Stranger Things Is Here, Queer and Definitely Set in the 1980s
Sometimes I find myself in wonderment at the sheer willful ignorance of the cishet audience at large. Sometimes that ignorance applies to creators too, though that’s trickier to prove. Today I want to talk about Stranger Things. Like many a queer, I’ve always been interested in science fiction and fantasy and seen myself in these stories. But I’m not sure I’ve related to anything quite so strongly in a while. Lately I’ve found myself pondering on its wider themes. I’m interested to see if the show is playing the long game here and if it is actually one giant queer metaphor, a gay love story at its core—or just another series that’s gonna choose not to carry out the story that has played out on our screens. Because really, we have been watching something queer.
Stranger Things indeed. I find myself lost in the queer messaging… there’s only been one explicitly queer character on the show and she’s arguably suffered much less than many characters on the show…
However, the three child/teen characters that have borne the brunt of the evil forces—Will, Barb, and Billy—have been presented with various level of queer coding…In season one, Will is abducted by a monster who then murders Barb and they’re both taken into the eerie alternate dimension called the “Upside Down,” a world that resembles our own, but dark, cold and where you’re alone except for the monsters…In the second season, Will is possessed by one of those monsters in the third season, it’s Billy’s turn.
Throughout the series, all three characters are visually gay coded; their physical appearances read “gay” by modern standards.
Will and Barb are shown to be jealous of their friends for spending time with the opposite sex. Will and Billy are called gay slurs. On the one hand, part of me finds the representation of queer childhood so relatable, so painful in a cathartic way. I read the beats of Will through each season and it’s, to quote Angels in America, "a blue streak of recognition"…
But I also think…is this where we really are, in 2019? Even for a show set in the 1980s, is it OK for all the queer coded kids to be dragged through the literal mud or worse? And I don’t think the show is trying to make some well-intentioned point that being in the closet is bad and that you should come out—or even that that’s an unintended take away. I don’t actually want these kids to come out in a big flashy way; I don’t think that’s realistic for when Stranger Things takes place. Further, it’s important to remember that Netflix isn’t just seen in places where we’re “beyond” that now. For instance, Turkey, where I live, just forced the company to agree to begin censoring its content.
The next thing I really want to talk about is quite divisive and the reason I almost didn’t want to write this essay. I don’t want to be involved in shipping in general and of children, specifically. I certainly don’t want to unintentionally sexualize them. Disclaimer out of the way, I do need to discuss the relationship between Mike and Will. I think at this point it’s been made clear that Will is besotted by Mike, whether he’s aware of that is up to us to decide. I will be very surprised if Will doesn’t have some sort of queer coming out at some point on the show, but I don’t see how you can deny his non-heterosexuality at this point.
Further, I’d say there’s a strong case to be made that Stranger Things is (at least partially) about the two boys’ love story. Just to skim the surface: Mike glommed onto a girl who looked like a boy while Will was missing…Will and Mike have a relationship that is separate from that of the whole friend group…Mike treats Will differently when they’re alone versus when they’re with the other boys…Mike uses a different voice to speak to Will.
I don’t know. It just all feels so familiar. Both as a queer person and a consumer of queer content. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but usually I’m not. It's important to remember that often what might not mean anything in real life is clear coding on television. Something that might be realistic or authentic in real life might read poorly on tv or vice versa. So, it's okay to read into what we think we're seeing. The real question is…Will they go there? 🤷♀️
I often encounter arguments against even just Will being queer, which at this point is a given for me…but add Mike to that?
Some of said arguments:
What they say: Will’s not gay.
What they mean: Will hasn’t come out.
Because it’s difficult for modern audiences to understand that queer stories aren’t just about coming out or being out; a child at that age, especially in the 1980s might take a minute or two to figure things out. Straight is not the default. It’s the norm, yes, but not the default.
What they say: Will just has PTSD and doesn’t want to grow up; he’s a late bloomer.
What they mean: This how I relate to Will. #nohomo
Great, but if you look really carefully, that’s not the story they’re telling. Plus, having PTS, not wanting to grow up, being a late bloomer? You can still be queer and all of the above.
What they say: Robin just came out. They wouldn’t have more than one gay character on the show.
What they mean: Robin just came out. I don’t want any more gay characters on this show.
Because of course there can be multiple queer characters on a show, especially since queer kids tend to gravitate towards one another, even (especially?) before they know-know.
What they say: Mike’s not gay.
What they mean: Mike kissed a girl on the show and my heteronormative brain can’t wrap around the possibility of confusion, compulsory heterosexuality, or—-get this—polysexuality. WOAH.
Because of course a child in the 1980s or any human being or character ever can’t ever date someone of the opposite sex before realizing they’re queer…or G-d forbid we try not to take everything at face value.
What they say: The production team is too straight to have crafted this story.
What they mean: I’ve been burned so much before I can’t let myself hope.
Because we don’t actually know where the main people behind Stranger Things fall on the spectrum and more to the point, I’d hope that one day we could reach the stage where that wouldn’t be the question.
I wish people would just be honest with the internet, with themselves. They don’t want Stranger Things to be about two boys being in love or even about one queer kid being in unrequited “gay” love. I'm not talking about people who freely admit to thinking homosexuality is a sin. No no no, these are the people who tell themselves they’re not homophobic. People who vote liberally, who support gay rights. They’re like the white people who get offended when you call them racist. But what they may or may not realize is that they like their gays Not Too Gay. In their eyes, if Will and/or Mike do turn out to be openly queer, Stranger Things will then become a “gay” show. It’ll be recommended as “it’s gay, but it’s really good.”
The show is apparently Netflix’s biggest cash cow. If this story unfolds as it's actually being told, I assume it’s happening in the last season. Stranger Things is a worldwide phenomenon and we, as a community, are not universally beloved. This is essentially a children’s show—or a family show, rather—at its heart. And I do think it will “go there” as it were, to some extent or another, but it’s a calculated move. It would be one of giving into story completely and getting a lot of love from a very small segment of the viewing audience. Fuck. Maybe we have gone back to the 1980s.