Was Eleven supposed to have been sexually abused in the lab? It would break my heart if true (wasn’t the other torment she went through enough???) but there are multiple subtle and not-so-subtle hints to it in the show. The subtle hints are various allusions, imagery, and references to themes in other shows while the not-so-subtle hints are the direct naming of MKUltra as the program that Eleven was produced from.
The allusions and imagery include:
-The drawing that Hopper found on the wall of El’s room at the laboratory that depicted Papa with a “third leg”, which is likely a tiny hint the creators tossed in to imply that Papa sexually abused her. This easily goes over most people’s heads (many people don’t even notice it, and many of those who do assume it’s to demonstrate that El’s development is that of a kindergartener.) Now, to be fair, many of my stick figures when I was a child wound up with “three legs” because I tended to draw the “torso” too long. If not for all of the other sexual abuse imagery that this show employs, it would be easy to brush Papa’s third leg off as a childhood art mistake, but there are so many other hints to her being sexually abused that I’m pretty sure it was intentional. I can just picture the Duffers being like “let’s see how many people notice this…” Please see https://www.reddit.com/r/StrangerThings/comments/7b7m2x/s1_spoilers_so_i_just_noticed_something_on/ Further elaborated on in this review: https://anarchoforteanist.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/stranger-things-a-spiritual-take-part-2 “Note, however, the line extending between Papa’s legs in her drawing, which hints at sexual abuse.”
-The phallic-looking silhouette of the end of Papa’s belt when he walks into the interrogation room to speak with Joyce in S1E9. According to a redditor, such imagery was often employed by Stanley Kubrick to indicate an erection. Another check mark for the allusion of Papa as a pervert, or at the very least it was intended to show his “power” over females. Another big red flag. From redditor u/tygrebryte: “when Brenner enters the interrogation room where Joyce is detained at HNL, the belt of his overcoat extends into the scene in a sort of phallic way (this strikes me as very Kubrick-esque -- watch the documentary Room 237, where it's pointed out that a very similar scene subtly indicates one character's ‘erection’)" Please see https://www.reddit.com/r/StrangerThings/comments/4yav0e/the_doctor_in_stranger_things_has_three_legs/
-The squeaky fan (the fan El silences in Benny’s diner) homage to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. *This one is very disturbing* According to https://vivianvioline.blogspot.com/2016/10/stranger-things-and-rage-loneliness-and.html “The fan, especially, is an important and enduring Lynch symbol, and specifically in Twin Peaks, the whirr of the creepy ceiling fan was used to note the appearance of BOB, who functioned both as a supernatural monster and as a metaphor for the incest and child sexual abuse perpetrated on Laura Palmer by her father.” It is hard to believe that such a reference would be used simply as an homage to another TV show and not as a subtle implication that El is being sexually abused by her “father” too.
-El starting to strip down in front of the room of boys (this tiny scene tells a thousand words). This is a frequent symptom of child sexual abuse, as I’m sure everyone is well aware. From https://vigilantcitizen.com/moviesandtv/true-story-hidden-symbolism-behind-stranger-things/ “Eleven, who is wet from the rain, is given a change of clothes. She immediately undresses in front of her friends, causing them to freak out. This scene portrays the lack of privacy and boundaries in the minds of MK slaves and might imply sexual abuse in her past.”
-The genital imagery employed by the show (I noticed during second viewing that the gate looked like a vagina, especially in season 3), the demogorgon’s head looked like a “flower” (i.e. virginity), El’s bleeding could be symbolic of vaginal bleeding/hymenal destruction. From https://vivianvioline.blogspot.com/2016/10/stranger-things-and-rage-loneliness-and.html: “One hundred degrees less cryptic is the way sexual organ images are associated with the monster. The gate, which was ripped by Eleven's fear, is entirely vaginal in shape and horrifically covered in viscous matter. People literally get to The Upside Down by entering through that orifice. The destruction of Barb in the pool (which became a massive vaginal image) was meant to help us link sex with the monster's predation. The monster itself is crouched and at lap height when she walks over to touch it, and we're not quite sure what horrible thing is is loudly doing. It looks like a man, or rather Pan from Pan's Labyrinth but again has a petal/orifice shaped head. All of these images and narrative clues point to a subtext of child sexual abuse as the prompt for Eleven's break.”
-El blaming herself for being the monster, clearly a reference to rape/abuse victims feeling guilt, shame, etc. In fact, one of the goals of MKUltra, which I’ll elaborate on further later, was to make the victims feel guilty and like they were responsible for their own torment.
-The dialogue between Papa and El has sexual undertones to it, according to this writer; El releases the monster after he tells her to “go deeper”. See https://vivianvioline.blogspot.com/2016/10/stranger-things-and-rage-loneliness-and.html for more on this.
-The episode of Punky Brewster that Ray Carrol is watching during the home invasion in “The Lost Sister” in which Punky is describing a nightmare she had to her father. Her nightmare took place in the doctor’s office as she was getting a shot in her arm, but the needle kept getting “bigger and bigger and bigger”, which sounds like rape symbolism
-Kali’s statement to El - “[The Bad Men] stole everything from you” - implying her virginity was stolen as well?
-El tells Kali “they hurt me” and we see a flashback of her being dragged by the orderlies to solitary confinement. Sounds like other “hurt” was being implied, not just solitary. Because does solitary technically “hurt”?
