A harried Winona Ryder, ax gripped firmly in hand, is an unlikely visual representation of maternal love. And, yet, she is.
Stranger Things, Netflix’s new ’80s pastiche, has been heralded as Ryder’s return to the screen. And she’s certainly been missed. Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a single mother whose son Will disappears into a parallel dimension. Joyce, despite all supposed evidence to the contrary, refuses to believe that her son has died—as everyone says he has—and spends the run of the series trying to save him. Joyce comes from a grand tradition of fierce sci-fi/horror mothers who go to incredible lengths to save or protect their children. These women, who exist in predominantly male-geared genres, are fierce, yet feminine, committing inhuman acts in the service of their offspring. Six people disappear in Stranger Things, and many more die, but it’s through Joyce’s visceral pain and resolve that the story is best experienced. Hell hath no fury like a woman whose children are fucked with.
Stranger Things is not a perfect show and Joyce is not a perfect character. But Ryder has an uncanny ability to play both vulnerable and fragile, yet so determined at the same time. Joyce is rattled to the edge of stability by Will’s disappearance. She chain smokes and the color drains for her face. Yet she hardly wavers. Her son is out there. And it’s her job to find him. That maternal attitude does not just stop with Joyce’s search for Will. When Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) agrees to look for Will in the Upside Down, it’s Joyce who comforts her when she emerges from the homemade sensory-deprivation chamber. She grounds El in the Upside Down, keeping the girl going by the sound of voice. “Tell him mom is coming” is Joyce’s one request to the mysterious girl aiding in the search.
Joyce’s maternal abilities are constantly questioned by those who see the harried single mom struggle to provide for her children. When her ex-husband comes back to town for Will’s faux funeral, he tries to distract from his general douchebaggery by attacking her ability to mother. Will wouldn’t be dead if you were better at this, he implies. But it’s still Joyce who is the constant champion. When she holds up the ax in that perfectly framed image, the one communication tool she has with her son is hastily strung up in the background. Her mouth is slightly slack, her hands are gripped tightly on the handle. The ax is not to kill. It’s to save.
Steven Spielberg is the obvious reference point for Stranger Things. His footprint is all over: Joyce is a single mom; there’s a rag-tag, Goonies-style group of kids; and there’s an adventure to go on. It’s part of the reason the show has comforting, lived-in feel. But Joyce is Spielbergian not just because she raises her kids on her own, but because the lengths she will go to to make sure her kids are safe. Spielberg’s parents split when he was a kid and the influence of his own upbringing can be seen all over his films and the relationship that children have with their mothers. From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to E.T. to A.I., mothers are nurturing and caring, and most importantly fiercely protective of their children. But Spielberg’s mothers are also human and fallible, much like the overburdened Joyce. There are pieces of E.T.’s Mary, Dee Wallace’s harried single mother, in Joyce. Mary is a woman who inadvertently cracks up when one son calls the other “penis breath” when she’s supposed to be disciplining him, but fights the government over the safety of her son.
But perhaps the best Spielbergian analog for Joyce comes from 1982’s Poltergeist, a film Spielberg co-wrote and is thought to have at least co-directed. Both Stranger Things’ Will and Poltergeist’s Carol Anne, the children in peril, have lost corporeal form but reach over the dimensional divide to talk with their mothers. That maternal bond isn’t breakable even when the otherworldly is involved. More plot elements feel similar. Both communicate with their children: Joyce sets up the intricate Christmas lights, while Diane, the mother in Poltergeist, talks to Carol Anne through the television. Both enter other worlds in order to rescue their children, insisting on going even when others volunteer to take their place. “He’s my son, Hopp! I’m going to find him,” Joyce tells the chief of police, just as Diane tells the medium helping to communicate with the other side that she is the only one capable of retrieving her daughter. “She won’t come to you. Let me go,” Diane says. But most importantly, both inherently feel the presence of their children, and refuse to believe there is no chance of helping them. “She just moved through me. My God. I felt her. I can smell her. It’s her,” Diane says in one of Poltergeist’s more famous scenes.
But the badass momma bear, both vulnerable and strong, has been a trope in genre fare outside of Spielberg. Some women are declared crazy—an excuse used to keep women subjugated in the past and now—as they fight for their children. The Babadook’s Amelia risks her sanity to save her son from the boogeyman in the basement. Even if that boogeyman is an extension of her own grief, she refuses to let it consume her family. Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s Sarah Connor is imprisoned because she declares what she knows to be the truth, to save her son. If the Terminator mythos is to be believed, she’s not just the mother of John, but humankind. Through each film, she transforms herself from ingenue to action hero because she knows what could be befall humanity if she fails her son.
Other women risk their lives for their children. The women of Mad Max: Fury Road escape as concubines of Immortan Joe to save not just the children in their wombs, but also the ones they hope will never be born into the horrors they live in every day. Furiosa herself is drawn back to a female tribe who once lived in the lush Green Space, place of rebirth in a world of death. Aliens’ Ripley may not be Newt’s mother, but she acts as surrogate protector. She does battle against a another mother—the Alien Queen—who goes to similar lengths to protect her own species. “Get away from her, you bitch” takes on an entirely different dimensionality when both sides share the same sentiment. The final battle in Aliens comes down to two women protecting their own.
Perhaps Winona Ryder’s mother—yes, her mother—explains this phenomena the best. In a recent New York Times profile, Ryder talks about how her lack of children meant she would often call on her own mom for advice on how to handle certain scenes. “I’d call her sometimes and say: ‘Mom, what would you do if every indication is that your child is dead, but you believe that lights are telling you that he isn’t?’ And she’d say: ‘Honey, I’d totally believe that. It’s primal.’”
These female characters are largely ordinary women pushed to extraordinary lengths in the service of this intangible bond between a woman and her child. Think of it like hysterical strength—those urban legends about women lifting cars to save their kids trapped underneath—except these women are not battling the accidental but supernatural. In these stories, the unexplainable and supernatural regularly occur, but it’s an entirely natural bond that is the antidote. Joyce Byers tries to bring her son back to her dimensional plane because her love means she refuses to be complacent, just like Ripley and Diane and the countless other mothers fighting against unknown horrors. The supernatural can be terrifying and seemingly all powerful, but it’s no match for maternal love.