When Nancy Wheeler takes off her top at the end of Stranger Things‘ second episode, she sheds a skin. That skin is adolescence. It’s being the good girl; it’s being the virgin. It’s being a dutiful student and a reliable daughter and a sweet friend. The new skin she absorbs is Steve Harrington – the cutest, most popular boy at school. As she takes him inside her, the girl she was starts to dissolve.
Stranger Things is distilled nostalgia: a throwback science-fiction show about alien dimensions and altered landscapes. At its heart, however, it’s about friendship – the pure, everlasting kind usually found between children. While the focus of the show is fixed on Mike and his gang of lovable misfits, the teenage characters waver in the background, their own worlds coming together and pulling apart in the mini-cosmos of high school life.
Nancy and Barb are quintessential teen-movie best friends. As tradition dictates, Nancy is the pretty one – slim and sparkly-eyed, the portrait of an 80s’ Brooke Shields fairytale princess. In contrast, Barb is shy and homely. She isn’t slim or conventionally pretty because that would make her a rival. Instead, she’s safe and boring. When compared with Nancy’s waiflike Snow White, Barb looks like a towering giant. Devoid of any backstory or real personality, her entire identity is structured around making Nancy more attractive.
When Nancy starts seeing Steve, an unspoken rivalry bubbles up between him and Barb: a classic feud between the masculine foil and best friend. After being dragged to his party in episode two, Barb couldn’t be more awkward. She obviously doesn’t want to be there, but has to be as an intrinsic part of Nancy’s transformation. Issues of consent abound in this episode, as she’s wheedled and teased into doing things she isn’t comfortable with.
Things only get worse for Barb. As she gets ready to leave and waits for Nancy by the front door, Nancy dismisses her and tells her to go home. From her higher vantage point on the stairs, Nancy literally and figuratively looks down on her best friend, like a piece of the past to be transcended.
“This isn’t you,” Barb beseeches.
“Go home, Barb,” Nancy says definitively.
That night Barb cuts her hand on a beer can. Following Nancy’s dismissal, she sits alone in Steve’s garden and watches her blood drip into his pool. There is a vital mirroring here: the blood that seals Nancy’s death, luring the Demogorgon to her, is the same blood she shed for Nancy. The girls’ friendship is wounded; their bond is ruptured. Yet Barb is the only one who’s left bleeding.
It can’t be coincidence that Barb dies immediately after this scene. As Nancy spends the evening with Steve, her friend is butchered and harvested.
Barb is forgotten about her death. Although Nancy’s arc is defined by her search, Barb is ultimately a plot device to get Nancy from A to B. And our attentions are diverted, as one rivalry bleeds into another. For the rest of the season, Nancy is caught between two males, Steve and Jonathan. The audience wonders, ‘Which one will she end up with?’ Because this is what is expected of girls. This is how we are defined in the eyes of others. Not by who our female friends are, but by the boys we choose to date.
Does having a boyfriend signal the death of female friendships? It’s no secret than women choose men over each other, and that hatred brews through romantic jealousy. Classic teen films are full of this dynamic: friends are immediately dropped if it means going out with a cute boy, and girls fight pettily over a stupid boy with floppy hair.
A lot of these films were released in the era Stranger Things is set. In Heathers, Winona Ryder goes on a killing spree with a psychotic boy-babe; in Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald is caught between two boys; in The Breakfast Club, the defining relationships are romantic ones and not between the two girls. Even in horror films, romantic tension and sex usually mean more than women’s friendships. Through the medium of film, girls are taught that boyfriends are more important than friends, and Stranger Things is no different.
Here is how we stand: by choosing Steve, Nancy rejects Barb. By rejecting Barb and their friendship, she effectively kills her. In that moment on the stairs, Nancy might as well have said, “This is me. This is who I am now, and you aren’t a part of it.” There are three things lost that night: Nancy’s virginity, Barb’s life, and the sacred bond between two girls.
As Stranger Things takes place in dual dimensions, perhaps there’s one where Barb lived. Perhaps there’s one where Nancy says, “You’re right, this isn’t who I am.” Maybe she leaves that party with Barb, and maybe it’s Steve who’s left out by the pool. As it is, female bonds are tossed out to make room for romantic sizzle and sexual tension. Friendships are ephemeral; they’re fragile girlhood trinkets to be outgrown. What truly matters are our relationships with men, because what can a woman ever hope to be without one?