With the second season of Stranger Things, I thought it was high time to look back at the first season of the hit show and highlight something that I really liked about it that viewers might take for granted. This will have fairly significant spoilers for the first season, so if you aren’t caught up yet, you might not want to read this post.
I’m going to do a bit of a lengthy recap, so please, bear with me:
The subplot I wanted to discuss involves the love-triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan Byers. Nancy is a pretty, friendly, slightly-awkward, high school girl with an almost perfect GPA. She’s a typical girl-next-door character. She’s taken a liking to Steve, a lovable but excessively cocky guy – with the greatest hair you’ve ever seen – who means well, even if his friends are ridiculously cliched bullies/jerks from an 80’s teen drama. Meanwhile, Jonathan admires her from afar as he searches for his brother, the victim of a supernatural disappearance. While searching for his brother, Jonathan stumbles upon a party where he sees Steve and Nancy undressing through a window. He uses his camera to photograph the two. Steve finds out and retaliates by ripping the pictures to pieces and destroying the camera. When Nancy’s friend Barb disappears, Jonathan helps her look, while Steve worries that his parents will find out that he threw a party while they were gone. Steve’s jerk friends find out that Nancy is spending time with Jonathan and they write slut-shaming graffiti in town (and Steve doesn’t try to stop them). Steve and Jonathan fight. Steve calls out his friends for slut shaming Nancy while Nancy and Jonathan continue to look for the disappeared. Steve shows up to apologize right as Jonathan and Nancy are about to be attacked by the monster which has been terrorizing the town. Steve heroically stops the monster. At the end of the season, Jonathan is still good friends with Nancy, but she is ultimately still romantically involved with Steve.
I understand that this might seem trivial and melodramatic compared to the other charms of the series like monsters and telekinetic children, but I think that this is an important change to the typical media depictions of awkward guys versus confident guys.
Now let me say upfront, neither of these guys are totally in the right. Steve could have done a better job of condemning the sexist language his friends were using and he could have been more sympathetic when she couldn’t find Barb. And Jonathan… Jonathan could have not taken creepy pictures of her. I hope you see where I’m going with this.
I really like how this love triangle resolves. It shows that there are consequences for Jonathan’s creepy picture-taking habit and it doesn’t just automatically reward him for his behavior. In other movies, he’d be the lovable dork, like Peter Parker or the cast of The Big Bang Theory, and we’d be told we should root for him, and in the end, he’d get the girl, because that’s the current
narrative delusion that Hollywood decides to push on us. (But it goes deeper than just recent media, doesn’t it? Shakespeare decided that Romeo looming in Juliet’s garden, waiting for her to come out onto her balcony is romantic and likable, rather than a creepy form of trespassing.)
I just feel like the knee-jerk reaction of the typical movie or TV show would be to have the guy who’s a little bit of a jerk conveniently get killed by the monster despite the fact that over the course of the series he’s grown as a person, thus becoming more considerate and doing his best to distance himself from his slut-shaming friends. I genuinely thought he was going to just be a meat shield, that we could retroactively root for him because he died fighting the monster, not just because he became an okay guy. I assumed that by killing Steve, Nancy would conveniently be available to date Jonathan. Any other series would be inclined to put Jonathan Byers on a pedestal because he’s not overtly a jerk and just a little creepy.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I absolutely abhor The Big Bang Theory and one of my personal missions in life is to rail against TBBT until people realize it’s awful (but I’m doing it here to make a point). I’ll link to one video which indicates that TBBT isn’t funny, and I’ll link to another video which indicates TBBT isn’t funny (just for good measure), and I’ll link to a 20-minute
dissertation video essay by Pop Culture Detective about how TBBT portrays and idealizes a rather insidious brand of sexism. My point is this – if we have just this one story in which the misogynistic nerd doesn’t get the girl, because of the creepy things he did, then it’s a valuable moment that helps to subvert a troubling narrative in which the sexist behavior of nerdy boy is consistently rewarded.
Okay, so Steve isn’t a perfect guy either. In an ideal story, we get an ending in which Nancy explains how she’s learned to define her identity outside of what guy she’s going to end up with, and doesn’t need a man or maybe doesn’t date someone who took inappropriate photos of her or didn’t disrespect her (there are other boys in Hawkins, Indiana, aren’t there?) But in the meantime, I’m glad Stranger Things has done what it can to subvert the typical nerdy guy character. I think that the awkward, nerdy guy can still “get the girl” at the end of a film or television narrative, but only if she’s willing, and likes him, and he respects her and treats her well.
I expect that the show will ultimately end up pairing Nancy and Jonathan together just, as I said before, as a knee-jerk reaction. If I’m right about that, I’ll be disappointed, but not that upset. What is really going to upset me is if this upcoming season doesn’t address why nobody cared about Barb disappearing, but Will Byers’ disappearance got the whole town involved. What’s the deal with that, right? #JusticeForBarb.