Here on the amazing feminist internet, we’ve given lots of extremely well-deserved kudos to Barbara Holland, AKA Barb, the unsung teenage heroine of Netflix’s new darling Stranger Things: a bingeworthy, eight-episode hit about a team of ragtag kids who save the day. Stranger Things taps into our inner ’80s child in a way that we haven’t really experienced since E.T. and The Goonies.
Many of us were Barb, or had a friend like Barb, in middle and high school (and, for some of us, into college… and maybe even presently). You know, the girl who may have been a little behind the rest of her classmates in terms of social interaction, but who was able to resist peer pressure and hold her own morals above all others. For these reasons, Barb is a grade-A badass.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have “Bra Girl” Nancy Wheeler: Barb’s BFF who ditches her at a house party so she can lose her virginity to a guy who is arguably not good enough for her. This has gotten Nancy a lot of flack, and understandably so, as that’s not the coolest move. But underneath this not-cool behavioral snafu, Nancy is just as realistic and flawed a character as the amazing Barb — if not more so.
(Warning: Spoilers for Stranger Things lie ahead of this sentence, so turn back if you must.)
For me, Nancy represents that stage of life when I wasn’t yet sure who I was — or who I wanted to be. I was so malleable; I didn’t know what consequences my actions really had yet. Should I date the popular guy even though he’s a jerk, a la Amanda Beckett from Can’t Hardly Wait? (I did this in 7th grade and learned my lesson, thankfully.) Should I drink a beer at this party like everyone else even though I abhor the taste of alcohol? Should I follow my heart and date this guy because I have feelings for him, even though he’s not cool? (Did that too, and it turned out fine – hear that, Nancy?)
But Nancy is so much more than a bad friend that all the boys seem to magically like.
As soon as she realizes she made a mistake by letting her hormones convince her to abandon her friend – something we have all done at some point in our lives, let’s be honest – she is on a life-or-death mission to find Barb.
Her quest sadly ends in learning she was too late, but the knowledge of Barb’s disappearance motivates her to grow — rather than sulk about what could have been. Nancy is not afraid to get her hands dirty with Jonathan in their journey to find their respective brothers, or discover what is lurking in the Upside Down and put a stop to it herself.
By the end of season 1, Nancy is a completely different character than who she appeared to be when she leaves poor Barb poolside to follow her sexual instincts in an early episode. And by the way, that is something that women are regularly far more shamed over than men.
Nancy also learns to put aside her own insecurities about school and crushes for the sake of a city that only sees her as a silly, hormonal teenage girl. She tirelessly researches methods for setting traps that Kevin McCallister would be proud of, and even masters shooting faster than Jonathan Byers can say, “Damn, girl.” Nancy Wheeler is basically the Ginny Weasley of Stranger Things.
But surprisingly, considering how much Nancy has matured throughout the course of just one month, she ends up going back to Steve. But, to be fair, he did kind of pull through at the end by helping kill the monster, and he did apologize to Nancy and Jonathan after saving their asses. While many would argue that this choice displays Nancy’s cowardice and/or weakness, I say it is reality. I say it is great writing.
Nancy Wheeler defines who she is, and doesn’t let an audience’s preconceived notions of who she should be dictate her journey.
When you’re a teenager – even a weapon-wielding, monster-killing one, as Nancy becomes – Monday mornings at school always come back.
And if I can remember anything about my teenage years as I’ve grown into a person who doesn’t care what others think, it’s that — at one time — I really did. And this realistic portrayal of teenagehood is just one of the many things that makes Stranger Things so relatable. It’s just like when magic is used in the Harry Potter series: as much as it may have fantastical elements, the real heart of this show is that its characters are still human.