I’d been stoked for Stranger Things, and I felt gratified once it went live on Netflix that other people seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. However, all the social media posts about the show seemed to be echoing back to me one observation in particular that I didn’t expect: that Barb was awesome. I liked her a lot, despite her scant screen time, but I’m a weirdo who always roots for the underdog girl. In this instance, I was not alone in pulling for Barb. It also happens that most of the people posting about Stranger Things in my various feeds happened to be gay nerds of one stripe or another. So what is it about this mom-jeaned wonder that made gay dudes dig her? (You know, aside from her on-point-for-the-era fashion sense.)
We gay nerds like our genre heroines, but Stranger Things actually offers four other female characters who get to do a lot more than Barb does. There’s Joyce (Winona Ryder), a small-time Sarah Connor who’s just the latest in a long line of fearless, strong moms in sci-fi works. There’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the telekinetic marvel who actually takes down the bad guys. There’s Nancy (Natalie Dyer), the Lisa Simpson-level goody two-shoes who finds an inner courage to become a hero in her own right. And there’s even Nancy’s mom (Cara Buono, a.k.a. Dr. Faye from Mad Men) who gets more to do than Barb does just by virtue of the fact that she survives through all eight episodes.
So why the hell would we like Barb so much? My theory is that for gay guys—and maybe also non-gay guys who had similarly difficult high school experiences—Barb reminds us of the selves we left behind back in the day, the not-yet-fully-realized versions that we want to go back and help or save or maybe just hug.