Last week I chaperoned an elementary school field trip to the movies and sat in a theater of 50 first-graders watching the satirical fairytale Enchanted. It includes a few kissing scenes. During those, every single child covered their eyes and screamed some variation of “noooo!!!” It was very funny. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d witnessed such a negative reaction to innocent kissing. That was, until I read about a preview for the third season the Netflix sensation Stranger Things. At a Paleyfest discussion this past week, producer/director Shawn Levy confirmed that the romance between Eleven and Mike (Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard, respectively) would blossom into a full fledged middle school relationship. Cue me covering my eyes and screaming “noooo!”
Last season ended *SPOILER ALERT* with Eleven and Mike sharing a much-anticipated kiss at the school dance as well as Mad Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) sharing an awkward smooch. Aside from some of the BTS details of the latter coupling, which included Sink not being made aware she’d have to kiss and feeling put on the spot, the young romance storylines feel conventional and unnecessary.
The show has three tiers of characters: the kids, the older teens, and the adults. Each of these tiers has some romantic storyline: Chief Hopper and Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan, and the aforementioned middle school sweethearts. The neatness with which these play out—not necessarily in execution, but in the idea that, at each stage of life, there is a romantic relationship to supersede everything else in one's life—feels so fairy tale-esque. Those kisses at the Snow Ball felt more like a service to fans than to a plot that's much more comfortable allowing things to hang in the unknown (or Upsidedown, if you will.) Perhaps it's another nostalgic Duffer Bros. homage to the '80s coming-of-age flicks that commenced with the big kiss, prom, a happy ending. But where it may have felt warm and fuzzy then, now it just feels contrived.
Virtually every piece of commercial narrative art pushes a romantic storyline. What makes this case feel particularly strained is that Stranger Things offers so much more than the possibility of romantic love, especially for Eleven. We’ve got this heroine who is both incredibly gallant while also very timid and cautious socially, whose found true friendship for the first time in her life. The friendship between the kids is so joyous we’re booking the actors to hang out and dance for us in real life. Eleven doesn’t seem ready to be in any sort of romantic partnership. I know that could be said for most middle schoolers, but watching the trauma her character has gone through and is nowhere near sorting out, I can’t get on board to #Mileven ship. I’d much rather see her character maintain supportive and nurturing friendships that help her grow in confidence.
Both Eleven and Mad Max experience some serious trauma (Mad Max has an abusive older step brother) while the young boys are afforded the luxury of growing up in pretty uneventful homes. Mike’s parents are Republicans. The horror. A similar plot played out in last year’s adaptation of It, where the only girl character and object of affection to the rest of the all-guy clique, Beverly Marsh, suffered from sexual abuse from her father. Why can’t we tell coming of age stories for boys that don’t have them saving their girlfriends from suffering? Why can’t these female characters come from boring homes? Or if their upbringing is tumultuous, why does it so often result in them only finding stability from these boys who bike around their sleepy suburban towns looking for adventure? It would almost be more radical for Eleven and Mike to remain good friends. I'd also be interested in seeing it be a more one-sided affair, like Mike has this unrequited crush on her. Let's be real, that's a lot more realistic for middle school. Or what if Eleven and Max weren't competitive with one another at first and formed an immediate friendship and what if they friendship took precedence over their crushes. They could bond over their rough childhoods.
Mike and Eleven are going to continue their relationship, as Levy confirmed. I just had higher hopes that we’d be able to appreciate their, especially her, storylines without it culminating in romance.