Stranger Things, Logan and the rise of the unstoppable girl

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Oct 11, 2017

Picture the scene you’ve seen hundreds of times in a movie before. It kicks off with reliance on a familiar story device at first: a group of nameless thugs lie in wait for the entrance of our hero. As the seconds tick by, they start to get more and more restless, their anticipation and fear almost as paralyzing as the inevitable promise of facing something much tougher. Watching at home, we’re anticipating too. Who - or what - is going to bust down the door and start kicking ass? The last person anyone would ever expect is a small, unassuming girl, but in spite of her diminutive frame she contains multitudes - and that’s something her foes end up finding out for themselves, usually the hard way.

The unstoppable girl is a walking dichotomy. Tiny yet powerful, reserved yet significant in terms of the story. When she speaks it’s sparingly, because she tends to let her powers do the talking for her when the situation calls for it. Frequently underestimated and condescended to, she has to deal with being the subject of open fascination for those around her - usually boys and men who are intimidated by her abilities. For the most part, however, this doesn’t faze her. To quote Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a particular pint-sized woman: “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Unstoppable girls haven’t always been commonplace in fiction, but they have reoccurred many times in genre stories and spanned several different mediums over the years via both text and screen adaptations. Stephen King, in particular, has relied on the empowered young woman to fuel several of his most popular novels ever. Although Carrie largely delves into the evolution of its titular character from pre-pubescence into womanhood, both the novel and the 1976 film seem to reach the conclusion that in spite of Carrie White’s physical maturation there is still much of her that remains a scared little girl.

The early scene in the girls’ locker room doesn’t just represent the daily torment Carrie experiences at the hands of her peers, or provide indulgence for her eventual rampage at the climax of the novel. It also highlights exactly how Carrie is viewed by others: helpless, vulnerable and innocent. Paired with her zealously religious upbringing, Carrie’s ignorance about her period is a sign that her body is developing faster than her psyche, but her tug-of-war between girlhood and womanness can only go on for so long. It’s no coincidence that the full force of Carrie’s telekinetic abilities is finally unleashed on prom night, when a cruel prank from her classmates leaves her covered head-to-toe in pig’s blood. The unstoppable girl has been disparaged for far too long, and in that moment she finds the power within herself to fight back.

Another narrative that tends to go hand-in-hand with the trope of the unstoppable girl is almost always tied to her value as an interesting specimen. Whether created in a lab or captured on the outside and dragged to some clandestine location, our girl is more often than not regarded as a thing to study rather than an actual human being - and subjected to harsh experiments as a result. Firefly’s River Tam is one such example. Singled out as a gifted child from a very young age, she is taken from her family (including her brother Simon) and sent to a school that is, in fact, a cover for a government organization intent on creating assassins.

Although River becomes a dangerous fighter in the realm of combat, the experiments she’s subjected to result in a degenerative effect on her brain - severely damaging her amygdala and leading to some diminished mental capacity in terms of her emotions. River’s story does highlight another occasional aspect of the unstoppable girl narrative - rehabilitation. Thanks to the care of her brother and the rest of the Serenity’s crew, River is able to forge connections with her found family in the aftermath of the horrors she experienced at the Academy.

There are echoes of River Tam in other, more modern unstoppable girls as well. Logan’s Laura is an 11-year-old who was cloned from the DNA of Logan Howlett, which causes her to inherit a variance of his adamantium claws in both hands and feet as well as his heightened regenerative abilities. When we initially encounter her, there’s no indication of her true identity - or the fact that she was once known as X-23, the first successful mutant cloned by Transigen to harness the power of the Wolverine as a deadly weapon. It turns out that the Wolverine’s abilities and a preteen girl isn’t the most temperate combination. Laura is a fish out of water to an extreme degree, having spent the duration of her life trapped inside white walls, and her superior strength and agility paired with newly unleashed emotion often leads to lethal results.

Similarly, in Stranger Things, the most powerful character isn’t the local sheriff or the group of boys who take it upon themselves to find a lost little brother. But where many other unstoppable girls are readily distinguishable as female, Stranger Things’ Eleven is frequently stripped of all identifiers that would make it impossible to confuse her for a boy. Her hair is shaved down to a fine fuzz. She doesn’t wear cute, frilly clothes. Only once she’s given a long blonde wig and a pink dress to try and hide in plain sight does she even internally entertain the concept of her own femininity - but without the wig and the dress, she’s still the point of awe and fascination for the three boys she befriends. That might also have something to do with her powerful psychokinetic abilities, developed as a result of extensive experimentation.

While Eleven does use her powers to stop the big bad from the Upside Down in season one, she also equips them in situations that are not quite as life-and-death. She scares off older boys who have been bullying her friend circle or intimidates a group of shoppers at a grocery store with the sole purpose of shoplifting her favorite food item: Eggos. A similar scene in Logan illustrates the parallels between Eleven and Laura, and we see firsthand what happens to those who try to apprehend them. However, both of them have the potential to be great heroes in spite of their occasionally poor impulse control, and it’s that probable character growth that continues to shape the contemporary empowered girls we watch on our screens.

Of course, not all unstoppable girls go on a murderous spree or resort to extreme force to subdue their enemies - and there are plenty of instances, both in past and the future to come, that speak to the potential of the powerful girl to continue to endure. Roald Dahl’s Matilda features a quiet yet gifted six-and-a-half-year-old with a humongous literary appetite who also happens to possess telekinetic abilities. The newest incarnation of Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey named Kamala Khan who can shapeshift thanks to her acquiring Inhuman genes. In the upcoming feature film for A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry leads the story as a bright, intelligent young woman who leads a small group on the journey to rescue her captive father - though fans of the source material by Madeleine L’Engle will know that Meg eventually comes into possession of more abilities than just her mental smarts.

Fiction is home to many heroes, but many of them have been predictable or indistinguishable from one another. From Eleven to Laura, Kamala to Meg, the future is beginning to belong to the unstoppable girl - and now more than ever, we need stories about young women who are strong and capable in every which way, shape and form. The reason unstoppable girls are so delightfully subversive is that they signal the rise of a new prototype for heroism - and they allow young female audiences the opportunity to see their own power represented, the type of power that comes from realized possibility. Girl power.