In the slasher satire Scream, the rules for successfully surviving a horror movie are laid out clearly. One of the most iron-clad: "You can never have sex. Sex equals death, okay?" This according to screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who wasn't just making shit up. When playing by the rules, '80s horror is as conservative as it comes. The "sluts" die and The Final Girl — that is, the one who survives till the end and slays the evil — is a virgin. It's why Heather Langenkamp never has sex with Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street and gets to live, while her best friend is slaughtered by Freddy Krueger mere minutes after banging her boyfriend. It's why Jamie Lee Curtis is the virginal babysitter in Halloween and her friends are the ones strangled to death and stabbed by Michael Myers.
Free love, the culture of reveling in sex and beauty, was a staple of the '60s and '70s, but by the late '70s, the sexuality of women and gay men was facing a serious backlash. That backlash took on many forms, playing out in the burning of sexed-up disco records that promoted queer love and sexual exploration at Disco Demolition Night, in the public awareness of AIDS, and even in horror movies, which sent promiscuous girls to an early grave and rewarded the ones who kept their legs tightly closed.
Part of what makes Netflix’s summer hit Stranger Things so exciting is its readiness to steep itself in '80s nostalgia porn, while also turning so many '80s horror tropes on their heads. One of the most powerful scenes in the series is when Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) loses her virginity to the popular jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), which is juxtaposed with the death of her best friend Barbara Holland (Shannon Purser). Barbara, if we're following our '80s tropes correctly, should've been The Final Girl in Stranger Things. The nerdy girl in glasses and dated blouses (even for the '80s) should've been the last one standing so she could brave the Upside Down and save the day. Barb was an instant fan favorite — we've been conditioned to relate to the outcast, the girl who becomes a warrior in the final act and vanquishes a monster. If Stranger Things were merely a nostalgia kick, then Nancy, Steve, and their two best friends would've all ended up dead while getting busy at their unsupervised party.
But none of that happens. Barb suffers a torturous death and Nancy lives to investigate her friend's disappearance. Nancy is the one who cooks up the plan to trap the monster and kill it. Even after losing her virginity, she defies the rules of '80s horror, and in that moment, she becomes human. Stranger Things succeeds because it's not just getting by on pop-culture references, it's also working to subvert them in smart ways. The series revolves around the three boys — Mike, Dustin, and Lucas — who are hunting for their friend. But it's the women who ultimately drive the story forward.
Then there’s Eleven, the mysterious, mostly silent young girl hiding out in Mike’s basement. “Elle” takes on the role we typically see given to boys in '80s movies: She follows in the footsteps of the young boy in The Golden Child as the mystical character who will save all humankind. This role is so typically a boy role that the aforementioned movie cast a girl as The Golden Child but shaved her head and occasionally referred to her as a boy throughout. But she is a girl, and one with powers of telekinesis, much like the popular X-Men character Jean Grey. Jean, a telekinetic and telepathic mutant, first appeared in X-Men #1 as Marvel Girl, only later becoming Jean Grey with a costume change. As her telepathic powers grew stronger, an evil organization called The Hellfire Club attempted to use her for their own gain. The resulting trauma caused Jean to lose control of her powers and turned her into the evil being known as Dark Phoenix.
Before he goes missing in Stranger Things, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) races Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) for ownership of X-Men #134. More than a nod to character, this exists to draw a parallel between the powerfully telekinetic Jean Grey and the equally powerful Eleven. The Dark Phoenix Saga itself draws from sci-fi horror. Phoenix decimates her team, then takes to space like the Xenomorph in Alien — and she does it while exuding a sexuality she hadn’t had in her previous incarnations. Whereas her Marvel Girl outfit was demure and befitting a teenager, as Dark Phoenix her cleavage is on display and she's visibly sexier than ever before. She has blossomed into womanhood, and with that, she's become a dangerous killing machine. On the surface, it's almost as if Jean's sexuality is tied to the death and destruction she causes, connecting the story to popular genre tropes.
But there's more to the Dark Phoenix than that. Much like how Ripley dies on her own terms in Alien 3, Jean Grey sacrifices herself when she regains control of her powers and realizes the destruction Dark Phoenix has caused. Amid the conservatism of the horror genre, Dark Phoenix had writers Chris Claremont and John Byrne allowing a story where Jean had full control of her mind and body. Eleven does the same, using her powers to help Will's friends rescue him from the Upside Down before disappearing into that alternate reality herself. At one point in the series, Eleven is given a wig and a dress so she can blend in with normal people, but she sheds the costume and returns to her shaved head, her role as a powerful outcast. She becomes Ripley, she becomes the Dark Phoenix, and she saves the world on her own terms.
And as for Nancy? She has more in common with a modern heroine than an '80s archetype. She gets to bag her guy and still be The Final Girl. Virginity be damned.