×

‘Stranger Things’ Finally Does Right by Female Characters With Maya Hawke’s Robin (Column)

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you’ve seen season 3 of “Stranger Things,” which premiered July 4 on Netflix.

When “Stranger Things” introduces a new character, it’s almost immediately obvious which archetype they’re supposed to represent. As a deliberate throwback to 1980’s blockbusters that prioritized thrills and jokes over characterization, most everyone can be described in just a couple basic words. There are heroes and bad guys, cool jerks and funny nerds. Three seasons in, the core cast has evolved more past their initial descriptors, but any addition is usually ripped straight from central casting. (See: Cary Elwes’ slimy mayor, who smirks about corruption while literally chomping on cigars.)

So when Robin (Maya Hawke) entered the picture in the premiere of season 3, a familiar pattern seemed to emerge. Positioned against prom king Steve “The Hair” Harrington (Joe Keery), Robin is initially a deadpan smartass completely immune to her new co-worker’s charms — at least, until she isn’t. As the two become closer while fighting nefarious Russians (naturally), both reluctantly letting their icy instincts around each other thaw, their becoming an opposites-attract couple seems like a no brainer — at least, until it’s not. 

In the penultimate episode, after insisting all season long that she could never be his type, Steve tells Robin that he has a crush on her. Everything we’ve been primed to expect — from both “Stranger Things” and the teen romance genre it draws from in season 3 — makes it seem like this is the triumphant moment when the cool guy finally lets his guard down, admits that the girl misfit he’s overlooked for years might actually be the girl for him, and they ride off into the sunset. But instead, as he keeps listing all the reasons he likes her, Robin’s face falls. As it turns out, Robin doesn’t want Steve, because she wants another person entirely, one who also happens to be a girl.  

This scene is one of the best the series has to offer, and not just because Keery and Hawke both knock it right out of the park. It’s great because it’s truly surprising in a way that “Stranger Things” rarely is. 

As a purposeful homage to adventure movies that tend to only include female characters in the margins, it wasn’t exactly surprising that “Stranger Things” didn’t quite know what to do with its own. Though the Duffer Brothers knew enough to include women and girls, they still struggled to find ways to make the characters distinctive on their own merits outside of which boy or man they’re inextricably tied to. Even when played by the iconic Winona Ryder, Joyce has rarely been more than a frantic mother. Even as she learned to stand on her own, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) primarily served as the common point in a love triangle between outcast Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and cool guy Steve (Joe Keery).  And even though she’s a telekinetic marvel, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) has always been defined by her relationships to Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour). 

In season 2, “Stranger Things” — maybe realizing after an overwhelming reaction to side character Barb (Shannon Purser) unceremoniously dying that fans were hungry for even a shred of a decent female character — did its best to adjust all this. The introduction of new girl Max (Sadie Sink) was a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to even out the gender balance of the Dungeons and Dragons party; the scripts forgot to give her much of a personality beyond “another girl,” especially once they forced her into a tired rivalry with Eleven. It was frustrating, but given the show’s commitment to embracing tropes with open arms, also felt inevitable. Season 3, to its credit, does real work to undo the previous seasons’ stumbles by having Max and Eleven bond, Nancy commit to investigative journalism, and Joyce stand up more to Hopper’s steamrolling.

But it’s still Robin who ends up breaking free of the show’s typical tropes and running away with the season. This is thanks in large part to Hawke and Keery, whose immediately electric chemistry proves that not every worthwhile dynamic between male and female characters needs to be romantic, and probably also the fact that Robin’s sexuality means she can’t quite be paired off with a male character in the way that every other female character can. Sure, she and Steve are clearly bonded together by the season’s end (her securing him a job at the local video store despite his “pedestrian” taste is a sweet and hilarious coda), but their friendship is a unique spot of innovation within the show’s usual pastiche constraints. Robin shooting Steve down because she’s gay — not to mention him quickly recovering to fondly tease her that she can do better than her crush — is a deviation from the usual script that none of the show’s beloved reference points would’ve ever approached. “Stranger Things” is way better off for embracing it. 

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team

    Jennie Snyder Urman, Katie Wech Team for Medical Drama in Development at CBS

    CBS is developing a medical drama that hails from writer Katie Wech, Variety has learned. Currently titled “Good Sam,” the series follows a talented yet stifled surgeon who embraces her leadership role after her renowned and pompous boss falls into a coma. When he awakens and wants to resume surgery, however, it falls to her to [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

  • Will Gluck

    Will Gluck Sets TV Overall Deal at eOne (EXCLUSIVE)

    Will Gluck has signed a two-year overall television deal with Entertainment One (eOne), Variety has learned exclusively. Under the deal, Richard Schwartz will continue to oversee all television projects for Gluck’s Olive Bridge Entertainment, with eOne set to serve as studio on all projects under the partnership. “The choice for us was clear given their impeccable [...]

  • Katie Hockmeyer

    NBC Entertainment Names Katie Hockmeyer Exec VP of Late Night Programming

    Katie Hockmeyer has been named executive vice president of late night programming at NBC Entertainment She will report to NBC Entertainment co-chairmen George Cheeks and Paul Telegdy, where she will work on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” “Saturday Night Live” and newly launched late-night addition, “A Little Late with [...]

  • Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton

    Nexstar Completes Tribune Acquisition, Sean Compton to Head Programming

    Nexstar Media Group has become the nation’s largest owner of TV stations after completing its $4.1 billion acquisition of Tribune Media. The deal creates a broadcasting colossus with more than 200 stations serving more than 100 markets, although a number of stations will be divested to keep Nexstar in compliance with FCC ownership limits. Nexstar, [...]

  • 'Friends' at 25: How Warner Bros.

    'Friends' at 25: How Warner Bros. TV Built an Experiential Empire

    “Friends” may have been set in New York City and filmed on a Burbank, Calif. soundstage, but its reach has truly gone global. So when Warner Bros. Television Group began brainstorming ideas on how to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut, including that international audience became imperative for new partnerships, as well as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content