Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Why So Many Gay Guys Like Barb From Stranger Things

Heads up: This will spoil the first season of Stranger Things. If you haven’t finished it and don’t want it spoiled, don’t read this yet. Also, what are you waiting for? It’s only eight episodes. Call in sick today and finish it.

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.)

After all, Barb (Shannon Purser) vanishes before the opening credits of episode three, when the shambling horror that is the show’s big bad pulls her into the swimming pool of doom, never to be seen again… save for a particularly nasty shot of her in the penultimate episode, when the viewer learns that yes, she’s completely dunzo—a corpse in the Upside-Down with a hell leech squiggling around in her mouth. It’s brutal to learn, especially if you, like me, had been hoping that she’d be rescued.

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.

Based on the little we get to know about Barb in the first two episodes, we get that she’s Nancy’s smart and loyal best friend. She has a flair for fashion, but that doesn’t really put her on the radar of any of the popular kids, and she’s literally out of focus in the background of some of the shots in which Nancy is interacting with them. (If there’s a he-Barb lurking around somewhere, who can see her for the radiant, ruffled flower she is, we never get to see him.) She only gets invited to the party at the home of BMOC Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) because she is Nancy’s plus-one, and again, the boys don’t seem interested in her to the point that no one even reacts with much concern when she cuts her hand—and even then, she only cuts her hand in a vain attempt to shotgun a beer, just to prove to these cretins that yes, she’s like everyone else and can party like a normal kid. That felt familiar.

To paraphrase that great poet of our generation, Katy Perry, she’s a plastic bag who has yet to realize her status as a firework. Watching the second episode in particular, I wanted to tell Barb that it would be okay—that she’d get in to a good college where a bunch of art fags would celebrate her prim but daring style, and that everything would be okay in the end.

Only that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t get better for Barb. She dies without anyone aside from Nancy realizing how great she is, and even then, Nancy’s last interaction with her is shooing her away while she goes to make penis-vagina with Steve. Yes, even that is telling of the kind of relationships a lot of closeted gay guys had with their ladyfriends of choice back in the age of raging hormones. We’d be there, steadfast and protective, until the prospect of a more deeply realized male-female relationship presented itself, at which point we’d be left to wait downstairs while some people’s virginities were lost and others remained intact.

I’m projecting, sure, but I feel like for this gay guy in particular, the horror of Barb’s death wasn’t just that it seemed like if anyone should have been safe, it would have been her. No, it’s the weird “what if?” of never moving on from the Upside-Down of high school life and never having people finally appreciate you for the things that make you special. She has glam hausfrau style down, for sure, but I’m certain that’s not the only reason we gay nerds are rooting for her in a fashion way out of proportion to how much we see her onscreen.

I love you, Barb. I wish it had been different for you.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • I keep accidentally referring to the Upside-Down as the Underwhere, which I think should be the name of something.
  • I can’t stop listening to the previous compositions by Survive, the band that did the show’s soundtrack. Survive is the Disasterpeace of 2016.
  • Variety had a good interview with the Duffer Brothers that offers, among other things, some rationale about why Barb and Barb alone should have been the one character to get offed in the show’s first season, as well as the tidbit that Shannon Purser had never professionally acted before this series.
  • If you haven’t yet, check out my fucking up of the Stranger Things trailer in the style of footage from a decayed VHS cassette.
  • Cole Escola did a less-than-one-minute bit about Barb’s mom learning about what the fuck happened to her daughter, and it’s gold.
  • I was born in 1982, but that doesn’t mean I understand how women dressed in the first decade of my life. Consequently, it’s hard to tell if Barb’s style would have read as avant-garde in 1983 or just plain dowdy. I have similar issues with Jane Fonda’s wardrobe in 9 to 5.
  • Just in case you wanted a closer look at our last image of Barb, you can see it here. It’s awful. Barb deserved better.
  • I maintain that Barb is equal parts Martha Plimpton’s character from The Goonies and Lucca from Chrono Trigger.

Homo culture, previously:


  1. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Barb dying was like if Scooby Doo killed off Velma.

  2. The Underwhere is a name of a very Upside-Down-esque section of Super Paper Mario.

    1. I *knew* it sounded familiar. Thank you.

  3. Lucca was such a dope ass bitch. She even made a brief appearance in Crono Cross!

  4. As someone born in the 70s, i can say while I think Barb's style was beyond beyond, in the time it would have been seen as a little dowdy.

    1. Yep gotta agree with Dan Avery- I would have been jr High then.. she's clearly wearing ( in some episodes, and I would have to look again to see her clothes in each scene) in a few scenes, the "prairie look" - and if the show takes place in (is it 82 or 83 - I thought it was 83) that look kind of peaked in 81 and headed out by the end of 82. However, you could also argue that at the end of the episode where she dies they play The Bangles cover of Hazy Shade of Winter.. which wasn't out until 87. If they are trying to stay super true to the era that is a bit of a goof.. not to say the song doesn't fit mood wise.

  5. Anonymous5:59 AM

    As someone who graduated HS in 83 in the midwest, I can say that Barb's clothes were DEFINITELY dowdy. In fact, I found them distractingly so -- thinking, 'why is she wearing her mom's clothes?!'.

    And speaking of clothes no one would wear to school -- how about that dress that Eleven "borrows" from Nancy. IF Nancy ever wore that dress, it would have been in elementary school. That style 1) was popular in 1973, not 1983, and 2) was worn by *little* girls, not teenagers.

    1. Anonymous6:00 AM

      ETA - Barb's glasses though... they were spot on. I had some just like that.

  6. As a female who was 13 in 83, I can also say that Barb was not fashionable. She would have been seen as the girl who was wearing hand-me-down clothes from Sears that may have been popular in like 1979 or 1980. I don't think her look was meant to make her look like she was an "in-style" or even remotely popular girl. I think they dressed her to look like an outsider. Her clothes are what I would have had to wear in 84 if I hadn't convinced my mother to take me shopping for my own wardrobe rather than wearing my sister's old stuff.

  7. You know what I noticed about the show? Remember the scene where Will is talking to his older brother about music? The older bro says something like, "I'm going to make you a mix tape with all the good bands on it. The Clash, Joy Division, The Smiths..." I thought that 1983 seemed just a bit too early for a kid from podunk Indiana to be into The Smiths, and I turned out to be right. While the Smiths did release their first single in March of '83, the first album didn't drop until February of '84. This loner teen from Indiana would have to be pretty boned up on indie British rock bands to have heard of The Smiths in the Fall of '83. It's possible, but it seems pretty unlikely.

  8. Barb was fashionable? Had me fooled.