NOTE: This piece references events that take place at the end of Stranger Things season two.
I want to tell you about Eleven, and why she’s my favorite in a long line of young magical outsiders.
I wonder, would she prefer I call her Jane now? Jane strikes me as too plain a name for her (no offense intended to all you extraordinary Janes out there), but perhaps that’s what makes it so perfect. I think what success looks like for Eleven is her, in 1995, just being another person waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Can she get to that life? Does she get to have it? That’s what I want for her.
I’ve always been drawn to stories of children set apart, those magical or otherworldly outsiders who see and experience the world differently from everyone else. When I was young, I loved the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Alone,” because it made me feel a little less so. It begins,
From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
In the end, the poem’s narrator relates a strange childhood experience, a vision in the sky:
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view—
I understood this, how on might see a demon take shape in the clouds. Because I lived in a kind of fear and confusion — fear of my father’s next drunken outburst, confusion about who I was in a world that didn’t make sense to me — I always felt, or fancied I felt, the presence of magic at the edges of existence, perhaps another world separated from our own only by a thin veil that might part at any time, and offer a fleeting glimpse within, or even a passage beyond. Eleven knows such a place exists. She has seen the Upside Down. She has been there. She can feel it always.
I turned eight in 1984, when season two of Stranger Things takes place. I needed a hero like Eleven then, when I felt so alone. My magical outsider heroes were people like Bastian from the movie version of The NeverEnding Story, who beheld a land of magic and came to possess some magic himself, and D.A.R.Y.L. who, well, was very different from all the other kids. (Just watch him play Pole Position!) I liked these heroes, but they were all boys. Heck, Bastian and D.A.R.Y.L. were even played by the same actor.
I saw girls with special powers occasionally, such as Drew Barrymore’s Charlie in Firestarter, but like Carrie before her, she was presented not as heroic but dangerous — the fear of female anger and power endures — and it was just such a bad movie, one that didn’t bother to make us identify with or care about young Charlie. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “we don’t feel sorry for Barrymore because she’s never developed as a believable little girl — just a plot gimmick.” I also couldn’t abide the bargain-basement show Out of This World, about a half-human, half-alien teenager with magical powers, which has been repeatedly characterized as the worst sitcom ever. It was a bleak time for people who needed to see young female heroes they could relate to onscreen.
Today, we have a few more examples in pop culture of heroic young female outsiders than we did back then, and none are bigger than Rey. I like Rey. What I like most about her is that she knows what it is to endure loneliness. “I know all about waiting,” she says, and so she does; she marks the days as they pass, piling up into weeks and months that amass into years, empty years that she has to carry with her. Nothing is heavier than emptiness, and I think every magical outsider must know what it is to be alone, whether it’s the time Harry Potter spends unloved in the cupboard under the stairs with no clue what the future has in store for him or the years Rey spends waiting and waiting and waiting for the people with whom she belongs to return.
But I feel the weight of waiting even more in Eleven’s life. The numbering of days as Mike calls for her again and again on the walkie-talkie.
We see what it does to her, being kept away from the world, from her friends, as they go to school and play together and have lives, each day that goes by essentially stolen from her, a day she never gets back. Of course it’s necessary, of course it’s for her own protection that she be holed up at Hopper’s cabin in the woods. That doesn’t make it any less painful. It can be a kind of torture, to know the life you are being denied.
Eleven’s been denied so much, it only makes sense that she carries a bitterness inside of her which lashes out from time to time, at one point erupting at Max, the group’s newest member, as she spends time with Mike. Of course Max didn’t deserve to be knocked off of her skateboard. But Max, for all Eleven knows, gets to be in the world, living the life Eleven doesn’t get to have. Max, we know, has tremendous difficulties of her own, but Eleven doesn’t know this, and although I’m not proud of it, there were definitely times in the past when some wounded, starving child inside of me would have used her telekinetic powers to knock people I envied off of their proverbial skateboards, too.
Finally, here she is, just what I needed so much when I was young. An outsider, a girl, a hero.
After season one, I didn’t want any more Stranger Things. I thought it was complete just as it was, and worried that returns would muddle and diminish its greatness. Now I want her to get the full Harry Potter treatment. I want to see her grow and evolve just like we got to see him grow and evolve. It’s not just about the struggles that come with her powers, though that’s absolutely part of it, as surely as Harry’s seven-year battle with the forces of Voldemort helped forge him into the person he became. We all know it wasn’t just the spell-flinging and prophecy-fulfilling that made Harry’s tale so captivating to so many. It was how he had to balance all this with just going to class, spending time with his friends, navigating his first romantic experiences with girls.
I’m sure the Upside Down isn’t done with Eleven, and she’s got a dangerous sister out there somewhere who may need to be stopped. But it was Eleven venturing into a school dance that felt to me like the most triumphant moment in season two. Mike asks her, “Do you wanna dance?” and she can only respond, “I don’t know how.” But she’s still there. That’s heroic. Even more heroic to me than when she mustered every iota of her will to close the gate through which sinister forces were entering our plane of existence.
For Eleven, some of the hardest things will always be doing what is “normal” for so many others. These are the moments I’m so eager to see more of. The things she has missed out on and the lessons they teach simply cannot be replaced. She will have to fumble in the dark at 17 or 21 as she finds herself in situations that other people have been socialized to know how to handle. She’s not irrevocably broken, not at all. She can heal. She can live a real life. But there will always be a piece missing, and that’s okay. That’s all of us. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Finally, here she is, just what I needed so much when I was young. An outsider, a girl, a hero. A hero because of the things that make her different, not in spite of them. This is what I needed in 1984, as a young person who felt so isolated and alone and different and strange and confused–to see someone else who was told by the world that she was one thing and who slowly learned to determine who she was for herself, and who slowly, tentatively, heroically took steps toward a more ordinary life. My dream now is to part ways with her another five years or so down the road, to leave her still damaged but no more damaged than any of us, fully capable of healing, fully capable of loving and being loved.
Eleven wasn’t there when I needed her in 1984, but it’s actually okay, because it’s not too late. She’s still there in 1984 right now, alongside Ghostbusters and Dragon’s Lair and all these other talismans of my own childhood. Right where I need her to be.
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