Beyond Justice for Barb: On the problematic body representation of ‘Stranger Things’

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Curtis Baker/Netflix/Courtesy

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Season one of “Stranger Things” left Barb’s corpse rotting in the Upside Down, slimy and slug-oozing. Season two purportedly brought her “justice” by allowing her a funeral and granting her parents closure. Proponents of #justiceforBarb may be satisfied, but creators Matt and Ross Duffer are not in the clear with regards to the greater implications of the narrative arc of Barb (Shannon Purser) in “Stranger Things.”

For many, Barb embodies the archetype of the overlooked, less popular complement to Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) refined, pretty and desirable persona. We all know how it feels to be Barb, as pointed out by Brian Moylan of “Vulture,” which is, in part, why the lack of recognition for her death in season one sparked so much outrage. The treatment of Barb’s character, as opposed to that of Nancy, and the circumstances surrounding her death, therefore, point to more than just an uncomfortable element of the plot.

Barb’s story speaks to sinister issues of body representation in Hollywood, which in turn helps to set larger-scale standards for who we as a society consider beautiful — who we as a society deem worthy of praise and respect.

Throughout “Stranger Things,” characters regularly praise Nancy’s physical appearance, reminding the viewers time and time again of her desirability. Nancy’s looks allow her to move up the high school food chain, by way of Steve (Joe Keery) and his decidedly popular crew. At the same time, they win her the affections of Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), as evinced by his infatuation with Nancy before they have spoken much at all. Even Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) utilizes one of her few precious words to declare an image of Nancy “pretty” when Mike first allows her to explore his house. Season two continues this trend from the get-go, with arcade employee, Keith, requesting a date with Nancy in exchange for revealing the identity of Mad Max (Sadie Sink).

Thus, the Duffer brothers stress Nancy’s attractiveness, indicating to viewers that they should agree with this verdict.

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Netflix/Courtesy

At the same time, Dyers boasts an extremely thin and delicate frame, which inevitably contributes to her aesthetic and reception as beautiful. The fact of the matter remains that she plays the primary love interest of “Stranger Things,” elevating her to the level of physical aspiration; at the same time, the average viewer cannot healthily emulate this slimness. In presenting Nancy as both beautiful within the world of “Stranger Things,” as well as extremely thin, the Duffer brothers equate desirability with slenderness. This proves problematic not in it of itself, but because of the already pervasive glorification of thinness in American media.

Thus, they highlight American societal definitions of attractiveness that are already prevalent. Online forums such as “Skinny Gossip” have taken full advantage of Dyers’ physical form as aspirational, with comments such as “When I watched the show I was so struck by her figure!” and “Damn, she’s probably the skinniest actress I’ve seen in a long time. I hope she keeps it up.”

Barb, on the contrary, essentially goes unnoticed and unappreciated throughout the whole of season one. She consistently serves as sidekick to Nancy, dragged by Nancy into Steve’s group despite the rest of clan’s less than warm welcome. In fact, none of the characters in “Stranger Things” openly acknowledge Barb’s qualities most likely to be considered “redeeming” because she purportedly lacks an essential component of an admirable teenaged female: beauty.

Nobody, for instance, finds it necessary to point out Barb’s maturity and responsibility. In reality, though, Barb drives Nancy to Steve’s party in season one, attending to watch over her friend. When Barb attempts to point out Steve’s clear intentions, however, Nancy takes advantage of Barb’s responsible character: “Alright, well … You can be, like, my guardian. Make sure I don’t get drunk and do anything stupid.”

Regardless, this request proves selective; when Nancy does get drunk and begins to follow Steve upstairs, she no longer wants Barb’s as a “guardian.” As Barb addresses Nancy from the base of the stairs (“Nance. Nancy. Where are you going? … This isn’t you.”), Nancy responds smugly. “Go ahead and go home,” she asserts twice before continuing up to Steve’s room, leaving Barb confused and alone.

Barb dies feeling an utter outcast. And although season two indubitably grants some consolation in exhibiting the intense effects of her death on the Hawkins community in general, and on Nancy specifically, the fact remains that the Duffers have selected the thin, beautiful actress as heroine and love interest, and the larger one as social outcast, even if unjustly so. While Nancy’s body is cast in a light of admiration and reverence, Barb’s body is either depicted as invisible during her life or objectively repulsive after her death.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Shows like “Jane the Virgin” and “Santa Clarita Diet” are already making headway in exhibiting actresses closer to the average size of American women as characters who are depicted as multifaceted, valued and widely considered desirable. Although Barb did not have the opportunity to achieve this level of complexity and perceived attractiveness on “Stranger Things,” the opportunity remains for future directors, actors and producers to develop characters who do.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].

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  • Man with Axe

    Some of the time progressives complain if a show doesn’t reflect reality. The rest of the time they complain if a show doesn’t create a false reality to help them build a better world. You can’t win.

    • AJ

      I usually would’t agree with this type of blanket statement.

      But I think “Stranger Things” did shine Barb in a very good light. Barb was the responsible character and she was loyal. On the other hand Nancy was disobeying her parents and disloyal (to Barb) because she chose to sort of abandon her friend at the party after she felt she no longer needed her. It could even be argued that Nancy got her friend killed. I don’t think a character in the script has to “point out” Barb’s qualities, the goodness in her character shone bright in the story.

      “Pretty” and “desirable” aren’t the only measures of positive qualities in a person. So I guess I disagree with some major points in this article.