Justice For Nancy: Why the #JusticeForBarb Movement Misses the Mark
(Note: this post contains spoilers for the first season of Stranger Things.)
I was over a month late to the Stranger Things party last year; I binged the show in one sitting on a Thursday off from work and fell in love.
Being that I watched the show over a month after the rest of the world, there were certain parts of the show that were affected by some preconceptions I had going in. The most prominent example of this for me is in how I perceived the character of Barb.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the very prominent social media movement, #JusticeForBarb. This is a movement built around the idea that Stranger Things greatest character was Barb, Nancy’s nerdy best friend, and that her character was wasted. Over a year later, the hashtag and ideology behind it are still very prominent among the Stranger Things fanbase. There are more facets to this discussion — there’s the allegation that Barb’s death was nerd-shaming and that Nancy is the worst best friend that exists.
Some of this I learned after watching the show, but going into the series I knew one thing: Barb was the breakout character of the show, and I should pay attention to her. My perception of her was tainted by this:
Barb is great, and then, rather quickly, she’s dead. She doesn’t even last three episodes. I was very confused, as my live tweeting shows.
Okay, I thought. She’s probably not dead. They must save her like they’ll eventually save Will.
That’s a no-go. As episodes seven and eight prove, Barb is super dead. The Demogorgon killed her and fed on her. Brutal. My interest and love of the character was diminished in hindsight; it was apparent much of what I was loving about Barb and her character was the anticipation of more to come, of the notion that this two dimensional character would, like the rest of the cast outside of Will, become three dimensional. I believed this was coming because the internet was obsessing over her.
After finishing the show, I am astonished that Barb has become such an icon. She’s a bit character, a throwaway. As a character, she’s got a likeable foundation with no fleshed out personality at all: she literally has six minutes of screentime in an eight hour story, and those six minutes all take place within the first two hours. What we have here isn’t even a character, but a trope: the nerdy best friend. She is a catalyst for a more interesting character’s arc, that character being Nancy Wheeler.
At the start of the show, both Barb and Nancy are tropes: Barb is the nerdy best friend with high morals, and Nancy is the nerdy hot girl with unrealized popular potential. As is often the case with the Nancy-types of the 80s film era, that potential can only be realized by dating the super hot hunk at school, a trope filled by Steve in Stranger Things.
Now, Stranger Things could have left these tropes as is and still have been a good show that pays adequate homage to the storytelling motifs of 80s high school, sci-fi, and horror films. What elevates the series, for me, is the way the show organically has its characters grow beyond the tropes they begin with.
Well, except for Barb. She dies a trope.
Barb’s death sets in motion the character arc that sees Nancy shed her trope and become a fully realized, three dimensional character: a teenage feminist badass that rises above the pretty girl of horror movies.
Barb dies early for the same reason Will gets abducted immediately: they’re both non-characters, each defined by their relationships with other people. Will’s abduction kickstarts the series, as his brother, mother, and friends begin their frantic search for him. Barb’s death brings Nancy out of the high school boyfriend drama storyline and into the action/horror/supernatural storyline.
And it’s here, in the genre storytelling, that Nancy gets to shine. Nancy develops her own strong sense of agency, leading her own investigation, and by the end of the season, she’s the one with the gun, standing bravely and battling the Demogorgon. Somehow, celebrating this character development has been shelved by the fanbase in favor of mourning Barb.
In Stranger Things’ fourth episode, “The Body,” Nancy is frustrated that the male cops interrogating her about Barb’s disappearance are far more interested in subtly slut-shaming Nancy for sleeping with Steve than they are with actually doing anything to locate Barb. “This is bullshit!” Nancy shouts at her mother regarding how she’s being treated, and boy oh boy do I agree.
There is a very prominent criticism in genre storytelling called “fridging,” a term coined by comics writer Gail Simone. The terms originates from a comic book in which the superhero Green Lantern finds his girlfriend, Alexandra, stuffed in his refrigerator. She was murdered and left there by the villain Major Force (lame name, lamer character) for Green Lantern to find, and her murder spurs him into action. Gail Simone wrote heavily about the trope of using violence against women, specifically murdering them, in order to give a male character pathos or motivation.
Much of the criticism surrounding Barb’s death is rooted in the notion that she was fridged. On paper, I see how the criticism holds water, but I think it’s worth challenging.
Firstly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I find it extremely hard to consider Barb a character at all. My friend George once referred to her as “more aesthetic plot device than character,” and that’s an assessment I can get behind. Much of Barb’s appeal is derived entirely from her fashion sense — really, it’s the only thing fans have to latch onto, since she’s on screen for less than ten minutes and has barely any lines at all. Barb is visually interesting, and her aesthetic accentuates her brief appearance and makes her memorable.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Barb isn’t murdered to spur a male character into action. Her death motivates Nancy, a female character badly needing extra dimension in order to rise above her problematic placement as the pretty but shy girl next door type. Killing off Barb in order to create a female character with agency, motivations outside of men, courage, and insecurities — in other words, a layered character — in a genre sorely lacking these types of women is, in my view, well worth it.
Much has been written about how killing off Barb is nerd-shaming, but I think the reaction to criticize Nancy as some shit friend (instead of championing her overall character development) is equally shaming. Attacking Nancy’s decision to try and date the popular boy Steve — a character who undergoes his own surprising amount of growth to escape the popular asshole trope— feels like shaming Nancy for having sexual desire.
Think that’s a stretch? I think not. Barb gets murdered while Nancy is losing her virginity, and to look at that moment and criticize is to objectively shame Nancy for wanting to get laid over hanging out with her friend.
Because Nancy has sex, yes, and then immediately is looking for Barb the next morning and afternoon. She didn’t abandon Barb as a friend; she was looking for a night to satisfy her own sexual cravings. Frankly, I don’t think we’d see that same criticism if Nancy was a male character trying to get laid, but as soon as we give female characters sexual agency — because God forbid we acknowledge that women want to fuck, too — I notice that people online look for any reason to attack said character.
And really, that’s my whole issue with this #JusticeForBarb thing — it’s reactionary and not very well thought out. Instead of focusing on celebrating Stranger Things for gifting us with Nancy, a female character with a wonderfully thought out character arc, we are instead criticizing the show for killing off a minor character a quarter of the way through its runtime.
Ideally, we could feasibly have both, right? We could have a group of fans lamenting the death of Barb because for whatever reason — aesthetics, empathy, etc. — they connected with her within her six minutes of screentime, and we could also have those same fans praising Nancy’s transition from two-dimensional character trope to fleshed out character. Unfortunately, I don’t think the current #JusticeForBarb movement allows for those two ideas to coexist: shaming Nancy or, at the very least, attempting to diminish her character, is built into that hashtag’s ideology.
With season two of Stranger Things premiering late tonight on Netflix, my hope is that we can move out from under the shadow of Barb. Personally? I want to finally get justice for Nancy.