backlash + the body: stranger things and the policing of female grief

Jess Burke Brazas on 2016-08-08

it’s my missing kid, and i’ll grieve how i want to.

There’s a dark and icky truth throbbing at the heart of Stranger Things, the Netflix summer sensation that’s mystifying genre fans with its wild crossover success. Full-disclosure, here: I’m a superfan of this show, and I will be happy to tell you what I think created the demigorgon in another article (hint: what do you think happened to numbers 1 through 10?). But it is a really strange thing for something like this to be so successful; usually when you tell people at the water cooler you’re into a show with a darkwave score about paranormally missing children, they suddenly remember a meeting they had to be at. But this summer it’s totally okay to share fan theories about a demigorgon with your coworkers, and in large part we have Winona Ryder to thank.

Ryder’s name recognition across generations and her decades-long ability to breathe her cultish uniqueness into pop culture has to be a huge part of what’s getting Stranger Things the attention it’s getting, at least and especially among people who don’t usually watch creepy/horror/paranormal TV. In case you haven’t watched and are reading this because you love spoilers and eat suffering, Ryder plays Joyce Byers, single mother of a missing child (the dad’s alive, but he’s a real piece of shit, by all accounts). A sweet, soft-spoken, odd and gentle child of about 11, Will Byers goes missing in episode one after an epic ten hour game of Dungeons and Dragons with his three best friends, Mike, Dustin and Lucas.

We see Will’s disappearance on screen, but it makes very little sense to a first time viewer — some flickering lights, a la Twin Peaks’ garmonbozia-feeders; a dark and missing environment that makes you think Carpenter’s hiding Mike Myers around the corner; and the expressive, terrified eyes of a child, all pathos, pure Stephen King. And then he’s gone. In spite of the help of the — drunken, very lovable, gently damaged — police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), Joyce is the one who pulls hardest at the thread of Will’s disappearance, and is the first to believe, if not understand, just how close by he really is.

No one in Joyce’s life is available to help her process the deep hollow Will’s absence creates, let alone hunt for him. Her husband, as previously mentioned, is busy being a piece of shit; her older son Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) is pursuing Will (and his adulthood) in his own way; and chief Hopper (perhaps an old flame for Joyce?) is digging into the X-Filesy mysteries surrounding the disappearance of missing children in the sleepy community. They insist they’re there for her — but of course they aren’t. Few have been there for Joyce, you feel.

So most of Ryder’s turn in Stranger Things is spent alone, in the varying stages of paralysis that typify the rictus of grief. When she believes Will is within reach, she bounces off the walls in her rapidly decaying home, nearly screaming her lines, almost literally chewing the scenery. In the darkest moments, when she believes Will will never return, she’s despondent, almost catatonic, with eyes that never touch the camera lens but bore right into your living room. And when she finds a way to connect with Will, to begin unpacking the mystery, her mania turns to a mission. She rigs an elaborate communication system in an afternoon; she literally tears the walls down at the off chance Will will be behind one of them. She wails into the phone when she thinks Will is on the other side; and sprawls with grief on the linoleum when the connection dies. Pretty powerful stuff, at least for me.

But what I’ve been hearing about Ryder’s performance doesn’t match up with what I experienced. It was “one note,” I read. It was “limited.” Folks “wish she had more to work with.”

More. What more? What more is there than loss? I think of grief; I think of cemeteries, broken stones punching through the soil like teeth in a jawbone. I think of the Midwest, stoic faces and strong hands grasping broad shoulders. I think of the skin of a home, the paneling flayed and peeled back, the gruesome arteries of secrets throbbing beneath. I think of the ways we shore up our defenses against the sepsis of bereavement. Photographs at family gatherings — you know, for posterity. Safe arrival calls and texts, checking in after a week or two, long hugs goodbye. Living wills, jokes about our funerals, telling the people we love that we love them. What are our lives, really, but complex and flimsy pillow forts, useless bulwarks against the inevitability of our deaths and the deaths of our loved ones? The best we can hope for is that we live long enough to lose someone precious.

If this performance feels thin, weak, or one note, I need you to think about these images. Please consider loss. Put yourself graveside. What is there for a mother to express with a child gone missing but her pain? And how else should she express it? I hear that the screaming and crying doesn’t work for you. Why? What do you want to see? Does it allude to something that doesn’t interest you? What does her wailing make you feel? Are you uncomfortable watching Winona, she of your teen wet dreams, with her hair shocked up in a halo of terror as she grasps at straws and lightbulbs to speak with a dead boy? Her dead boy? Does the paralytic terror created by motherhood’s onus of responsibility seem static and nightmarish to you? Yeah — me too.

An actor is showing you profound loss. You say, “Winona cries too much.” Is there something frivolous about her tears? Is it weak to wail? Or is it just that it’s female that makes it frivolous to you? In some cultures they throw themselves on the casket and keen like monsters. An actor screams, clutches the phone, claws at her costar. Do her emotions — her genuine hysterics — code as female? Why?

Her son, like you, tells her not to “do this,” to “stay calm.” And then he leaves the house to find his own path, leaves her alone with nothing to do but explore the vast and telescoping upside-down of a mother’s fears. That in those fears she finds the truth reads to me like true strength. Give the lady an Emmy.