In the first season of Stranger Things, viewers fall in love with the mysterious orphan-girl “Eleven.” We also learn that Eleven’s mother is alive but ostensibly trapped in a nightmarish coma. In the second season that premiered last month, and garnered more than 15 million viewers in its first 3 days, Eleven pinpoints and travels to find her mother herself.
Eleven’s search for her mother is one stop along an emotional journey this season. The season also depicts Eleven’s foster care arrangement with Hopper and her (somewhat painful) reunion with fellow kidnapped-lab-experiment-sister “Eight.”
It struck a chord for me to watch Eleven struggling to communicate with her mother. While our circumstances are worlds apart, it reminded me of finding my birth mother in Ukraine last year: I cannot speak Ukrainian and she cannot speak English.
But as I watched Eleven’s character develop, I thought to myself: What exactly is going on here? What are the writers of Stranger Things teaching us about orphans with this character? And how does this character fit into greater storytelling intrigue with orphans? Does it do any good for real orphans to have their parentless lives portrayed this way, or is it sensationalizing and exploiting orphans’ circumstances?
The tale is as old as time. Orphan characters are somewhat of a staple in the Hollywood and literature landscape. Orphan characters have been included or starred in superhero stories (Superman and Supergirl), dramas about child labor (Oliver Twist), Disney princess tales (Cinderella), commonly required school reading (The Outsiders), musicals (Annie), fantasy series (Harry Potter), fast-paced science fiction thrillers (Orphan Black), and horror films (The Orphanage), to name a few examples.
So how do we process all of these orphan characters? Ultimately, I believe it’s more valuable than not that some orphan characters have risen to stardom. These stories illustrate some uncomfortable truths about a large but invisible minority: children who lose their parents. Even where most nuclear American families are uninvolved with foster care and adoption, it primes the consumer’s mind with realistic (or mystical) knowledge that some people don’t grow up with families quite like theirs.
I caution writers to continue portraying orphan characters with sensitivity. At the same time, I urge writers not to stray away from covering the enduring loss that orphans experience. Sure, it’s painful to watch. But it ought to comfort us (orphans, adoptees, birth parents, adoptive parents) to know that our feelings are valid. Hopefully, the stories remind us that we’re not alone in our struggles. Because it needs to be talked about.