Stranger Things and The Problem of Barb

Like a lot of people, I devoured and adored Stranger Things, which if you’re living under a rock or maybe just an EMT or something and too busy saving people’s lives to obsess over a Netflix sci-fi/horror series inspired by and evocative of all the 1980s output of Spielberg, Carpenter, and (Stephen) King, is a Netflix sci-fi horror series inspired by and evocative of etc. If you love those influences, and you’re excited about the fact that this is by no means a slavish recreation of them but the sort of dream about them you could only have if you weren’t even alive at the time, this show is for you.

This show is for me. I love the early 80s — the music, the movies — and I’m sure a large part of that was due to the fact that I was 8 years old at the time Stranger Things is set. I was just a little younger than the kids at the heart of the show, and exactly the right age when we start falling in love with the culture around us. But I also love looking back on that culture, the tropes and the conventions, and reinterpreting it. I love the music now that’s reminiscent of that early synthpop (CHVRCHES, Dragonette, Cut Copy, M83’s Saturdays = Youth) and how it distills our memories of it while remaining thoroughly modern. And I love movies and TV that comment on or subvert some of the patterns that maybe aren’t worth preserving intact.

Which brings us to Barb.

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I’m led to understand that the internet loves Barb. (If you don’t know who she is or what happens to her, now is maybe a good time to stop reading.) I’ve read a couple of the pieces praising her, but I admit I have not been super diligent about seeking out all the Tumblr posts and fan art and whatnot. I mean, I don’t really doubt that there’s a good case to be made for her. I get the appeal: the minute she appears in the enormous mom jeans and the plaid blouse and the giant glasses and the sculptural red hair, you really have to just embrace her if you don’t throw up your hands in despair at how dedicated a nerd she is. The young actor who plays her is good, and convincing, and she is certainly a sympathetic character. You feel for her as she tries to hang onto her best friend who is moving into a cooler circle, as she tries and fails to shotgun a beer, as she gets pulled into a terrifying nether dimension by a hellbeast with a face full of fangs that opens like a flower. People who think that what’s counterintuitive must be true seem to be all like: she’s cool for dressing how she wants! She’s cool for keeping her virginity and trying to help her friend resist pressure to lose hers! She’s cool for being a nerd and not apologizing for it!

Allow me to suggest delicately that this might be some bullshit. Or at least that there’s another way of looking at our Barb. I’ll explain.

We wore some bad denim back in the 80s, it’s true. We had some bad clothes. I do not look back on that time and think, wow, I sure miss those fashions. They were awful. Haircuts were bad. We looked terrible, for the most part. You look back on the 60s and 70s now and yeah, there was a lot of dire stuff, especially on people who rollerskated, but at least the best of it looked intentional, like you were either visiting an Elvish village or a space station near Alpha Centauri. Once the polyester train chugged out of sight, the 80s were left with popped-collar polos, rugby shirts, and poorly-fitting acid wash denim. And that was the cool kids. Nerds like Barb? Hell, nerds like me? We wore what our parents bought us from Sears or JC Penney’s and just went about our business. That was style, you guys. The point I’m making is that a kid like Barb is not “dressing how she wants.” She’s not a 21st century hipster who thinks ghastly fashion is ironically cool. She’s wearing what her mom bought her, the same mom who is nowhere near as freaked out as Winona Ryder to find out her daughter is missing. Or worse, she is terminally clueless about what would look good on her (as I was, as many of us were in this benighted time before style bloggers) and actually chose some of this stuff. I feel for her, I really do, but she is not a freethinking fashion icon. She is, in all likelihood, a regrettable casualty of a sartorial dark age.

Is she an unapologetic nerd, though? We really don’t know. We can imagine that she’s got a rich inner life, that she’s got some female equivalent to the younger boys’ D&D (maybe you knew girls in 1983 who were willing to be caught dead playing Dungeons and Dragons. I sure didn’t). Maybe she was into Austen novels before they were cool, or Agatha Christie, or, sure, maybe Tolkien or even Stephen King. Or maybe she had a TRS-80 at home and was learning Basic. Most likely she volunteered at the old folks’ home or read to blind people at the library. We don’t really know, though, because as far as I can remember, the show doesn’t tell us. If she was like a lot of us nerds at the time, especially in small towns, she was probably pretty lonely, less accepting of her fate than wondering daily what she could do to gain some modicum of peace from the pecking order. Think about it: apart from the fact that they both take their studies seriously and are probably in the same honors classes, why is she friends with a normal girl like Nancy? Do they bond over Blondie?

