Tropes in storytelling is not a new concept by any means. There’s a reason why people return to old standbys: they’re comforting, they’re effective, and they’re popular. One of the greats is the makeover montage. A character — let’s face it, it’s usually a woman — has to change their whole look in order to get the guy/get the job/become popular, shedding their old skin in order to upgrade their life in a desirable way. The old them wasn’t enough. Changing their outward appearance will help them get the life that they truly deserve. While that may have a toxic message, the makeover montage is beloved because it tells the viewers, “Hey, if you just take off your glasses and shake out your ponytail, you could have a new life too.” It makes going after what you want feel easy and achievable. Of course people want to think that their problems can be fixed with a new wardrobe instead of doing emotional labor.
But Stranger Things 3 did something new with this time-honored tradition. After the cold shoulder that Eleven gave Max in Season 2, some fans were worried that the Duffer Brothers would lean into the sexist idea that women can’t possibly get along. Only one girl is allowed in the party, otherwise they turn into catty bitches! Luckily for all of us, the beauty of female friendship won the day. El’s friendship with Max turned out to be one of the most — if not the most — important aspects of her development this season.
Spoilers within for Season 3 of Stranger Things.
Eleven starts out the third season in a classic obsessive teen romance with Mike and living under Hopper’s roof, both of whom work subconsciously to make her into the girl that they want her to be. Mike wants her to be the doting girlfriend who caters to his whims because sometimes you just need to see a movie with The Boys, but heaven forbid she be unavailable when he has the time. Hopper is trying to navigate new fatherhood with a superpowered teen and unfortunately, some of his tactics tend to dim her shine.
Mike and Hop are by no means Bad Men™, but they are certainly indicative of a common problem in life and film: the comfort of men taking precedence over the desires of women.
However, after reaching out to Max about her confusion over Mike, El is faced with a completely new sensation: being asked what she wants. While the characterization of Max initially leaned pretty hard on the Cool Girl Who Can Hang trope in the beginning, she has since developed into a self-actualized ball-buster who knows what she wants. She isn’t content with granting that courtesy to herself alone, either. No, she is determined to show El that there is a better way. Instead of fitting into the boxes that Mike and Hop have placed her, what does she want?
While this emotional journey may begin in a shopping montage at the Starcourt Mall, the underlying question is one that El wrestles with while finding her identity. Adorable rompers and fresh to death patterned shirts are only the start. As they giggle their way through a photoshoot and try to freshen up El’s look, they’re really helping El find out who she is and wants to be. While the makeover montage is usually a means of conforming to the status quo, Stranger Things uses it as a tool to break that pattern. El isn’t trying to get the boy; she’s shedding the boy’s control over her life.
Instead of the muted earth tones from Hopper’s wardrobe, Eleven’s whole deal comes alive with vibrant jewel tones and bitchin’ sartorial geometry. She’s given the chance to play around with fashion instead of relying entirely on the functionality of it. Eleven’s Season 1 and 2 wardrobes were focused on keeping her as neutral as possible, first as a means of control and then as a well-meaning method of protection. When given the chance to control her look herself, Eleven goes from zero to bitchin’ and stays there. She doesn’t want to blend in. She wants her clothing to reflect all of the fire and passion that is bubbling up inside of her.
Once she finds the clothes that match her vision for her life, she sets about to make that life look more desirable as well. After just waiting around for Mike and his buddies to stop playing D&D so that he can hang out, El learns about the awesomeness of sleepovers and Wonder Woman. She is finally given an actual choice, and what she wants is to eat ice cream with Max and then go dump their lame boyfriends. Sure, she has superpowers (or not?), but she’s still a teenage girl and all of the silly, amazing, and wonderful things that come along with that. Romance is often given the precedence in film and TV because of the swoon factor, but it’s safe to say that the friendships that we develop have more impact on our development. Female friendship, in particular, is powerful and beautiful, and Stranger Things gave this one the screen time and importance that it deserves.
Max is the first person to treat El like she has agency over her power. Mike and Hopper see her strength and fear it because it could ultimately take her away from them, but Max sees El’s power and encourages her to use it how she sees fit, because after all, it is her power. Eleven is very young and definitely needs older and wiser folks to help her navigate the treacheries of growing up while also being able to control things with her mind. However, the endgame has to be that she can make these calls herself. That she knows her worth and isn’t going to stand for other people telling her what to do with her power.
Sometimes that begins with a really cute romper.
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.