Walking in Joyce Byers’s Footsteps: Motherhood in a Stranger Things World
I’ve never been to a women’s ministry event that looks anything like the setting of Netflix’s runaway hit Stranger Things. At these events, wreaths of flowers around scented candles, uplifting Bible verses written in swirling calligraphy, and overlays of pastel and burlap rule the day. If the theme is Motherhood, chances are better than average Proverbs 31 or Titus 2 are going to be studied and attendees will spend time bonding over struggles, laughing through tears as daily failures are recounted, and passing around silly stories of precocious kids. Everyone will admit to general guilt and feelings of inadequacy to what we are told are Biblical Standards of Womanhood and Motherhood. A tear-jerking story or two will be shared from some women who have endured truly tragic circumstances, but who are utterly together today (somehow driving the knife of guilt even deeper for those who are currently struggling), and then everyone will be told it’s all okay, because Jesus and grace and everyone is in this together—messy and imperfect (although none of the speakers actually looked messy or imperfect, neither did anything about the event itself…) and everyone will go home with warm fuzzies to life as usual.
Yeah. Not much like the world of Stranger Things.Joyce Byers—an axe-wielding woman who strings lights in the darkness to lead her son home and who knows when to let her son feel actual pain—is a paragon of motherhood.
That sort of approach to women’s ministry—to ministering to single women and to wives and to mothers—is nice. It’s pleasant and comfortable, and it reaches many women where they need to be met. But it’s never reached me, and I have a suspicion that in today’s world, where many women struggle to connect modern feminism with what it means to be a Christian—and especially in a world that often seems a lot darker and more broken for women than the burlaps and flowers version we’re given at church—pleasant and comfortable often feels dissonant with reality. For those of us who are mothers, navigating this world to the flourishing and wellbeing of our children often feels a lot more like the Upside Down of Stranger Things. Where women’s ministry events have often left me empty and uninspired, I was captivated last summer by a story that laid bare my heart as a mother and provided an unlikely, yet true, example of biblical motherhood.
Joyce Byers from Stranger Things doesn’t look like a Proverbs 31 Woman, nor is she a picture of what one typically thinks of when one imagines a “good Christian woman.” She’s not “soft” or meek or mild. She doesn’t defer to the authority of the men in her life. She’s a literal mess: divorced, harried, works long hours to support her two latchkey sons, smokes like a chimney, and she’s a fighter. But I would argue that this axe-wielding woman—who clings and testifies to the truth on the behalf of her son when no one else believes her, who strings lights in the darkness to lead her son home, and who knows when to let her son feel actual pain—is a paragon of what biblical motherhood should look like.
Played by Winona Ryder, the character of Joyce Byers is the beating heart of the first season. Parading as ’80s nostalgia quasi-horror, Stranger Things season 1 tells the story of Will Byers, a young misfit from Hawkins, Indiana, who goes missing one night while biking home after a long game of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. Will disappears under mysterious circumstances, seemingly into nothing, and is presumed dead once a body turns up in a local quarry lake. But his mother, Joyce, refuses to accept the body as his—insisting it’s a fake— especially as strange phone calls, blinking lights, and moving figures in her walls all lead her to believe her son is not only alive, but also communicating with her. Joyce fiercely advocates for the truth that Will is merely lost and trying to find his way home, even as a fearsome creature—one Will’s friends call the Demogorgon—hunts him, and others in Hawkins, down. But Will is trapped in the realm of the Demogorgon, an alternate dimension known as the Upside Down, and he cannot free himself. Without his mother’s help, he will die. Joyce feels this urgency throughout the first season. She recognizes that although her son is lost, he is not lost unto death, not yet, and while he still lives, she will never give up hope of saving him.
And this is the first way Joyce becomes a role model for moms by demonstrating a virtue often overlooked for Christian women: advocacy. The word advocate comes from the Latin advocatus, meaning “one who pleads for another.” Its beauty is magnified when understood biblically, as advocacy is one of the attributes of Christ: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2). Christ, who has taken the penalty for our sin on himself, pleads our case before the Father so that we might not suffer death. Being an advocate in our children’s lives is to demonstrate this very important truth—it is to demonstrate Christ, or to be as Christ to them—to plead for them so that they might not die. This is what Joyce Byers does in Stranger Things. She knows in her heart of hearts that Will is alive. She needs to save him, but she can’t do it alone, despite her best efforts. She needs an ally to help her, and her advocacy on Will’s behalf eventually leads to aid from Police Chief Hopper, who helps her get Will back. Joyce knows what the truth is about Will, she advocates for him, and because of this, he does not suffer death. She becomes like Christ for him.