We know they don’t bond over Steve. Maybe at first they do; seems like boys are not an unusual topic of conversation for them. But he quickly becomes a bone of contention. And it’s here that I find myself most willing to part ways with the Barb admiration society. Because although we sympathize with Barb’s distrust of Steve, we don’t have to support her distrust of Nancy. Here’s what I mean.

Barb’s the virgin. True, no one’s offering to change that, but by the “rules” of 1980s horror, it’s the girl who gives it up who’s supposed to die, not the one who keeps her giant mom pants on. Barb’s concerned for her friend, she doesn’t want Steve to use her and throw her out like a Kleenex, but she’s not willing to believe that Nancy knows what she’s doing and can take care of herself. By the time of the pool party, we’ve already seen Nancy alone in her bedroom with Steve, and we’ve seen her rebuff him with confidence when the timing isn’t right. This is a straight A student and someone who knows her boyfriend’s a horndog; she has no illusions about what the pool party is for, and while it’s maybe not the perfect situation, she knows she shouldn’t go unless she’s prepared for it to take that turn. And when it does, she’s in control; she could leave with Barb easily, but doesn’t. Barb says to her: “This isn’t you.” Nancy replies: “Yes. It is.” Through the 1980s teen movie lens, Barb’s right; this is where the girl gets led astray, misjudges the guy, gets herself in over her head, gets hurt, maybe dies. Sex is bad. You’ll only get hurt if you give in, especially if you’re a girl.

But in Stranger Things, just as it often is in real life, it’s upside down. Nancy’s the one who’s right. Why isn’t it “her” to go upstairs with a guy she likes, who she’s clearly into (it’s extremely difficult to see what in him she’s attracted to, but undeniable that she’s attracted)? What’s so wrong with that? If the movies hadn’t taught us that only doomed sluts have sex, why would we reflexively side with Barb? Why couldn’t we accept that a normal girl with normal desires deserves to act on and satisfy them? Nancy says “Yes. It is.” not because she’s in denial about Steve’s character. She says it because she’s clear about her own.

And everything about these three characters, plus the fourth side of the love rectangle, Jonathan, proceeds over 8 episodes to defy cliché. Steve engages in plenty of douchey behavior, but comes around to be at least an asset in the climactic monster fight and loyal to Nancy in the end. Jonathan, the prickly but sensitive cute loner, doesn’t steal Nancy’s heart after all. (Yes, this does wrap up like Pretty in Pink, but I’ll bet you didn’t expect it to.) Nancy isn’t punished for being a sexual being; she beats back the monster and lives to the end. And poor Barb, poor doomed Barb, doesn’t get to be the final girl after all. She dies, as far as we know, a virgin.

Yes, it’s sad and seems unfair. When I saw some of the “Barb is the real hero of the show” headlines before I’d watched more than an episode or two, I was convinced this meant she’d burst out of the Upside Down somewhere around episode 7 or 8, an ailing Will in her arms, having persevered and dragged them both out of hell. But of course her death is exactly what it appears to be, at least from everything we can see in Season 1. And that’s real. It’s never too soon to learn how to dress yourself and get out of your shell and realize that virginity isn’t as valuable to its owner as it’s cracked up to be. Good things sometimes don’t come to those who wait. Sometimes if you wait, you die, and it’s too late. Sorry, Barb.

“We were all Barb,” say the internet writers. Were we? I was, sure. I was that nerd, up to a point. But I was also Jonathan, wrapped up in my music and other creative endeavors; Nancy, the top student who also wanted to have a life and had some hope of getting one; and I was even a little bit of Steve, a guy who fell in love with girls and wanted to sleep with them but was willing to wait until and unless they wanted me too. The world isn’t divided into nerds and jocks. The jocks aren’t always wrong and the nerds aren’t always right. We are large. We contain multitudes.

Barb’s okay. Her clothes are hopeless, but so were everyone else’s, and she doesn’t have to be cool to be good. She’s probably a solid friend to have, someone willing to lie for you and drive you to an unauthorized house party. She might have a secret crush on you, actually, which would explain quite a lot of her attitudes and behavior. But she (understandably) has a naïve high schooler’s limited idea of what’s best for you, and she needs to chill out and trust you to make your own decisions.

Does this means she deserves to die? Of course not. But it means she isn’t my hero. That’s all.

One comment

  1. Cyl · August 12

    She was so hopeless at her current stage, which is why I was sad to see her dead body.

    Some of my favorite facial expression work in ST was done by Cara Buono as Nancy’s mom when she learned Nancy was having sex. I’m in that stage of motherhood where two of my kids have more to their lives than I can know (no extra children living surreptitiously in the house, though). It’s bizarre to identify so strongly with this often hapless woman, but there it is.