Why “Stranger Things” is important to me as a sexual assault survivor
Pop culture has a long tradition of portraying sexual assault victims as just that: victims. When I watched the incredibly popular Stranger Things, I was reminded of the times when I was sexually assaulted as a teenager. Although sexual assault isn’t addressed in Stranger Things, the treatment and portrayal of the female characters reminded me how it felt — and how society views victims.
Eleven, Stranger Things’ hero, spends most of her life as a human guinea pig in a science lab controlled by male scientists.
When she refuses to submit to their horrid demands, the scientists physically and mentally torture her. Eleven’s childhood is robbed from her, and the abuse she suffers has a tremendous effect on her life.
Despite her traumatic childhood, Eleven isn’t portrayed as a one-dimensional victim. She’s not only a victim of abuse — she’s also a monster slaying, waffle-loving, fiercely loyal human being who can make bullies pee their pants.
Nancy Wheeler — whose photo is taken without her consent as she undresses—is more than her experiences of public slut-shaming.
Both of these characters are complex and strong: two attributes that victims of abuse and sexual violence are seldom afforded in the media.
Sexual assault marks you in many insidious, unshakeable ways — but one of the worst parts of the aftermath is the way society treats you. For years after my sexual assault, I stayed silent. I grew ashamed and fearful of how my family and friends would view me if they ever found out.
When I started opening up to friends about what had happened to me, I noticed a pattern: some folks looked at me as though the word “victim” was written in all-caps on my forehead from that moment on. While the worried looks may come from a good place, I know some people think of me as a victim — and nothing more.
But I’m also lucky to have a family who supported me once I finally told them that I had been assaulted. My mom, my boyfriend, and my grandparents treated me differently after I told them — but in a good way. After opening up to them, they understood why I am the way that I am, and they shower me with care. Better yet, they see that I’m a good student, a pop culture fanatic, and a writing geek — the things that make me human — despite my traumatic experiences.
While it’s important to have supportive and understanding people in your life, it’s also nice to have role models in the media.
I found the most meaningful aspect of Stranger Things was that Eleven and Nancy could be both victims and powerful human beings. The show proves that being both a fully-formed person with agency and a victim of assault are not mutually exclusive.
It’s an important life lesson for any sexual assault survivor — and for society at large. And it took me almost 10 years to learn. Being a victim of sexual assault doesn’t make me a strong person — I always was one.