A key component of advocacy is knowing what the truth is and clinging to it. In Stranger Things, the truth is light, and light is life. Joyce further demonstrates qualities of biblical motherhood by being a lightbearer for her lost son—both as a way to communicate to him and as a way to advocate for him while he is trapped in the Upside Down. In season 1, Joyce realizes Will is trying to communicate with her through the lamps in her house, so she strings up hundreds and hundreds of Christmas lights and devises a way for him to talk to her through them. Everyone else thinks she’s crazy, but she knows that the blinking lights are Will’s very life—she knows the lights are truth and will guide her path to him.
But Will is not just trapped in the Upside Down, he’s being hunted by the Demogorgon, and he can also use the lights to warn his mother that the Demogorgon is coming. Despite her abject terror of the beast, in one moving scene, Joyce is able to see Will’s face through the wall of her house as the Demogorgon draws near. She hurries out to her shed and grabs an axe. Setting aside her personal fears, Joyce breaks a hole through her wall to try and save him—but she can’t save him that way because she can’t get to the Upside Down by breaking a hole in her wall. She will have to die a metaphorical death to bring her son back up to life. Despite that, the scene with the axe has always been one of the most affecting for me, as a mother. Joyce’s sheer tenacity to go after the evil gripping her son—the picture of her attacking it with an axe… Do I have that tenacity of spirit in my prayers over my children for the salvation of their souls? Do I love them with the crazy love of Joyce Byers with an axe? It always gives me pause.
In the end of season 1, Joyce—who has been steadfast advocate, lightbearer, and protector—does indeed die that metaphorical death in order to save Will. She and Police Chief Hopper descend into the Upside Down, through a portal where the air is literally toxic and where it is dark and cold and nothing lives except the Demogorgon (that we know of). It is a world that is like a photo negative of the world in which we live. They find Will unconscious and clinging to life, and they have to resuscitate him. Joyce returns with him to the surface world, affecting also a metaphorical resurrection—for both of them. She went down to the grave with him, rescued him, and brought him back. Once again, she became like Christ for him.
Season 1 tore my heart open and left it bleeding on the floor. And season 2 had much to say, but one primary lesson stuck out to me above all the rest.
Season 2 finds Will and Joyce struggling to heal from the scars of what happened in Season 1. Will is a year older and wants freedom from not only his harrowing experiences in the Upside Down, but also from his mother’s safety net. Joyce, as you would expect from any mother who got her son back from the brink of death, is all-but paralyzed by the fear that it could happen again, especially as Will suffers from traumatic flashbacks and visions. When the Upside Down strikes again in Hawkins—in the form of a literal rot tunneling beneath the town—it parallels the fear, the post-traumatic stress, the anger, and the anxieties simmering beneath the surface of the principal characters. When Will becomes infected with a parasitic force, this time it’s his mind and his soul that go missing while his body remains.
Initially, Joyce tries to fight this beast the same way she fought in season 1—with defiance of the odds and a tenacious belief that her son is not lost for good. Once again, she does everything she can for him, demonstrating self-sacrifice at every turn. But as mothers, there is a point at which we sometimes have to acknowledge that we can’t take away all our children’s pain. Sometimes pain is part of their ultimate flourishing—whether it’s the pain of discipline or the pain of consequences from some bad decision they have made. When our children are in pain, it can be near impossible to know when to intervene and when to wait it out. Seeing both of these play out in Joyce’s mothering affirms that sometimes we need to fight on behalf of our children and sometimes we need to let our children fight for themselves. In the story, Will didn’t do anything wrong to invite the parasite into his body, but he still must suffer pain to expel it, and Joyce has to make the hard decision to allow him to feel that pain. In this, Season 2 Joyce Byers demonstrates a virtue that is as difficult as it is wise: We can’t protect our children from all pain and suffering. And sometimes, if it is for the betterment of their souls, we shouldn’t.
Stranger Things is the sort of show that gives shape to the darkness that haunts us all. Imaginative shape, no doubt, but shape, nonetheless. The Demogorgon, in season 1, has little motivation beyond a blind bloodlust to seek and devour. It is the enemy crouching at Will’s door, just as there is an enemy seeking our own children. Joyce fought for Will, and when, in season 2, she could fight no more for him, she let him bear through his own suffering for the salvation of his soul.
How will we fight?
Mothers, will you take up an axe to fight for your children? Will you string lights in the darkness to bring them home, should they lose their way? Will you be their advocate and their champion should everyone else abandon them?
Too often, we sell ourselves short as women—considering ourselves only in light of passages like Proverbs 31 or Titus 2 that tell us how to order our households, relate to our husbands, and live our daily lives. Too often we are told to leave the fighting to the menfolk—to be meek and mild and non-offensive. But God created us to be protectors, advocates, sacrifices for our children. Motherhood asks us to lay down our lives for them—to demonstrate Christ’s sacrifice for them again and again, if needed—not because we can save them, but because he can, and he’s ordained us to be lightbearers to lead them to him. Our daily acts of mothering may not be as dramatic as what we see in Joyce Byers, but each one adds another strand of lights leading our little ones safely home.
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