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How Stranger Things 3 gave girls permission to be nerds
If there’s one thing Stranger Things 3 is full of, it’s girl power.
The Duffer brothers’ sci-fi series has consistently championed its growing female cast, but the third season of the show expanded the universe to include new, bada** heroines that would’ve served in the background on a lesser series. Sure, Eleven still chucked rat globs out of hospital windows like rag dolls and Nancy wielded firearms like a black-ops specialist, but they weren’t the only ladies bringing the heat this time around.
From Max Mayfield to Erica Sinclair to newcomer Robin, Stranger Things 3 put nerd girls in the spotlight in a way few genre shows have before by having them subvert tropes, solve problems, and save the day using their geek culture smarts as the ultimate weapon.
WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for Stranger Things 3.
Take, for instance, Max, the tomboy newbie of Season 2 who formed a strong bond with Eleven once El broke up with Mike Wheeler in Season 3. The girls, once positioned as enemies, found the joy of female friendship in glam photoshoots and trips to the Gap and shared ice cream cones.
But while Max has always been somewhat of an outsider, the skater chick just along for the ride when it comes to this group of Dungeons & Dragons dweebs, Season 3 showed us a different side to the character. Once Eleven begins to question her identity away from the influence of Mike and Hopper, it’s Max who steers her down a more empowering path, and the way she does it, through Wonder Woman comics, is the ultimate feminist middle finger soaked in '80s teenage angst.
Max spends their sleepovers educating her new friend on the origins of Diana Prince and her island of Amazon warriors, encouraging her to set her own rules, find her own style, explore her own needs and desires away from the men in her life. She creates a safe space through feminist comic books, trusts El to know her limits when it comes to her powers, and gives the girl a sense of autonomy, probably for the first time in her life. And she does it by going against all of the stereotypes her characters first embodied on the show — this rebel chick who skates and scoffs at her science-bro friends finds belonging and power in nerd sh*t too, just a different kind.
And Max isn’t the only “tough girl” trope that’s foiled in Stranger Things 3.
Robin, Steve Harrington’s Scoops Ahoy mate, is another loner, an outcast working a menial summer job with the popular jock she envied in high school. She likes indie movies and mocking Harrington’s inability to chat up girls, but what she’s really good at is breaking Russian code. In fact, without her obsession over Dustin’s radio recording, the two guys never would’ve discovered that the Starcourt Mall was a front for a Russian experiment. She boasts about her fluency in foreign languages and uses her band geek label to tout the “little geniuses” that are her ears; she basically takes everything that makes her a “nerd” and throws it in Harrington’s face, proving it’s also what makes her valuable to their team.
But perhaps the nerdiest girl of all, the female character the show crushes stereotypes with by expertly showcasing the dual nature that so many geek girls have is Erica Sinclair. The witty, loudmouthed younger sister of Lucas, Erica spends the beginning of her appearance in Season 3 sampling the flavors at Scoops Ahoy. When the group discovers she’s the only one small enough to fit through the mall’s air vents and sneak into the secret Russian storage room, she leverages her assistance for unlimited USS Butterscotches — a true hero. But it’s when the team makes it into the underground lair that Erica truly shines, schooling Dustin and Steve with her knowledge of capitalism and math and map reading. She refutes Dustin’s many arguments that she, too, is a nerd — because she doesn’t need a label to define her love of My Little Pony – but she smirks at his gift of Dungeons & Dragons as the show ends and the Byers family moves away from Hawkins. Erica defies the stereotypes placed on her, as a young girl of color, as a bada** rebel, as a geek girl who refuses to play by anyone’s rules but her own.
And though girls don’t need permission to be anything, seeing so many three-dimensional young women embracing traits that would once be seen as “uncool” and “unattractive” on a show so steeped in nerd culture feels quietly revolutionary, inadvertently empowering. The ladies of Stranger Things 3 are discovering that they can be heroines and detectives, comic fans and math whizzes — they’re discovering they can be nerds and they can be powerful because of it.
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.