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How Stranger Things 2 explores ordinary and extraordinary suffering

Literal monsters have always been used as metaphors for internal ones. (Here be spoilers)

One of the most quietly moving moments of Stranger Things 2 involves no danger, no conflict, and no dialogue. Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

It’s an internal conflict that rages for Will Byers, too, across the second season. Nicknamed “Zombie Boy” by his peers for his eerie return from the dead at the end of last season, consumed by paralysing flashbacks to the horrors of the Upside Down, and constantly interviewed by doctors, Will feels like a “freak”. His older brother’s insistence that “being a freak is the best” because “nobody normal ever accomplished anything meaningful in this world” feels trite in the face of Will’s overwhelming bursts of fear and shame. And that’s before he’s possessed by the evil Shadow Monster that yearns for the destruction of his friends and family.

Nancy, too, is struggling with the performance of happy, well-adjusted teenage girl when grief for her lost friend Barb and confusion about what happened to her constantly bubble just beneath the surface. These dark feelings spill over the same way they do for many teenagers: after a dozen drinks at a house party. “You're pretending like everything is okay,” she slurs to her boyfriend Steve. “Like, we’re in love and we’re partying. Yeah, let’s party, huh? Party. We’re partying.”

Whether it’s Joyce struggling to cope with the after effects of almost losing her son, or Hopper’s grief with the actual death of his daughter, it feels like every resident of Hawkins is coping with both ordinary and extraordinary suffering.

Literal monsters have always been used as metaphors for internal ones. Commentators have already delicately unpicked the ways in which Stranger Things 2 uses supernatural creatures to discuss trauma: Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic writers persuasively of how in Stranger Things, as in the work of Stephen King, “childhood trauma is associated with supernatural capacities”. The “thoughtfulness” in exploring that trauma is, for Gilbert, “what most distinguishes Stranger Things from its source material.”

The first season of Stranger Things saw its characters attempt to communicate through a divide, reaching out to lost children that are both “right here” and impossible to reach, as Will and Barb disappeared into the Upside Down. As discussions of the show’s litany of references to nostalgic children’s Eighties movies dominated the Stranger Things conversation, it was hard not to see these plots as a knowing metaphor for adults trying to reach a distant yet accessible cultural past.

A year after the events of the previous series, Will, Eleven, and Nancy have escaped the Upside Down, but still feel its presence. Unable to return fully to their old lives, they enter a state of “compromise”, as Hopper puts it to Eleven one night in their home. With the men from Hawkins Lab still searching for her, Eleven isn’t allowed to go out on Halloween like a normal child, and is offered a film at home as a replacement. “We can sit around and get fat, and watch a scary movie together,” Hopper suggests. “How’s that for a compromise?” It’s a new word for Eleven. “Compromise?” she asks. “C-O-M-promise,” he spells. “It’s something that’s kinda in-between. It’s like halfway happy.”

Will, too, is caught in between two states – he might not be in the Upside Down any more, but his flashbacks are intense. (The characters argue over whether these are flashbacks to the past, or visions of a contemporary present – which also feels significant for a show that updates nostalgic material.) “You know how on a View Master, when it gets, like…” he attempts to explain to Mike, who finishes the thought: “Caught between two slides?” “Yeah,” Will replies. “Like one side’s our world, and the other… the other side’s the Upside Down.”

But if these are metaphors for a state of post-traumatic stress – when you are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects – then they are perhaps more, not less, straightforward to defeat. An indoor heater can separate Will from the Shadow Monster, Eleven can access her psychokinetic powers to close the Gate to the Upside Down. But it’s harder to draw a map to heal lingering emotional wounds.

Perhaps one of the sweetest things about Stranger Things is that its children know that. The biggest rule Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Max and Eleven share is simple: don’t lie. “Friends don’t lie” is a mantra across both seasons of the show. Honest communication between human beings becomes sacred, because it’s the only way any of them will survive the chaos surrounding them. They won’t get through it alone.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so touching to see Eleven well up at Frankenstein, the four boys in matching Ghostbuster outfits, or Jonathan and Will bond over a mixtape. Books, movies, and eight hour-long TV shows on Netflix can’t vanquish your demons, but they can let you know that you’re not alone, that you’re not a freak, or a monster. And that’s sometimes half the battle.

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Now listen to Anna discussing Stranger Things 2 on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist