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The world of Stranger Things is one in constant flux.
There are Mind Flayers and Demogorgons and Russian conspiracies, but those serve as a sci-fi backdrop for the more grounded chaos of hormones and teenage angst, growing up and moving on. Through it all, there’s been one constant, one character we could count on to remain steadfast, reliable: Joyce Byers.
While the rest of the parents of Hawkins, Indiana flirt with pool boys, ship their kids off to summer camp, and yell about doors being left three inches open, Joyce served as a model for what a good mom should be, one that listens, empathizes, and most importantly, believes in her kids. Without Joyce, Will would’ve been stuck in the Upside Down or possessed by the Mind Flayer, Hawkins would’ve had a secret government facility operating in its backyard, and Russians would have still been using the Starcourt Mall as a front for their own supernatural experiments. This working mom, forced to raise two boys by herself, work a dead-end job to provide for her family, and literally save the world all while keeping dinner on the table, has been the real superhero of the show over the past two seasons. Sadly, Stranger Things 3 did something we never thought possible: it pushed Joyce into bad mom territory.
Now, when we call Joyce a “bad mom,” it should go without saying that she’s still the best damn parent on this show. She’s invested in her children’s lives, and she has an enviable intuition that never steers her wrong. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t make some major mistakes in Season 3, one of which has us questioning whether the trauma of loss might be influencing her parenting decisions.
WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for Stranger Things 3.
After all, Joyce Byers has been through it.
She’s rescued her son from an alternate universe after authorities tried to convince her he was dead and caused her to question her own sanity. She’s performed an exorcism on that same son, burning out the demon that was slowly taking over his body and killing him. She’s watched as her boyfriend was mauled by supernatural creatures who tore into him buffet-style so her family could escape, unharmed. Few characters on Stranger Things have suffered quite like Joyce, and when Season 3 picks up the summer after the tragedy of Season 2, she’s still struggling to move past her grief.
She sits in front of the TV with her microwaved dinner, imagining Bob is watching their favorite show with her. She hallucinates his death when helping Hopper investigate the old Hawkins lab. She’s terrified of someone coming for her son, so much that she plans a move away from Hawkins in an effort to keep her family safe. She lets her fear fuel her parenting decisions in the third season, blinding her to what’s really going on with her kids — with Jonathan, who’s having sleepovers in her own house despite just graduating high school, and with Will, who’s having a hard time adjusting to life now that the Mind Flayer is gone and his friends have grown up without him.
Both of Joyce’s boys have their own set of problems in Season 3 — Jonathan puts himself at risk to investigate the rabid rats that turn out to be the minions in the Mind Flayer’s army, and Will has an emotional breakdown while trying to reconcile who he is with who his childhood friends are becoming — but for Joyce herself, it’s the fear of losing them both that pushes her to largely ignore these very real issues and instead, chase after a conspiracy theory involving defunct magnets and Russian scientists.
And that theory turns out to be true, so we praise Joyce for her savvy and her tenacity, but shouldn’t we also question why she chooses to be largely absent from her children's lives this season?
If Joyce hadn’t been on a road trip with Hopper, perhaps she could’ve helped Jonathan investigate his story, maybe even have saved him from his confrontation in the hospital. If she hadn’t been holding Russian scientists hostage, perhaps she could’ve helped Will work through his identity crisis, and helped the group realize Billy’s plan sooner. And it’s not just what Joyce didn’t do in Season 3 that concerns us.
The show ends with Joyce, who must now take care of Eleven along with her two boys, picking up and moving the family away from Hawkins after Hopper's apparent death. It’s an emotional goodbye, to say the least, and a real turning point for the series, but the “why” of the move is a bit worrisome. Sure, there are some bad memories in Hawkins, but a little girl just lost her father and your children just experienced a life-altering trauma. Is the best decision to rip them from the only home they’ve known, from their support system of friends, for an even bigger unknown? Joyce is a cashier at a grocery store who relies on her son to help pay the bills; is making a move of this magnitude a responsible decision, or is it one made in the aftermath of loss, in the depression of grief?
We’re not here to mom-shame Joyce Byers. She’s doing the best she can, and she’s doing a damn sight better than someone like Hopper, who spends much of Season 3 reverting to childish antics when faced with emotionally difficult situations that require thoughtful parenting. But what we are here to do is draw attention to a woman’s mental state.
There’s the unspoken belief that because Joyce is a mom she should be able to compartmentalize her grief, her fear, and all of the emotions that have built up over the past three seasons to do her “job,” which is taking care of her kids. While Hopper gets to wallow in his angst and misery, Joyce isn’t afforded the same luxury. She’s got to be strong; she’s got to have her sh*t together to do right by her boys. And she’s got to put herself in situations that dredge up past trauma in order to save her town. The show uses Joyce as a kind of comedic foil to Hopper for much of the third season. Their bickering is filled with humor and sexual tension; he’s the relaxed bada**, she’s the neurotic worrier. Hopper rolls his eyes at her fear for the kids while they’re gone, brushes off her parenting advice, argues with her over how to manage their Russian crisis — and we laugh along like this woman hasn’t lived through the horror of watching her children nearly die more than once. Her terror is understandable, her anxiety is earned, but it’s played for comedic effect, so we never dig deeper, never look at the consequences of forcing Joyce Byers to bury her feelings in the name of motherhood.
And we should, not just because Joyce makes some choices that cause us concern, but because by sweeping her trauma under the rug, by just applauding her good moments while skipping over her darker ones, we’re inadvertently telling women that, to be a good mother, you must put your own feelings second, must brush aside your own trauma, must de-prioritize yourself for the sake of your kids.
Is Joyce Byers a bad mom? No. Does Stranger Things 3 push her to make some bad decisions? Yes. But the real takeaway from her arc in Season 3 is why that matters, and why we should be paying closer attention to her story. She’s a mom, yes; she’s a bada**, most definitely; but she’s also just a woman struggling to overcome loss — and that should be highlighted, celebrated even, not used as a comedy trope or worse, weaponized against her.
Joyce Byers is not a bad mom, but she’s also more than just a mom, and maybe that’s the point of her less-than-stellar parenting in Season 3. Maybe next, the show can just let her be her own woman, and let her work through her own grief without the curse of motherhood hanging over her.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.