This essay will contain spoilers for the full run of Stranger Things.
Teen boys playing D&D in a lovingly reproduced 1980s basement. That’s how Stranger Things really gets going, and that’s when I knew that this show probably wasn’t going to be for me.
That basement, a literal boys club, is a safe space for the nerd kids who use it for gaming, a place to escape their school bullies, their significant lack of cool, and their general misfit status. It’s where they can be comfortable with themselves and with each other. It’s where mothers and older sisters are invaders. Where badass fantasy girl-objects can be hidden, experienced as their-own-adventure, their-own-crush, their-own-Akira-baby-friend. Stranger Things is a show built on nostalgia, much of which hinges on this space and its sense of freedom: The place where nerd boys first found safety and strength.
The nostalgia trip extends outward from there as the boys go out into the town on adventures straight out of ET and a collection of Steven King novels (and their film adaptations). Here is one standing up to a bully. Here is another playing at recon (complete with improvised headband and a radio), having broken with the group over a girl’s invasion of it. Here they are riding bikes, riding bikes, rushing around to unravel the mystery of their missing friend and their new super-powered girl-friend. Carefully arranged tableaux signalling: Boys’ Own Adventure, ’80s Edition. The basement is the cinema it’s drawn from, is the safe space it represents for the shows makers and its intended audience: Here, guys, it’s a show that reminds you of all the great movies you grew up on, designed to make you feel good about you, your worldview, and your taste. Here is a narrative to validate you entirely. A familiar story, a collage of so many stories you’ve loved before, with few surprises and character dynamics that just feel right and natural and wholesome.
This nostalgic construction is played quaint and treated with kid-gloves. An unproblematic niceness that enfolds Eleven, the show’s breakout child lab rat/superhero character, and gives her, what? Safe harbour? The beauty of friendship? After escaping the lab experimenting on mystery monsters, Eleven has a series of shit adventures until falling in with our D&D boys and being hidden away in their clubhouse. This is good, because they will teach her about human society, as in ET. This is bad, because she has wild powers she can’t control, as in Firestarter. This is mainly good, though, because she bridges the gap between their friend Will’s disappearance to the happenings down at the secret lab. She gets the plot moving–great. But they don’t treat Eleven as a friend. She is, variously, a dangerous thing, a dangerous thing that’s on their side, a cool toy, and a crush object onto which that one kid, the Elliot-looking motherfucker (his name is Mike, if you happen to care), projects a whole fantasy life. They could go to the dance together! So sweet.
But who is Eleven? Some kind, some unfortunate kid with powers. A child Tetsuo, but without the backstory to back up the glares and neck snapping. She is a powerful force in the show, a powerful force of rage born of betrayal and abuse, and of animal cunning in the face of the boys’ naiveté. Despite their friend disappearing in the show’s opening scenes, the boys retain a certain innocence, certain foolish illusions about how this terrible story is all going to play out. They want it to be like a movie, or a game, you see–like you do, the show assumes. The innocence of a bygone era, these kids who only now, with the inciting incident of their friend’s disappearance, are being forced to grow up too soon. Eleven, in contrast, has no identity outside victimhood, so must learn from these boys the simple pleasure of life–an emotional rescue for a character who needs to know physical backup.
Meanwhile, outside of the boys club, there are two other storylines running parallel to this one, each with their own central female character–who, thanks to that parallelism, don’t talk to any of the other central female characters until quite late in the game. Who, thanks to the exigencies of the twisting plot–thanks, really, to the Duffer brothers’ disinterest–quickly lose their connections with every female side character. Nancy, Mike’s sister, has a best friend Barb who quickly gets grabbed by our monster. Joyce, Will’s mother, is initially friends with Mike’s mom, but she fades from view in the face of Joyce’s emotional distress, her standoffishness, and seemingly strange determination to get her son back. Eleven, well, she never HAD any female friends to lose. Just an abusive dad-doctor who experimented on her. Each of these characters is surrounded by male characters of determination and action.
Joyce is forced to work with the local police chief, whose skills are a necessary compliment to Joyce’s cleverness and drive. It’s Joyce who first begins to suspect that her son Will isn’t dead, as the official story from the bad guy authorities goes, but trapped in some alt-dimensional dream world. It’s Joyce who works out the rules of it, bit by bit, who goes to extremes that cast doubt on her own emotional health, who will do anything to get her son back. But she can’t do it without the help and calming influence of the Chief.
Nancy, meanwhile, is saddled with Will’s creepy brother Jonathan (who, in addition to be a supportive son and a decently good friend to Nancy as the show unfolds, also skulks through the woods taking pictures of cute girls), and her loser boyfriend Steve (who blows hot, cold, selfish, and basically okay, I guess, by the end, dragging Nancy onto an emotional roller coaster, because he can’t handle his own shit). Her role in all of this is complicated. She’s Mike’s annoying older sister, considered uncool by these least cool of all boys, because she’s less interested in D&D these days than she is in partying with teens her own age–and worst of all, finding a boyfriend. She’s also an object for Jonathan to admire and for Steve to feel conflicted over. And finally, she’s an investigator and avenger, looking to find out what’s happened to Will and to her friend Barb, with the hapless assistance of Jonathan and Steve. In these later scenes she’s a Final Girl, outsmarting and setting up traps for the monster à la Nancy from Nightmare On Elm Street. But all of her plans are made with Jonathan, and more of her emotional effort is expended on soothing him and Steve, than on herself, dealing with the loss of her friend.
