On Stranger Things, mental illness and the ‘crazy woman’ stereotype

Lazily relying on the crazy woman trope trivializes mental illness and promotes stigma.

November 16, 2017

It’s troubling how often women aren’t believed, and are frequently undercut as being emotional, paranoid and just a little “too much.” This is the sentiment that Joyce Byers finds herself up against in Stranger Things. When her son Will goes missing, she takes on a protective maternal fierceness that could literally rival a monster (and does).

But Joyce’s determination to find her son, and the instincts that lead her to uncover clues about what might have happened to him, are often written off as “mad,” “crazy” and “irrational;” words often used when a woman shows anything akin to emotion or, worse, tries to prove a man wrong. The problem with this is that it undermines Joyce’s capacity to be one of the main heroes of a mystery that she plays a big part in, and ultimately has a huge hand in solving.

Take Chief Jim Hopper, who eventually comes to the same conclusion as Joyce—his instincts mirroring hers—but his actions are assumed to be carried out with purpose, logic and keen genius. Midway through season one, he tears his house apart, similar to how Joyce looked for clues. When he flies into a frenzy while confronting a state trooper about Will’s missing body, mercilessly beating the man, it’s seen as strategic and instinctual.

When he neglects his job, falling asleep in a house littered with beer cans and cigarettes (clues that point to a depressed state), people still maintain faith that he’s staying on top of things with his fellow cops, assuming that perhaps he’s playing hooky to spend time with Joyce (his former flame). In season two he shortsightedly wanders out into a lonely field to enter the Upside Down with no backup or support, and is seen as a hero for doing it. Either way, his time is used to pursue worthy masculine activities. Men’s anger or emotions—when conflated as violence—are often seen as the thing that needed to be done; when women do it, they’re just “crazy.”

“It’s in your mind” is something that’s said (and insinuated) to Joyce several times throughout both seasons of Stranger Things. Especially when she hangs up a complicated web of Christmas lights throughout her home, insisting that their flickers and the appearance of a strange being is the key to communicating with Will. In fact in terms of Winona Ryder’s acting most of what she’s using to convey this idea of “madness” is simply the expression of emotion. The first sight of Joyce’s tears, anger or raised voice is when we’re conditioned to understand that she’s acting “crazy.” Social psychologist Jenna Baddeley writes in Psychology Today that the problem with associating women with irrationality is that it misunderstands the key roles that emotions play, with emotional engagement being necessary for good decision making and the ability to build relationships.


Ryder even talked about this in interviews with the New York Times and Marie Claire, saying that she asked her mother what she would do if she was in Joyce’s position. Her mother said “if you don’t see it happen, you don’t believe it. It’s a weird, primal thing.” This points to the idea that many women sympathize with Joyce, and that her feelings of grief—and conviction about her son being alive—are more than justified, they’re realistic.

In the show people often use Joyce’s mental illness as means to justify why she’s not worthy of being a mother. Her anger makes her unfit while Hopper’s anger and fierce determination frames him as an ideal father figure, which is what he starts to become for Eleven in season two. It’s insinuated a couple of times that Joyce’s instability is to blame for Will’s disappearance, a sentiment that Joyce’s ex-husband communicates, writing her off as “crazy” and unwell.

The theme of motherhood and mental illness intersect again with Terry Ives, Eleven’s mother. We soon learn that while trying to save her daughter from Hawkins Lab, Terry was subject to electroshock therapy, a procedure that involves sending an electrical charge to the brain to cause a seizure for a matter of seconds. In the early 20th century the procedure was commonly used to treat hysteria, a catch all diagnosis formerly largely reserved for women that was considered the cause of anything from sexual desire to insomnia.

What we end up finding out is that there’s an explanation to the mumbled words Terry repeats in her comatose state, clues that eventually lead to what initially happened to Eleven at Hawkins Lab. Even if we were to examine Joyce’s actions and draw conclusions that they may point to a larger problem, categorizing mental illness as “crazy” is problematic. It trivializes mental illness, promotes stigma, and centres it instead as strange and out of control.

Co-creators and directors The Duffer Brothers revealed in interviews that they always meant Joyce Byers to be reminiscent of Roy Neary in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although Roy has a similar obsessive nature in proving the existence of alien or otherworldly life, his obsession is described a bit differently with Time Out Magazine’s Tom Huddleston’s description of him as “a star-gazing dreamer,” Hollywood Reporter’s Arthur Knight’s description of him as “an outstanding man with a fiendish obsession” and The Guardian’s summary of him as “an everyman exalted by a close encounter” sounding a bit more elegant than the typical “mad,” “crazy” and “deranged” adjectives used to describe Joyce in this AV Club review.

Season two of Stranger Things relies less heavily on the “crazy woman” trope and has Joyce and Hopper working together as an effective team. Unlike Joyce’s Christmas light discovery in season one, Hopper believes Joyce when she finds evidence of the shadow monster, and together they try to piece together Will’s tunnel-like drawings. Not only does he believe her, but he helps her.

In season two’s finale, Joyce finally gets the heroic moment she deserves. Her instinct to burn the shadow monster out of Will’s body is not misconstrued as “crazy.” Instead, her instincts are shown to be wise, calculating and necessary, and ultimately her decision draws the season to its victorious conclusion. The idea that a woman’s instincts are key to the show’s overarching mystery and could save the day should never have been equated with her being “crazy,” after all stranger things have happened in this sleepy little Indiana town.

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