For our fifth essay this year we have a piece by local Parisa Feyz. Parisa is looking at the depiction of a super-powered yet relatable child Messiah in the form of Eleven from Netflix’s popular serial Stranger Things. We’ll let Parisa introduce herself.
I was born and raised in Auckland, I am doing a law and arts conjoint, with a major in politics and philosophy. I would love to work in an area where I can help people and I am interested in pursuing a career in politics where I can help improve equality. I took Theology 101 because I am very interested in how religion influences our society and the course was highly recommended.
And now for Eleven!
El: The Messiah and the American Monomyth
In Christianity, Jesus is commonly referred to as a Messiah. Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection have created a monomythic theme that we see in many fictional works today. Some of these messianic traits are seen in the Stranger Things character of Eleven. Eleven has inspired fan art, tattoos, and has even been nominated as a mascot for National Waffle Day (Hoffman, 2016). In this essay, I argue that El is a monomythic figure who can rightly be described as a popular messiah. Jesus the Messiah’s birth, life, death and resurrection is a parallel to the American Monomyth as explained by Lawrence and Jewett, and we see this in the character of Eleven as well as she becomes a saviour figure when it seems like all hope is lost. This is shown through her unusual origins, supernatural powers, her selflessness in closing the ‘Upside Down’ and her resurrection. Ultimately, I will show that Eleven is not a perfect messiah as she does not withstand temptations. However, this makes Eleven more relatable as a result.
The Duffer Brothers’ Netflix series Stranger Things is about the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy Will Byers (King, 2017).
Over the series we learn that the Hawkins National Laboratory have been experimenting on a girl (Eleven) with supernatural abilities, forcing her to contact a monster in an alternate universe with her telekinetic powers she opens a gate between our world and the “Upside Down.” This allows a creature, the Demogorgon, to cross over into our world. This creature then takes others to the ‘Upside Down,’ and this disappearance of these people spread fear amongst a small group in Hawkins. Eleven is Hawkins’ only hope when it comes to closing the gate.
In the Old Testament, a messiah is known to be “the anointed one,” someone we look up to as a leader, to help guide us through a task. Messiah figures are often there in desperate times when people need someone. The American Monomyth, as stated by Jewett and Lawrence, is a popular theme in movies where “a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptation and carry out the redemptive task,” provides us with a hero in times of need (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002, p6). Where a community is threatened by evil, a selfless hero saves us from a task in which institutions have otherwise failed (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). A monomyth is also described as one who is distinguished by disguised origins, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002).
Eleven has unknown origins of birth. We do not know who her parents are, how she got her supernatural powers, and who she is. A characteristic of a messiah figure is that they come from unknown origins, or that there is a mystery around their birth (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). Throughout, Stranger Things there is a constant mystery as to who Eleven’s parents are. This is analogous to Jesus’ unusual origins story. In season 2 it is revealed that Eleven has a mother. However there is mystery around who her father is. As well as this Eleven was stolen from birth, and this is because of her powers.
As a character in the series, Eleven is introduced to us as a twelve-year-old with a shaved head, tattered clothing, and a limited vocabulary. This exemplifies Eleven’s “otherness” as she is an outsider who doesn’t really belong. We slowly learn throughout the series that she was kidnapped and raised in Hawkins National Laboratory where she was experimented on.
Eleven was born with supernatural abilities. She has telepathic and telekinetic abilities that allow her to move and lift objects. Eleven can enter into a mental void using her extrasensory perception, and through this, she seeks others in the ‘Upside Down,’ and locate people (Stranger Things Wiki, /Eleven). Laurence and Jewett state that “superhuman abilities reflect a hope for divine, redemptive powers that science has never eradicated from the popular mind” (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002, p7). However, using her powers does take a toll on Eleven’s body, and her powers are connected to her emotional state as well. The fact that Eleven’s powers drain her is analogous to Jesus’ being both human and divine. Even though she has these supernatural abilities, she still succumbs to the human state.
Eleven reveals her caring nature by rescuing people with her supernatural powers in saviour-like ways. As Eleven is the only one who knows where the Demogorgon is, by using her telepathic abilities, she becomes anointed as “The Chosen One,” and this ability of hers is almost prophetic as only she can voice where the monster is and can save others trapped in the ‘Upside Down.’ Eleven’s arrival and her supernatural powers provide hope, and she is seen as a saviour because she is the only person who can defeat and close the gate to the ‘Upside Down.’
Eleven’s desire to save the people around her, even when she becomes weak and drained as a result of using her powers, shows her selflessness. Eleven’s portrayal as a messiah figure can also be seen through this selflessness in sacrificing herself to save her friends and as a result the world. This is a characteristic seen in messianic figures (Lawrence and Jewett, 2002). Eleven continuously saves her friends, and at the end of season 1 attempts to close the gate and save Hawkins and her friends from the ‘Upside Down,’ in an ultimate sacrifice where we believe that Eleven has died as she disintegrated along with the Demogorgon. Season 2 revealed that she was unharmed and resurrected. However, this act of self-sacrifice shows an incredible amount of courage and also Eleven’s ability to fiercely protect those people around her, despite growing up in an abusive and loveless environment.
Eleven is not a perfect messiah, and does not withstand temptations. This is seen in her crush with character Mike Wheeler. As well as her obsession with Eggo Waffles, where we see her steal many boxes of Eggos from a supermarket.
These temptations, however, make Eleven more relatable and identifiable amongst viewers of Stranger Things. Throughout the series, we are referred to the fact that Eleven is a 12-year-old girl, who, like other children just want to be normal, she is a messiah who seems pushed into saving Hawkins. Eleven reminds us of her humanity in the last episode of season 2 where she kisses Mike Wheeler at the school dance. The one aspect of criteria for a messiah figure, which is renouncing sexuality, is one that Eleven does not fulfil. And for a good reason, as it reminds us of her childhood innocence that she has lost as a result of the ‘Upside Down,’ but which she desperately would like to hold on to.
Eleven’s unknown origins, supernatural powers, and selflessness show that El is a contemporary messiah figure willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good. This shows many of the criteria associated with a popular culture messiah. However, the character of Eleven does not cater to the traditional messiah standard that we are used to. El is a young child, and a girl who has wants and desires. Eleven’s temptations make her more relatable as a result and show that although she is not a perfect hero, she is still a popular culture messiah figure.
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