Nancy, Robin, and Stranger Things' Problem With Female Characters
Written by Sarah W.
This review contains spoilers for season 3, episode 7 of Stranger Things. If you do not wish to see spoilers for this episode, please use caution. We warned you.
With all of its 80s nostalgia, Stranger Things has kept one negative trope from the time period it seeks to emulate especially prominent- its reluctance to show women fight for themselves outside of their relationships to the men in their lives. For an ensemble show centered around a young girl with superpowers, its first two seasons keep their women far from their own narratives. In fact, season two traps its four main female characters (Eleven, Joyce, Nancy, and Max) within love triangles, while allowing the male characters their own arcs and development.
This isn’t to say that the women of Stranger Things haven’t had their moments. The beginning of the second season has a particularly strong storyline where Nancy connects with the parents of her deceased friend Barb, and finally allows herself to break down, and realize her place in the lives of everyone hurt by the tragedy. It’s in these moments of honesty, usually reserved for members of the D&D party, that allow the characters to shine through, and in that moment, Nancy is not the boys fighting over her affections, or her brother and his friends who look up to her, but a teenage girl grieving over her best friend, lost in what to do next.
Nancy has always been a polarizing character with fans. Season 1 Nancy became a fan favorite when she started to shed her innocent persona, and entered the world of boys, parties, and supernatural horrors. But season 2 Nancy fell victim to tirades of hate when her drawn out love triangle plot-line ended with her breaking ultimate internet favorite Steve Harrington’s heart, and dropped her connection to Barb in favor of a romance of Johnathan Byers, losing quite possibly the only storyline between women in the show at the time. Nancy went from a character the audience loved to relate to, to the subject of constant articles about poor writing, wasted potential, and enraged rants from publications as large as Vice stemming from a newfound distaste for her character. The closest thing to a positive article at the top of a Google search for the character is a slew of posts about her hairstyle changes, hardly an interpretation of the character at all.
And it’s not like the other Stranger Things women got to stand on their own either. Joyce was always only seen through her sons, her relationship with poor, dead Bob, and the much-discussed flirtations with Police Chief Hopper. Max and Eleven are thrown into a rivalry over boys, seemingly the Duffer Brothers’ way of keeping to the ‘one girl per group’ rule. Kali is the closest to being free of the endless love triangles and mother-son relationships, but her episode is a sideshow attraction so far removed from Hawkins that fans have all but struck it from the show’s canon.
And then came Robin. Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington’s snarky co-worker at his job scooping ice cream, Maya Hawke’s newcomer Robin gets to shine on her own. Much like Nancy, she was discussed as a love interest for Steve from the moment she appeared in the trailers. Unlike Nancy, Robin became an instant fan-favorite, and her ‘save-the-day’ storyline isn’t just to become close to a new boyfriend. Robin is smart, funny, and wants to see something new outside of the everyday mundanity of her summer job. Her favorite movie is The Apartment, is stuck in a dead-end job for the summer, and immediately subverts our expectations by not fawning over Steve. She jumps at the chance to crack a Russian code Dustin hears over the radio, because nothing else is a better distraction than a good puzzle.
Mocking Steve at every turn, Robin completes Steve’s transformation from generic jock/pretty-boy to role model for the younger kids. More importantly, Robin fills Steve’s need for a friend her own age. Despite spending so much time with Steve, she still remains distinctly different from him. She wasn’t like Steve in high school; a member of the marching band who speaks at least four languages, she represents a different side of Hawkins’ teenage cast than the teenage elite of Steve and Nancy. Her ‘not like the other girls’ reminders could easily grow tiring if not used for a good reason, but during a conversation with Steve while being tortured in a top-secret Russian base, more and more hidden depths are revealed.
Early on, we are constantly reminded that Robin is an ‘outsider’. Unlike Johnathan, she’s not particularly a loner type, and has easily attracted the affections of the former king of Hawkins High. It remains a mystery why we are constantly reminded of these differences; after all, hasn’t the show spent the past couple seasons tearing down the social barriers between its endless cast of characters? However, once Steve and Robin are captured and tortured miles underground, the emotional walls we’ve scarcely confronted around Robin begin to fall down. In an initial moment of vulnerability, she confesses her desire “to be accepted, to be normal”. She says that her whole life has felt like a mistake, and Steve, reeling over his past mistakes, agrees. But they’re operating on very different frequencies. Steve is beginning to confront how shallow he was, while Robin is on the cusp of trusting him with her biggest secret, for once, a moment isn’t about romantic love, but the platonic kind.
Not that this scene isn’t initially read as romantic. Robin describes her obsession with Steve, but it feels slightly off. Her obsession feels almost too jealous, and impersonal when she describes Steve. She admits to envying his place on top as the object of the world’s affections, and even Steve thinks it’s an admission of potential teenage romance.
It’s not until the two are coming down off of the effects of the truth serum in the bathroom of a movie theater does the truth come pouring out. Steve confesses his crush on her, and in the rawest, realest scene in the show, Robin rests her head in her arms, shudders, and falls silent. It’s a moment of fear and loneliness, the isolation in the moment before telling the truth. Steve asks her how she feels, and she begins gently, claiming that Steve hardly knows her, and trying to push him away as softly as possible, fearing how he’ll react if she tells the truth, claiming he won’t want to be her friend if he really knew her. And in that moment, even the most oblivious viewer begins to realize: Robin’s a closeted lesbian.
She tells the truth slowly, and it’s clear Steve’s the first person she’s told. We find out that Robin couldn’t stop watching Steve, not because she liked him, but because her crush, Tammy Thompson, was always staring at him. Steve doesn’t realize at first what she means, stuttering “But Tammy Thompson’s a girl” before going silent. In this moment, a thousand emotions flash before her eyes; she has no idea how he’ll react to the rejection; after all, this is the notoriously homophobic 80s. Will he be disgusted, angry, or worse- violent (after all, she’s seen him knock out a soldier)? But after a moment of silence, he’s calm; after all, this is hardly the most shocking thing in Hawkins, Indiana. Steve cracks a joke, and the two begin to sing in a muppet voice as Steve jokes about Robin’s taste in girls; a moment of fear has become a moment of tender acceptance. Not only is this proof of the show’s growth in writing women outside of their husbands and boyfriends, but it’s incredibly validating for viewers like me who’ve felt the same way as Robin does curled up on the bathroom floor, scared to admit who they are.
Robin’s storyline leads the pack of the Stranger Things women standing on their own for the first time. The coupling of the younger kids is quickly dispersed, leading to the rivalry between El and Max to finally let up, and lead to a friendship that is one of the season’s defining moments. Nancy gets her own storyline as a journalist, fighting to be taken seriously in the working world. A conversation between the women of the Wheeler family is especially great, finally bringing parents other than Joyce into the mix, as well as discussing the misogyny of the world directly.
While the series still has a long way to go when it comes to representation (Hawkins is still incredibly white), season 3 takes great strides to allow its female characters to lead their own storylines. Robin is a shining example on how no matter the time period, gay characters exist, and can be major players in a story. Not only that, but she’s the best-written woman in a series that is slowly improving on its male-centric narrative with each season (now, if only they’d give her a last name…).