Eleven has a whole gaggle of busy boys around her. She’s the only one with powers, it’s true, and she does come to their rescue more than once. But the only thing we learn about her, that isn’t connected to the boys, is connected to her father, and it’s just pain, just endurance of torture. Just desperate straits, as Joyce and Nancy are both thrown into; virtuous girls and women in extremis. Aren’t they so admirable?
Although these three female characters are pillars of Stranger Things, important to the plot and to the character development of all these boy-satellite, their most important role is what they do for those boys and how they can define their orbits.
What is Joyce outside of being a super intense, attentive, and understanding mom? What is Nancy outside of being the perfect girl for a pretty good guy? Smart, sweet, strong, and sexy without being slutty. What is Eleven outside of being in need of rescue, socially speaking, but otherwise the most badass girlfriend a boy could want? These are girls and women who don’t threaten the boys club, who find it cute and sweet and tend to it. They don’t push their way into the gaming table. They bring sandwiches, or take lessons, or give moral support. These are girls and women who are desirable, as companions, caregivers or lovers. These are girls and women who are worth spending time on.
And then there’s Barb. Nancy’s nerdy best friend who is quickly dispatched and never recovered. Although Joyce and the Chief make it into the “upside down” to retrieve boy child Will from the dream dimension he’s being kept in, they don’t extend their rescue efforts to anyone else trapped in that dream hell. Barb’s disappearance works to make Jonathan suspicious of the official story of his brother’s disappearance and “death,” and it serves as Nancy’s entry point to the investigatory shenanigans and her motivation for staying in them. But Nancy’s efforts aren’t rewarded with Barb’s return–instead she’s gifted with a deeper understanding with hookup-turned-boyfriend Steve and a new friendship with photo-creeper Jonathan. But what about Barb?
It’s a question the internet has spent a lot of time on, much to the Duffers’ surprise. They were shocked to learn that part of their target audience of nerds of a certain age would care about the nerd girl when there are so many nerd boys and cool (but not too cool girls) on offer. Barb has proven to be so popular with the audience, especially nerd girls, that the inevitable Barb backlash has arrived. Over at VICE, Joel Golby says, well, fuck Barb. She sucks, man, and how dare the internet mislead him on that score. I mean, yeah, of course Barb sucks. She’s less a character than a plot point. She’s an afterthought, both for the Duffers and for the characters within the show. What happened to Barb, Nancy? Who knows. Who knows. Where’s Barb’s mom, who surely must be ready to confront Joyce, the panic having passed on to another mom-object–why did you get your kid back, but not me? Of course, Barb’s mom doesn’t get her moment. That Elliot kid Mike’s mom barely gets to emote, even with one of the three main plotlines taking place in her basement. It’s not that this mom isn’t pretty or attentive or good at moming, but it’s that Stranger Things already has a main mom. One female character per plotline. One female per character type.
People like Barb, because she’s the nerd girl, the point of access for a part of the audience neglected by this Boys’ Own Show. They like her because she’s the one left out, left behind, but still feeling. The last thing we see of Barb is her feeling bad about being left out, frustrated at her best friend for leaving her behind, at herself for not being able to keep up, and, for a second, scared by the horror she is about to endure. She is at least the beginnings of a character we could be happily attached to, the possibility of a show that honored female friendship as much as male friendship, and as much as heterosexual romance. People like Barb in defiance of what Stranger Things says is important, in defiance of her cut short existence and her lack of development. Give it time and there will be listicles on how great that Poltergeist-esque little sister of Mike’s is, how great the evil female doctor is, or the black deputy who got about ten minutes of screen time. Liking Barb is the finding/making our place that fans do, attaching ourselves to characters who are underserved by the narrative, that resonate for we parts of the audience that are underserved by the narrative. Liking Barb, or Eleven, or Joyce, or Nancy is about making Stranger Things better than it sets out to be.
The first season of Stranger Things ends with Joyce reunited with Will, Nancy comfortable in friendship with Jonathan and in romance with Steve, and Eleven dead-missing-maybe-living in the woods and being visited and supported by Chief Hopper. It ends with the boys back to playing D&D, Jonathan back to taking pictures, and everyone in their assigned roles. Oh, there are suggestions of ominous events to come next season and our boys learned some lessons, but it’s largely a return to order, still nostalgic, though informed by what’s passed. The integrity of the world the Duffers created holds, not challenged, but simply having moved to the position it was always meant to reach. A small town with secrets. It’s a good, old tale. But one that so rarely, and not here, gives its female characters their full due.
So we’re getting another season of Stranger Things. I might be back for that–certainly millions of others will. So now that the Duffers have realized that their audience cared about Barb, let’s see some resolution for her. But let’s also see all these girls and women enjoy friendships and even rivalries with other girls and women. Let’s see this show pass the Bechdel test comfortably, happily, by giving these characters depth beyond mom/girlfriend/powered misfit, by giving them the kind of great relationships this show so far has only given to boys and men.