementine is rough and awkward at times, what back in my day they called a tomboy. For a while I feared, despite all the female empowerment messages trumpeted on tween TV and plastered on t-shirts, she was starting to think girls were stupid. Then along came Stranger Things, with its tongue-tied bald rebel who can hurl train cars with the power of her mind.
For the most part, I’m thrilled that Clementine wants to be Eleven. She is the rare young heroine who is equal parts brilliant and raw, possessed of tenacity and hope, with a desire for human connection and the skill set to battle both mortal and supernatural evil. She is an enormous step up from my childhood girl-crushes, which included all six Charlies Angels and the Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman in her bustier and star-spangled underpants. But it’s intriguing to me that my daughter lit upon a character whose primary emotion is this massive and spinning rage and whose main arc consists of learning to channel that rage to exterminate an unfathomable dark force. What is she seeing that she longs for or identifies with? If she had such powers, what would she want to do?
In exploring what we look for in our heroes, Joseph Campbell wrote “it has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.” Fictional heroes give us courage. In many ways, Eleven fits the mold of Campbell’s archetypal hero, exiting an ordinary Midwestern small town to battle the forces of the supernatural—in her case a shadow monster who populates a dark and threatening “upside down” world that mirrors our own. Eleven’s regular human band of brothers (plus one girl) refer to her as their mage, a wizard or sorcerer, a link to the unknowable.
I suspect that Clementine is starved for heroes who can carry her forward in these terrifying times. Like many girls her age, she is highly tuned to the bigger picture and her role in it. I haven’t held from her the status of our environment or the schisms forming in our society. She has seen that—in what feels like a heartbeat—disease can kill millions, tensions can spill into war, and the right to make decisions about her own body can be stripped away. This knowledge is what keeps her up at night or why I might find her randomly crying in the hallway on a Sunday afternoon. Her reality, the reality of her entire generation, is one of coming of age in an era of overwhelming responsibility.
I worry for my children’s future in ways I never could have imagined. The planet feels like it’s imploding, its citizens hopped up on cruelty and excess, a society where truth seems elusive until it slams a hurricane through your home, points an automatic weapon at your grade school, or burns a cross in your front yard. People all over are suffering from a deep poverty of humanity and of spirit. Sometimes—often—I think about what might be coming and feel sick and paralyzed. Perhaps I have the luxury. But my daughter hasn’t even had the chance to live yet. She has an openness of heart, a hunger for possibility. How do I—a mere parent—help her to survive with soul intact?
Parents everywhere understand that there is a mental health crisis amongst young people. Girls especially are losing hope. We just don’t know how or even what to fix. Maybe Eleven can give these girls a blueprint, faith that they can one day feel in charge again. Maybe she can encourage them to fight back. Somewhere deep down, they sense that rage is exactly the right thing to feel. And why waste that passion slamming doors and cursing brothers when it could be honed to conquer so much more?
I also wonder if, at a time when gender is increasingly fluid, many of these same girls are drawn by Eleven’s androgynous affect, one that doesn’t push beauty or sexuality on girls. I sense, caught up in my daughter’s drumbeat, an impatience that she’s expected to care for such things. Eleven’s friendship with her soul mate Mike feels innocent, stalled at kissing behind a half-closed door, yet also deep and unyielding. Eleven offers up a brand-new template – a world-saving hero who never learned that there are rules to being a girl, rules to liking a boy, rules to battling the bad guys. If she can break the mold, others can too. Eleven fits girls like Clementine who chafe at unicorns and “girl power” and are seeking other models for how to be.
For the legions of grown-up viewers like me Stranger Things presents a world rich with 1980s nostalgia, banana seat bikes, classic horror movies, and lack of parental supervision. I identify with the central adults in the show, Joyce and Hopper, with their need to carry on despite an at times overwhelming sense of hopelessness and loss.
But for our daughters, Eleven lays out a path into the future. Simply being scrappy and resourceful is no longer enough. Every day in some small or massive way, it feels like the gates to the underworld have swung open. Circumstances are calling for new sort of heroine, one with a brain potent enough to harness and hurl back the power of her rage.
Philip Zambardo, a former Stanford psychologist who has done extensive research on both heroism and evil, points out that the same situations can create both dynamics. There is an upside down inside us all. The path is the choice of the traveler. I can teach my daughter empathy, compassion, tolerance, supply her with a moral compass and the smaller building blocks of courage. But how do I prepare her to walk through fire? Maybe Eleven steps in where I drop out. Pack your toolbox and channel this.
If our daughters yearn like mine does, in their deepest and most desperate wells of longing, to be Eleven, then we should yearn for this too. We should pray that they learn to draw deep and step up high, higher than human beings have ever stepped before. That they will channel wizards, slam shut every portal to the dark side, hurl monsters through windows, metaphorical or otherwise. All the while learning with great attention and precision to connect with and care for those around them. Given the options, we can only hope that this will be their journey.
Nan Mooney has been a writer and journalist for over twenty years. She is a solo parent and lives with her three kids in Arlington, Virginia. She also shares her daughter’s obsession with Stranger Things.
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