A Queer Take on Stranger Things

This will be a mostly spoiler-free review of the Netflix series Stranger Things, because it's not exactly the type of show that can be spoiled. Horror can't be spoiled, in this writer's opinion. There are twists and turns, but your heart can always guess where it might be going. You're in it for the visuals — the unsettling soundtrack, the creeping fog, and the gruesome deaths. True, there’s some shock in who survives the carnage, but it's not gonna be the Good Guy or Miss Perfect. Scream came out twenty years ago, and we’re still following Randy’s Rules.

Stranger Things is a visually innovative success with lots to devour for the Modern Queer Geek. Some amazing, some not so. First, the great:

Name another actress besides Winona Ryder who became iconic for both Popular Kids (Heathers) and Freaky Kids (Beetlejuice). Both characters' souls carry equal weight inside her. In Stranger Things, Winona's frantic mother Joyce Byers could be the spiritual continuation of either Veronica from Heathers or Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice. Either Lydia married a bad guy and raised two weird boys in the poor part of town or Veronica found herself trapped in yet another suburban rut and opted for single motherhood off-grid.

Either way, Winona hasn't been this stellar and on-brand in a long time. She's best when she's a dandelion — a pretty weed, so sensitive to the harsh world but indestructible to her core. It's part and parcel of her queer appeal — bitchy and tart, misunderstood and eager for more than what life is giving her.

If it sounds like I'm going on about Winona and have failed to get to the plot of Stranger Things, that's not an accident. The show knows why you're watching it. Winona's Joyce loses her son Will to a faceless monster who has come from another dimension to kidnap kids for Purposes Unknown. The town comes to believe the boy is dead and never coming back. But not Winona. She senses him nearby, first in her intuition and later in the form of blinking Christmas lights. Nobody believes her, but Grown-Up Lydia Deetz doesn't give a DAAAAAAYUM if anyone believes her or not. She's going to find her son, Inter-Dimensional Portal or no Inter-Dimensional Portal.

The men in the story — the chief of police, her ex-husband, her oldest son — eventually catch up to her thinking episodes later, but that's where the show reveals its shortcoming. It looks like a million bucks, the mood is just right, and Winona is firing on all cylinders in her beautiful breakdown…but this is a show written by dudes. No woman can save the day until a man believes her.

The search for Will stretches over eight episodes and three separate groups: Kids, Teens, and Adults. The kids, a Best Friends' Gang of middle school boys, are determined to find their missing compatriot. Stranger Things understands male friendship like the back of its hand. There's nuance and insight. Let's just say the girls in the Teen group aren't as figured out.

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Nancy wants to get it on with Steve. No argument from me — Steve's hot. Shitty hair, but he's a deep-feeling jock with a rich house. I couldn’t resist that. She ditches her best friend, the frumpy Barb (Hashtag Justice4Barb), to walk home alone. In the dead of night. When there's already a few people who have gone missing. The monster snatches Barb, obviously, and when she isn’t at school the next day, Nancy is overcome with mild concern for her best friend. She calls Barb’s Mom, and the mom confirms Barb never came home, and then Nancy proceeds to LIE ABOUT BARB COMING HOME THAT NIGHT TO COVER HER ASS.

I know this is the 80's and there's no such thing as texting yet, but I'd be all over that shit if it were my friend (much less my Best Friend Forever). It takes Nancy an episode or two (it feels like ten) to commit to finding Barb, and (surprise!) she dawdled so long, Barb’s dead. I’m not a woman, but I know enough about female friendships to know that they prioritize things like walking home alone.

I harp on about this point because Barb is the monster's only non-villain victim, and she sets off our Dead Lesbian Alarms. Barb isn't explicitly a lesbian, but she's coded as such—styled as a non-girly girl, over-devoted to her BFF's sex life, and badly wounded when she's told it's time for her to leave without Nancy. Barb's death is cold, lonely, and cruel. She's mauled while crying out for Nancy, who can't hear her because she's having sex with someone else (and her cries are muted by the literal dimensional veil separating them. She's hidden in plain sight — more queer metaphor!)

END SPOILERS

There are other queer-coded characters, like Winona's son, the missing Will Byers. He's often alluded to as gay by multiple people. Some, like his mother, are kind, referring to him with gay buzzwords like "he's not like other boys," "he's sensitive," and "he draws so well!" Others, like the school bully, are more to the point about the boy they believe is dead: "He's in fairy land now, flying around with all the little fairies." This jab lands as ultra-grim, mostly because us fairies were dealing with a certain deadly something in 1983, and that bully's remark pretty much sums up the national tone on that topic.

These aren't petty complaints; just moments of note for queer geeks that might ping our radar. Stranger Things succeeds as horror, and that's what queer audiences come for: blood, guts, and fabulous women in danger. We are an audience full of Barbs and Wills: sensitive souls who couldn't speak for themselves in the suburban Indiana of 1983, trapped in parallel universes where no one could hear them, with monsters no one could see.

adammichaelsass's picture
on July 21, 2016

ADAM SASS begins all his writing in Sharpie on dozens of Starbucks pastry bags. This may cause him to be late making your cappuccino, and he sincerely apologizes. His Writer’s Digest award-nominated story "98% Graves" appeared in the anthology STARTLING SCI-FI: NEW TALES OF THE BEYOND. He lives in New York City with his husband and two dachshunds.

Find Adam at AdamSassBooks.com, his pop culture writing at GeeksOut.org, or keep up with him on his (over)active Twitter @TheAdamSass.