-The easter egg references to Monarch Programming, which was an MKUltra mind control program that employed physical and psychological abuse and violent rape to break the psyches of the victims. The easter eggs include:
-Steve pointing to butterfly decals on Nancy’s locker
-The butterfly Kali conjures up for El - “this butterfly, it isn’t real, I’ve just convinced your mind it’s real”
-Eleven’s blonde wig. “In Monarch programming, MK slaves are often made to wear wigs (often blonde) when in the real world.” - https://vigilantcitizen.com/moviesandtv/true-story-hidden-symbolism-behind-stranger-things/
Why make references, however subtle, to Monarch programming unless they wanted to imply that El had been a victim of such a program?
-“Montauk” as the original name of the show, referencing the Montauk Project, part of MKUltra in which boys were tortured and raped in order to turn them into mind-controlled slaves
And now the BLATANT hints at sexual abuse…
-MKUltra was named as the program that Eleven was essentially created from/born into. It’s stated by name during Hopper’s investigations into Terry Ives. MKUltra was notorious for using sexual torture, including rape of children, as a means of breaking the psyche of its victims, which enabled them to control their minds. Rape and sexual abuse were used in order to traumatize children so severely that they dissociated, or developed split personalities, (this occurs naturally as a result of severe trauma, it’s how the mind protects itself). They needed them to dissociate because they believed that the mind of a dissociated person could be easily controlled, manipulated, brainwashed, etc. The ultimate goal was essentially to create robots who would do the bidding of their masters. MULTIPLE methods of physical abuse were employed to create dissociation but rape was the most effective, particularly if done by three years of age.
One could argue that Brenner’s work at Hawkins Lab seems more in line with Project Stargate than Monarch. Stargate focused on telekinesis and honing the abilities of certain gifted people whereas Monarch focused on breaking their psyches to turn them into zombies.
In the tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds, Project Indigo is the name assigned to the program Brenner is working on with “gifted” children. It features Kali who insists that Papa doesn’t hurt her, but he does lie a lot to her and get angry when she won’t do stuff. There is nothing to suggest that he sexually abuses her, though he does dole out punishment himself that is not elaborated on. Despite punishing her for being bad, he is depicted as wanting to nurture her brain to bring out her abilities, which suggests that traumatizing her, as in Monarch programming, would likely not get him the results he wants. El was even more valuable to him. As stated in the novel, El was the only gifted child he’d had from birth and was essentially a blank slate.
That said, although the tie-in novel is considered “official” with the blessing of the Duffer brothers and the notes and advice from one of the Stranger Things writers, many people might not consider it “canon”. It’s also marketed towards young adult readers, so the author may have skirted the issues of pedophilia. The book was also written (presumably) after season 2 aired. My theory is that the Duffers possibly backtracked on certain things when the show got popular and they learned it was going to continue so that it didn’t get associated with child sexual abuse (such a theme would make it harder to reach a wider audience).
One could argue that Eleven acted normally around men, which could indicate she wasn’t sexually abused. Benny gained her trust very quickly and in season 2 she’s LIVING with Hopper (though the latter could have been a result of the backtracking the Duffers may have done to make her character less damaged). Both are very large, imposing men. However, everybody who works with sexually abused kids will tell you that they all behave differently. Some are terrified of men, others are hypersexual.
One could also argue that having a boy (unknowingly, obviously) kiss a sexually abused girl is pretty sick on behalf of the creators, but these are the same two men who found it funny to force an uncomfortable Sadie Sink to kiss Caleb, so…
One could also argue that El appeared to be physically healthy - not underweight, not covered in bruises, etc. This could indicate that her punishments were largely isolation.
Although we don’t see El as having split personalities, the D&D board demogorgon provides that symbolism, as it has two heads with different personalities. In addition, a commonly-held fan theory after season 1 came out was that Eleven wasn’t being figurative when she said “I’m the monster”. Many believed that the monster was a physical manifestation of her trauma (and the genital appearances of the gate and the monster would imply that the trauma was sexual trauma). One could argue that that could imply dissociation, which is a coping mechanism and the goal of Monarch programming. The Duffer brothers actually denied that theory after David Harbour, who also held the theory, directly asked them. They said to him “no, it’s like an actual monster…”. However, it could have been the original intention of the show, just like originally El was supposed to die at the end of season 1 because they assumed it was only going to last for one season. When the show became popular and so did the character of Eleven, the Duffers could have decided it best to backpedal and deny the theory so that they wouldn’t have to face backlash from fans for having a beloved child character be a rape victim who’s so traumatized that her sexual abuse manifested as giant genital monsters that eat people. They could have also decided that they didn’t want to have to deal with a sexually abused child in the following seasons, as it could present writing difficulties, so they added in stuff like her living with Hopper and wanting to reunite with Mike so the audience would say “well, I don’t think they’d do THAT if she’d been sexually abused in the past!”
I’m really and truly hoping that I (and the bloggers I linked to) are reading too much into it and El’s abuse didn’t include a sexual element. I’m hoping that, as twisted as he was, Brenner never felt it “necessary” to punish El using sexual means, or to perform rape-based Monarch Programming on her, since he basically raised her from birth. I’m hoping that the references to stuff like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks are intended to be more like “easter egg” homages for fans to pick up on as opposed to the creators saying “this fan here is a reference to Laura Palmer being raped by her father, so we’re trying to tell you that that also happened to this adorable little girl here.” I’m hoping they weren’t trying to drop hints about sensitive subjects such as child rape because they somehow felt them necessary to the plot but weren’t comfortable coming right out and saying it.
I’d welcome opinions and thoughts on this. I really, really hope I’m wrong and that she isn’t supposed to have been raped in the lab, but I’d appreciate honest opinions from you guys.