Consumer Nostalgia, Boyhood, and The Female Plot Device: An Ode to Barb

18 Oct

Mass-market, consumerbarb cultural nostalgia tends to skew male because the male perspective has been so dominant in the past. I am thinking herein of Louis C.K.’s joke regarding time travel while being white and male (though all groups closest to the normate would fit) as much easier than being a woman or African American—or being queer, trans, disabled, etc.—as white men would be accepted in and treated well in just about any time period. It does seem as if mainstream (marketable) nostalgia focuses on men. Just about every allusion constructed in Stranger Things refers to a story dominated not by men but by boys: The Goonies, Stand by Me, even ET. Sure, there are girls, even interesting girls, in these stories, but the primary focus that is packaged generically as childhood is, in fact, boyhood. What I’m saying here is that the default for consumer nostalgia seems, also, to be male.

Although Istranger-things-characters did enjoy Stranger Things, the critique of the female characters of the story is necessary. We have almost no models of truly feminine strength. We have Winona Ryder’s character, Will’s mother, as a paragon of motherly strength, but we’ve always had male reverence for motherly–especially the mothers of men–virtue. Then we have Nancy, who is strong and independent, but she is also punished for being sexual (losing her “innocence”) by losing a friend–again, this is a narrative of women we’ve all seen before in horror. Then we have the generic, bitchy Carol, the (forgettable) girlfriend of Steve’s best frenemy. It speaks volumes that many fans of the show cannot even remember her name. Finally, we have Barb who everyone, including her mother, seems to forget about the instant she’s gone. Barb serves as more plot device than person. She is the living embodiment of the payment for Nancy’s sins. Barb’s only real purpose in the story is to guilt Nancy into a head-on confrontation with the “demigorgon.” It seems apropos that one would picture Barb as a waffle—the confections preferred by Ele—because she has no more purpose than one of Ele’s beloved Egos… she’s loved, but she’s expendable.

We do have Ele. Eleven is an awesome character, but in Stranger Things she’s cast in the ET role–she’s a stranger in a strange land for many reasons, but mostly because she’s a girl playing with the boys. What’s more, the newest critique of the stronger more  of even the modern story applies here. Ele is more competent, saves the heroes, but does not get to lead the story herself—in this way, she is much like Nancy. Nancy, too, is competent enough to figure out the demigorgon’s attraction to blood, encourages a confrontation with the monster, and saves Jonathan Byers when he freezes as the monster attacks, but she is captured by the demigorgon just as Ele is captured by the “bad men.”

magician4Don’t get me wrong, I like Stranger Things. However, I don’t think this is a problem indicative of Stranger Thing‘s inherent sexism, or even the sexism of film. Instead, I think it’s an interesting indication of the sexism inherent in consumer nostalgia via the cultural representation of our sexist notions from the past.



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