Despite only existing for about ten months, Netflix original series Stranger Things has received widespread acclaim through multiple media outlets in no small part to its main character.
Set in a fictional town called Hawkins, Indiana during the 1980s, the story revolves around a soft-spoken young girl named Eleven. She is born with psychokinetic abilities due to her mother’s pregnancy while participating in an experimental government program called MKUltra in the Hawkins National Laboratory which involved the use of sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs. Because Eleven’s birth was falsely declared a miscarriage, there were no records that indicated her existence which allowed Dr. Martin Brenner—a high-ranking research scientist within the Hawkins National Laboratory—to kidnap and use Eleven as a test subject without restriction.
Eleven’s ability to spy on other people from a long distance intrigued Brenner to the point that he placed her in a sensory deprivation tank with the intent to have her spy on a Russian agent. Instead, she wound up coming across a monster from another dimension called the Upside Down. When this experiment was done a second time, it resulted in a gate between Hawkins and the Upside Down being broken leading to the Monster being able to cross over to the real world and cause havoc. Eleven fled into Indiana and comes across Mike, Will and Dustin. Their friend Will went missing into the Upside Down and Eleven is their only shot at finding them. Because of her socially-deprived upbringing, she is particularly shy and has difficulty communicating with others although both show improvement over the course of season one. Eleven has a strong loyal bond with people who show genuine care for her and does her best to protect them at all costs.
One of the theoretical frameworks I will be addressing in connection to Eleven and Stranger Things is feminist criticism. Feminist criticism challenges the misrepresentation of women historically in literature and media. Torii Moi specifically takes three terms into account when discussing distinctions in feminism: the feminist, the female, and the feminine. The feminist represents a political position, the female represents the biological affiliation, and the feminine represents a set of social and/or cultural characteristics. Eleven in some way, shape or form fits the bill for all three.
Eleven doesn’t outright declare herself a feminist as her isolated upbringing and would make it difficult for her even be aware of the political implications surrounding feminism. However, she is considered a feminist icon especially for young girls by publications such as the Chicago Tribune. As a young socially-underdeveloped loner, Eleven is still the undisputed highlight and focus of the Stranger Things. Eleven’s ability to rise above circumstances such as kidnapping, abuse and manipulation makes her a hero in the eyes of many feminists. From a biological standpoint, Eleven is a female but even biologically, she is different than all of the other female characters in Stranger Things because of her powers. She is a cyborg while the rest of the female characters are strictly human. The feminine is the most complicated aspect of Eleven’s character in the show. The show has feminine characters like Nancy Wheeler but unlike Eleven, Nancy had a relatively normal/traditional upbringing which included awareness and compliance with the social and cultural stereotypes of how a woman should behave. Eleven was brought up in a lab away from her parents and civilization as a whole, therefore rendering her blind to the concept of feminine until breaking out of the lab and running away to Hawkins. Eleven is first introduced to the concept in “Chapter Four: The Body” when Mike and his friends dress her up in a pink dress and a blonde wig to sneak into their school. Mike compliments her look which sets it in Eleven’s mind that this look is more acceptable because she has a crush on him. Before that scene, she had a buzzed head and would just wear Mike’s old clothes, far from the feminine makeover she received in Chapter Four.
Another theoretical framework that applies to Eleven in Stranger Things is narratology. Narratology studies how narratives create and shape meaning as well as the commonalities between all attempts at storytelling. Narratology as outlined by Aristotle includes three frequent plot elements: the hamartia, the anagnorisis and the peripeteia. The hamartia is the fatal flaw that prevents the protagonist from reaching a state of immortality. Depending on the level of the flaw, this can be a minor hindrance or a complete undoing. The anagnorisis is when the protagonist recognizes the truth about or within their predicament. The peripeteia is when the protagonist goes through a reversal of fortune–more likely good to bad than vice versa–that alters their situation. If the reversal of fortune changes from good to bad then it can lead to the protagonist’s undoing. These three plot elements can be found in Stranger Things.
While Eleven is abnormally powerful–even more so when her age is considered–she does possess a flaw that prevents her powers from being used without consequence. Whenever Eleven uses her powers, she suffers from nosebleeds and fatigue. The level of exertion increases the severity of both side-effects. One example of these side effects took place in Chapter Six: The Monster when Mike and his friends were being bullied by Troy. Eleven saves the boys by using her psychokinetic powers to break Troy’s arm (bleeding from her nose in the process) and collapses immediately after doing so, proving she isn’t invincible.
The anagnorisis or recognition of truth occurs in “Chapter Four: The Body” when Eleven uses her psychic abilities to determine that Mike and the boys’ missing friend Will Byers was trapped in the Upside Down dimension rather than dead. The peripeteia happens when Dr. Brenner finds out where Eleven escaped to and takes a group of agents to hunt her down at Hawkins Middle School. While Brenner is attacked by The Monster and fails at capturing Eleven, she is forced to kill the monster and vanishes after doing so. The reversal of fortune doesn’t cause a severe downfall for Eleven like the downfalls that happen in many Shakespearian tragedies but the events that take place after Brenner finds her is far from the peace she was looking for upon escaping to Hawkins.
Eleven emerges from Stranger Things with predicaments such as being trapped in solution, being very young and longing for reciprocated affection. These factors would normally make someone a weak and dependent character but Eleven’s weaknesses are treated as obstacles that she overcomes rather than succumbs to. The face of a widely talked-about series is a twelve year old who just so happens to double as an ass-kicking machine.