Today I want to talk about some differences I have seen between TV shows created by women and TV shows created by men. I’m going to be using the example of Stranger Things and The OA.
Major Spoilers Follow, for more than just these two shows.
Both of these shows involve a group of boys in a quiet suburb who get involved with a newly-arrived girl/woman with mysterious origins and apparently supernatural capabilities. She is a Stranger From Afar who shakes up their lives and demands incredible suspension of disbelief. She has been abused by an older man who wanted to push her abilities to their full potential, and harness them for himself. Ultimately, she sacrifices herself and in the process returns the boys to their normal lives, albeit forever changed.
There are also major differences: The OA is an “older” show, with a female lead in her late twenties and a teenaged group of boys; Stranger Things is anchored by children. The OA is also much more ambiguous in its supernatural phenomena. Stranger Things has a much more defined and traditional narrative arc than The OA, which I suspect is part of the reason it’s been much better received (I too struggled with that finale).
But this is the difference I want to focus on:
All other differences aside, this difference significantly impacted how well I was able to connect with each show, because The OA had the following things:
A Complex, Central Female Lead
Stranger Things is much less about Eleven than it is about the boys she befriends. They are the heart of the story; the camera views the whole world from the point of view of these 12-year-old boys; rescuing one of their own is at the heart of the story, and it is for his rescue that Eleven ultimately sacrifices herself. Likely because of this vantage point, Eleven is a cipher, pretty much a blank except for her powers. Apparently good-hearted and wanting to adopt oddly old-fashioned, baby-doll symbols of femininity, but that’s about it – that’s all the boys can discern.
The OA is about OA/Prairie/Nina; her saga is the saga. She is altruistic, self-righteous, judgmental, loving, and selfish all at once, like all new religion messiahs. She fucks up on the regular; she is myopic in her pursuit of her father; she shows some real slivers of cold-heartedness, particularly toward her adopted parents. She craves the approval of older men to replace the father she’s lost, only to fall in love with a man her own age who renders her more vulnerable and compassionate but still myopic. She believes in her own grandeur, unabashedly. She also believes that she is doing good in the world, even despite evidence to the contrary, causing her to frequently bulldoze over dissent and to demand blind faith – which ironically makes her rather similar to her captor/archenemy, Hap.
Visible “Invisible” Women
The most widely-voiced criticism of Stranger Things – which I shared from the get-go – was the show’s treatment of the women that are invisible/non-entities to 12-year-old boys. Ugly duckling teen Barb is unceremoniously killed and mourned by next to no-one while the entire cast of characters is torn apart by the death of 12-year-old Will. This makes more sense when set against the blank mystery of Eleven, Nancy’s depiction as the coveted prize in a social battle between Jonathan and Steve, and Joyce’s sole defining characteristic as a well-meaning but histrionic mother.
More than anything else, this element is what will kill a male-created show for me, partly because it is so easy to overcome, and partly because it is so unhelpful. No one questions that boys in middle school wouldn’t care about someone like Barb – but why does the show’s God (i.e. its creator) take His cue from them? Besides, plenty of men can and do create very convincing and fully-realized “invisible” women – David Lynch (Twin Peaks), Tom Fontana (Oz), Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror).
The OA, meanwhile, actually humanizes its Barb, frumpy teacher Betty Broderick-Allen. It would have been plaintively easy to turn “BBA” into a nagging shrew who tries to sabotage the plot. Instead she is not only an integral part of the boy group but a character with her own struggles who is called upon to save others, sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong, and has twice the pluck and courage of any of the boys. Even more remarkable to me was the bit character Joanne, the angry, disobedient tomboy who Steve takes a liking to. Despite her prickly self-assuredness, Joanne knows she’s invisible, asking Steve after he kisses her if he’s going to dump pig’s blood on her at prom. “Not unless you think it’s hot,” Steve replies, in an interaction that warmed my subaltern-girl heart.
Sexual Violence as a Part of Life
I have found that a lot of men struggle to write about sexual violence. They either depict a world that is weirdly sanitized from it, even while a huge amount of other violence is taking place, or linger obsessively over the gruesome details in a manner that can only suggest a fetish. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the former, it’s simply not reality – women know that, because women are usually on the receiving end of the threat; because women structure their whole daily lives around protecting themselves from men, whether walking through a dark parking lot or partying with friends. That’s why most shows created by women include sexual violence – not as a theme necessarily, but as a fact of life given the structure of society. Jessica Jones (Melissa Rosenberg), Orange is the New Black (Jenji Kohan), and Top of the Lake (Jane Campion, Gerard Lee) are some notable examples. I love The Fall (Allan Cubitt), but I think Gillian Anderson redeems what is otherwise a bit of a leering depiction of sexual murders; I love Halt and Catch Fire (Christopher Cantwell, Christopher C. Rogers), but it is shocking that its female leads in a sea of masculinity are seldom even sexually harassed, let alone threatened.
[I should point out that some men do a great job depicting sexual violence against men – The Leftovers (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) and Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall) deserve special call-out here – underlining my point that Empathy does wonders.]
There isn’t any rape in The OA but it is clearly a reality that is part of the equation, as when Scott assumes that Hap has been raping OA/Prairie/Nina when he takes her upstairs alone, or the girl at the restaurant talks about how inspiring it is that OA/Prairie/Nina looks so great after having been beaten and raped in captivity. When Hap drags her out of his vehicle and gets on top of her on the side of the road, saying he’ll leave her as he found her – broken and alone – my heart jumped into my throat. Stranger Things has no moments like these, even though there’s plenty of room for them. Eleven is neither sexualized nor ever seen to be in any sexual danger throughout her captivity; Nancy manages to join a rough new popular clique without even being pressured into sex, surely a one-in-a-million success story; Barb is unattractive and so never considered to be in sexual danger from monsters or teen boys; Joyce is the mom and thus devoid of any sexuality. Again, I suspect this is a by-product of adopting a 12-year-old boy’s worldview.
Good Guys That Hurt Women, Too
The most interesting difference I’ve been able to identify between Stranger Things and The OA is The OA‘s willingness to depict its male heroes clearly hurting women they care about. Stranger Things paints a little too clear of a line between Good Guy Jonathan and Bad Guy Steve. Jonathan is nothing but worshipful of Nancy, and Steve is an utter slut-shaming asshole; the fact that Nancy picks Steve anyway furthers the great delusion that women simply prefer bad boys who treat them badly. None of the boys around Eleven ever does anything to hurt her; the slightest doubt of Eleven’s leadership by Lucas is promptly shut down by his friends and punished by Eleven in a manner that I found not only unrealistic but rather disappointing, as Lucas is the show’s only minority character and clear “token black guy” (but that’s a whole other discussion). Joyce’s ex-husband is an obvious douchebag; police chief Hopper is a tortured, inexplicably gentle alcoholic who never seems to take it out on the crazy woman convinced her dead son is alive.
This is a very tempting fantasy, for men and women alike, especially when confronted with the reality of the sexual violence above. There’s a prevailing preference in the Patriarchy to elevate “good men” who are chivalrous, respectful of women, as the paragons of virtue, to raise little boys to “never hit a woman,” as if there is something particularly breakable about a woman. But just as women transcend the [Attractive & Valuable] / [Ugly & Valueless] dichotomy, men transcend the [Heroic & Chivalrous] / [Villainous & Knavish] dichotomy – precisely because the Patriarchy encourages violence, physicality, sexual aggression, and the devaluation of women. This is of course not to say that hurting anybody should be excused; but a recognition that humans are flawed and subject to poisonous social constructs, and to be authentic in one’s creative choices is to acknowledge this.
And that’s why I love that Steve, the troubled heart-and-soul of the boy group, makes his entrance as a domineering bully who actually physically attacks OA/Prairie/Nina twice: encouraging his dog to literally maul her to death upon meeting her, then stabbing her with a pencil after he has become her friend. There are a lot of reasons for the pencil incident: anger that OA/Prairie/Nina is just using him to rescue the man she actually loves; anger over being abducted by a military boot camp on his parents’ instructions; anger that he has been clearly taught to deflect onto the weak and feminine; self-hate so deep that the only thing he can think of to do is destroy what he loves the most. Once again, Steve is one of the good guys despite all of this, and unquestionably the character that develops the most drastically over the course of the series, transforming from a violent bully to a non-violent leader. Steve is a victim of toxic masculinity, an example of the great truth: Patriarchy Hurts Everybody.
And that’s also why I love that Homer, truly practically angelic in his kindness, patience, and love of OA/Prairie/Nina, nonetheless cheats on her when presented the opportunity to have sex with someone else – and in the process unwillingly helps Hap (the very personification of the Patriarchy) abduct another woman. He’s not perfect; no one is. It doesn’t erase his basic virtue, although it was clearly Hap’s intent to use this to debase Homer as a subhuman “animal,” as Scott says. The sequence where OA/Prairie/Nina tells the boys about this incident is illustrative of the difference between Stranger Things and The OA in this regard. “How can Homer do it? How could he have done that to you?” French demands, full of righteous fury. “I would have never given in. He should have kept trying.” OA/Prairie/Nina responds, “Try to imagine what it’s like to have been a prisoner for all those years. You’re not free just because you can see the ocean. Captivity is a mentality. It’s a thing you carry with you.” Because Patriarchy Hurts Everybody!
Funny you’re the broken one, but I’m the only one who needed saving
‘Cause when you never see the light it’s hard to know which one of us is caving.
– Rihanna ft. Mikky Ekko: “Stay”