How did you spend your Halloween weekend this year?
If you’re anything like my housemates and I, you spent it eating fun-size candy bars and watching Stranger Things 2, and then spent the following three weeks talking about it. I’ve talked about it with friends, classmates, family, co-workers. We’ve talked about Eleven’s bitchin’ new look and how Blake Shelton totally stole the Sexiest Man Alive title from Jim Hopper. We’ve talked about how Steve Harrington is a great mother, and how Winona Ryder truly is a goddess among mortals.
But we haven’t talked about the show’s diversity, and we really should.
The cast features women and racial minorities, but is still primarily white and male. The show’s four leading women are multidimensional and interesting, although, as A.V. Club notes, their story arcs often orbit around a man’s narrative. It isn’t as diverse as other Netflix originals like Orange is the New Black and Sense 8, but it certainly isn’t as bad as legions of network hits that came before it. In a nutshell, Stranger Things isn’t the best nor the worst series in terms of diversity, but it’s missteps are still worth discussing.
First and foremost, we need to talk about Lucas. Portrayed by Caleb McLaughlin, Lucas is the only black main cast member. Right off the bat, this could be viewed as tokenism, a shallow effort to make the show appear more inclusive than it is. But even more problematic is the fact that Lucas’ purpose on the show isn’t simply to create the illusion of diversity, it’s specifically to create challenges for our white heroes. Mike and Eleven (but mostly Eleven) are designed to be likeable. They have the most developed backstories of the young characters on the show, they’re constantly looking out for each other, and their relationship is refreshingly innocent and positive.
But then there’s Lucas. During the first season, he’s constantly suggesting that he and his friends tell their parents about the mysterious telekinetic tween girl hiding out in Mike’s basement, and on paper, this is a reasonable and logical idea. However, we as audience members have seen firsthand how dangerous a notion this is, making us feel less understanding of his logic, and more frustrated by the threat he poses.
To make matters worse, he isn’t just skeptical of Eleven’s introduction to his rag-tag friend group. He vehemently dislikes her. He constantly questions her intentions, at one point calling her a monster and getting in a physical altercation with Mike over the comment.
Most of the people I’ve spoken to about Lucas are indifferent at best, but many simply don’t like him, and it’s hard to blame them.
Eleven is a much more developed character designed for us to love, root for, and want to protect. She’s a survivor, and in her we see an emotional and vulnerable layer that we don’t get to see in Lucas.
In season two, Lucas is given a much better story arc: he plays a more prominent role in the group’s defeat of the demadogs, he’s given a love interest and doesn’t lose her to a love triangle featuring his white friend, and although his interactions with Eleven are minimal, his conflict with her seems to be in the past.
Yet he’s still given significantly less screen time than his white counterparts, and he’s quite literally not central to the action or the heart of the show. While Max is drugging her abusive stepbrother and Dustin is raising a carnivorous slug monster as a literal pet, Lucas is often little more than a tagalong, and is never really in the middle of the action. Likewise, while most characters have compelling non-romantic relationships (Mike and Will have some tear-jearking heart-to-hearts, Steve and Dustin are a match made in lovable sidekick Heaven, and Eleven and Hopper are the emotional crux of the whole season), he pretty much just has his middle school crush.
It’s also important to note that his white friend Dustin also has crush on said love interest Max. By the end of the season, Lucas has “won” the love triangle, leaving Dustin dateless at the Snow Ball and in actual tears. Nancy swoops in to save the night and his dignity, but it’s another move that makes it harder to look at Lucas as anything but a walking, talking barrier to happiness for the white characters on the show.
That isn’t to say that McLaughlin doesn’t have the acting chops of his cast mates, or that there’s nothing interesting about his character. It just means that future seasons are really going to have do better to flesh out his storylines, trust McLaughlin’s acting abilities, and ask is he doing anything else in this scene but making things harder for white people?
Eight (portrayed by Danish newcomer Linnea Berthelsen) is one of the other scarce minority characters on the show, and once again, her character arc falls into the same dilemma. Most audience members seemed to think her brief story line (she’s featured in just three episodes) was a weird and pointless interruption to the series, and once again it’s a stance that’s hard to argue with. Eight promises Eleven she’s found a sister, but then ends up exploiting her powers and using her to exact revenge on the people who had kept her captive. Both women have faced horrific trauma at the hands of Hawkins lab, but it’s suggested that these experiences strengthened Eleven’s moral compass, while leaving Eight blinded by revenge and retribution.
The writers had an opportunity to have these two women explore their shared pain and heal alongside one another, instead they told a story of exploitation and bitter revenge. There are so many questions the writing staff could have used this story to approach, questions about loving abusers and forgiving them, whether they deserve it or not. In one of her cruelest moments, Eight forces Eleven to see a hallucination of “Papa”, the Hawkins scientist who both raised Eleven and kept her captive. Eight didn’t seem to have a similar connection to him, which could have been used to suggest Eleven and Eight were subject to very different treatment at Hawkins, possibly because of race. Once again, this was a missed opportunity on the writers’ part. Ultimately, Eight ends her season two arc the way she began it, as a troublemaker who uses her power for evil.
It all poses an important question: does representation matter if your characters of colour are going to be represented as unlikable?
Representing characters of colour isn’t the show’s only blunder. We also need to discuss Billy. Billy is another new character, and he’s basically a walk-through tutorial on how queer code your villians.
Billy is one of the most abusive and violent characters on the show: he’s incredibly cruel towards his stepsister Max, his warning for her to stay away from Lucas was almost certainly racially charged, and he comes within an inch of beating Steve to death. For God’s sake, he comes close to running over three children just to torment Max. Towards the end of the season, it’s revealed that he’s learned these disgusting behaviours from his bigoted, verbally abusive father, but that doesn’t make it any easier to sympathize with him. He’s the absolute worst, and he’s also probably queer.
Essentially, queer coding is when writers and directors imply a character is queer based on stereotypes and associated behaviours, and this is often applied to villains (think Scar from The Lion King or Jafar from Aladdin). Billy may be a little more subtle, but his character does involve some LGBT stereotypes. His appearance and over-the-top fashion style are clearly important to him, he wears a single, dangly earring, and his interactions with Steve have pretty obvious sexual undertones (especially the shower scene, which feeds into a harmful and false narrative of gay men preying on straight men and being generally creepy towards them). But the most telling detail of all is the fact that his father mocks him with an anti-gay slur, a detail that I doubt the writing team would have kept unless it was actually important. Lots of audience members have seemed to notice the one-sided tension between Billy and Steve, and some on social media have already started shipping them (which, guys, please don’t do, for hopefully obvious reasons).
Ultimately, it looks as though the writers aren’t planning on having Billy officially come out, and they probably think his sexual ambiguity is a clever Easter egg for only the most attentive fans to notice.
Amidst all of this, there’s a lot that Stranger Things gets right, and that’ll be discussed in my next article. Overall, it feels like the writing staff doesn’t want to tell racist or homophobic stories or minimize anyone’s role on the show. They have definitely written some complex and interesting characters, and they even wrote in actor Gaten Matarazzo’s disability, something that had kept him from getting roles in the past. But at the end of the day, queer coding is a far cry from LGBT representation, and both women and characters of colour on this show deserve more than the stories they’re being given.
Ultimately, I’m still a fan of the show despite its shortcomings, and the show doesn’t have to be this way. Stranger Things 3 can definitely be as diverse and inclusive as it strives to be, as long as the Duffer Brothers, Shawn Levy and the writing team are willing to listen to their audience.