Season three of Stranger Things has been praised for putting its female characters at the forefront of the narrative and developing their character arcs and personalities further, something which the first two seasons received criticism for portraying poorly. Joyce, Nancy, Max, and Eleven, as well as newcomers Robin and Erica (the latter we briefly met in season two), are integral to driving the plot, despite the criticisms and doubts of those around them. However, Netflix failing to place an effective trigger warning for domestic violence in the narrative is problematic.
Content warning: this article will contain spoilers, and feature a discussion on domestic violence and rape.
Steve and Dustin would have been at a loss without Robin’s ability to crack the Russian code, and wouldn’t have succeeded in discovering the secret base hidden below Starcourt Mall without Erica’s navigation abilities. Nancy refuses to give up on her story despite her boss and boyfriend insisting she drop it. Her unwavering determination, as well as encouragement from her mum, Karen, results in her proving the existence of the Mind Flayer. Max and Eleven forge a close friendship, which was nice to watch after seeing Eleven’s icy meeting with Max in season two, and Max defends Eleven’s confidence in her own abilities when Mike doubts them.
Season three of Stranger Things gives power to its female characters, but then swiftly undermines it with excessive violence against them. Unnecessary violence, which serves no purpose in propelling the plot, is used as a cheap device to shock the audience. There is a clear difference between this type of violence, and violence that actually serves the story, such as the battle we see between the kids and the Mind Flayer, the fights between Hopper and the rip-off Terminator, or when the Russians interrogate Steve and Robin.
In one scene, the audience sees Karen follow Billy into a storage room at the pool to apologise for not meeting up with him in the motel the previous night. Billy, angry and under the influence of the Mind Flayer, brutally slams her head against the shelf and she passes out – except that doesn’t actually happen. The scene snaps back to Karen calling out to Billy, who had been in a daze and just imagined that happening.
The shocking action is jarring. It was particularly uncomfortable for my family to watch, as there was a period in our own lives when my mum was subjected to physical and emotional violence from her (now former) partner. The scene made her flinch and left us shaken, as Karen is apologising for doing the right thing and choosing her family over Billy, which is met with a violent reaction – especially given the lack of trigger warning.
This mirrors reality in abusive situations, where women are coerced into or feel as if they must apologise to their partner for things which are not their fault. It knifed through our atmosphere of enjoyment and excitement and surfaced painful memories at a time when we were supposed to be relaxing and watching the show.
Billy is already an uncomfortable character to watch. We saw in season two that he was prone to violent outbursts, racist towards Lucas, and controlling of his younger step-sister, Max. He attempts to prevent her from making friends and spending time with others, which again reflects the reality of many domestic abuse situations. During the time we lived with Mum’s former partner, we were often prevented from making friends with the families in our neighbourhood, and criticised if we came home too late, as he would be suspicious of where we had been and who we had talked to.
Season three shows us the reason for Billy’s behaviour; we see this when Eleven travels through his memories and views his childhood. He grows up seeing the way his father treats his mother and models it, as can happen when children are brought up in abusive homes. Again, there is a violent scene where Billy’s father strikes his mother and knocks her down after hurling accusations and insults at her, and while this violence may be contextual and relevant to the narrative, it is still confronting to survivors of domestic violence.
Netflix needs to include a warning for this type of content, as “supernatural themes and violence” simply is not specific enough, and implies the type of content that we already expect from the show, such as battles between big gooey spider-monsters and kids with mind powers.
A trigger warning is necessary to caution victims of abuse as well as rape before watching the show. Catherine Palmer from Show Snob points out that Stranger Things presents a problematic rape allegory in season three. When Billy is offering up female victims to the Mind Flayer, such as Eleven, Heather and Heather’s mother (all of whom he had violently attacked beforehand), he leans uncomfortably close to each one who has either been tied up or knocked unconscious and whispers in a threatening manner, “Don’t be afraid, it will all be over soon, just stay very still”. He doesn’t do the same for Heather’s father, or the other male victims of the Mind Flayer.
For people who have experienced rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and gender-based violence, having trigger warnings on media is necessary to caution them against viewing scenes that may be distressing or resurface trauma. Catherine also suggests that the show could have included resources, such as support hotlines and websites, after these episodes for women to access if they had been affected by what they saw or need help, and I strongly agree. They are just two thoughtful, but responsible, actions that Netflix could take that would allow its viewers to enjoy the show and ensure that their experience is positive and comfortable.
If you need support or have been affected by domestic violence or sexual abuse, you can contact https://www.1800respect.org.au/