Thursday, 1 September 2016

Barb V Nancy: Why not both?

***Contains spoilers for Stranger Things!***

So like most of the world (it feels), I watched Stranger Things when it launched in July and I loved it. I love the 80s vibe, I love the story, the characters, the themes, the potential future plot threads...Everything. I've loved the fan theories about the show and I was really excited when season two was confirmed earlier this week. I can't wait to see where the story goes next, and what the fallout from season one will be for everyone. I'm not a huge TV watcher, so for something to really capture my imagination like this is a big deal for me. I get invested and excited and passionate, and I want to seek out opinions and information and theories and just really immerse myself in it all.

And I've done that with Stranger Things, and in doing so found something that irked me at first. And the more I've thought about it, the more it's gone from being irksome to aggravating.

It's Barb and Nancy.

So, let's start with who Barb and Nancy are. Nancy is the older sister of Mike Wheeler (one of the show's key protagonists). She's shown to be a serious student entering that weird liminal teenage stage where boys are kinda interesting, brothers are kinda annoying, and parents are kinda restrictive. Barb is her best friend, the quintessentially bookish, awkward kid who maybe isn't developing the same way Nancy is, and is starting to sense a strain in their friendship because of it. They're both well-drawn, relatable characters. And they are friends. Best friends, who share secrets and look out for each other - not always in the best way, but hey, they're teenagers. If you never made a bad decision as a teenager, please applaud yourself now. Maybe they wouldn't be best friends forever in real life, but in the confined space of this TV series, they are.

So why are memes like this everywhere?

Huh? What's up with that, apart from the misplaced apostrophe? What's wrong with Nancy? What did Nancy do to deserve to end up as the default "bad one" in that pairing?

Well, let's see where Barb and Nancy go from the status quo they start out in as Stranger Things begins.

Nancy is being courted by Steve Harrington. On the surface he's the stereotypical bad boy: arrogant, bullish, and only interested in getting into Nancy's pants. He's popular, cool, attractive, etc, etc. You know this guy. He's every new adult/young adult hero ever. Barb worries that Nancy's tentative relationship with Steve will threaten their friendship, and (in my opinion) she worries that Steve will hurt Nancy. So there's tension there, not helped by the fact that Nancy is definitely receptive to Steve.

I get that. I was a Barb at school - bookish, awkward, introverted, and with a tendency to compensate for what I saw as my personality faults by being outlandish and weird in social situations. I fiercely prized my friendships because I didn't have many, and I was hurt when they fell apart. I so get Barb.

In episode two, Nancy and Barb go to a party at Steve's, where the rift between them (caused by Barb's discomfort and Nancy's failure to understand it, among other things) is obvious. It's clear Nancy and Steve are headed for sexy times, and it's clear Barb hates this, and I could write a million words on why I think that is, but the bottom line is this: Barb is uncomfortable and Nancy tells her to go home.

Barb doesn't. Barb sits by Steve's pool, probably worrying about Nancy and the fact that they've lied about where they are that night, and possibly wondering what's wrong with her that Nancy prefers Steve and his douchey friends to her all of a sudden. (I was Barb. I'm pretty sure this is what she was thinking, and Barb, there was nothing wrong with you).

Anyway. Barb then gets dragged into a parallel dimension by a hideous monster. This is where Barb and I diverge.

And you know what? Once Nancy realises Barb is gone, she devotes every ounce of herself to finding her friend. She puts that fledgling relationship with Steve aside, teams up with potential-stalker Jonathan Byers, and she gets shit done. She pieces together clues nobody else found. She finds Barb's abandoned car. She gets out in the monster-infested woods and looks for Barb. She follows a trail of blood through a portal in a tree and finds herself in another dimension. She escapes a monster. She heroes up, kits herself out with a ton of army surplus gear and resolves to go kill that monster.

My friendships were important to me, but I don't think I would have taken on an actual monster over any of them.

Nancy did. Nancy's great. So where is the Barb V Nancy dynamic coming from? Is Nancy getting hate because she has a boyfriend and has sex with him? For prioritising that first sexual encounter over her friend's comfort levels? Sure, that wasn't the most thoughtful moment of her life, but again...if you never made a thoughtless choice as a teenager, applaud yourself now.

Maybe it's just that more people watching saw themselves in Barb than in Nancy. And I get that - representation is important and people want to see themselves in our media. But you can relate to Character A without throwing Character B under the bus, and I think you should definitely not be pitting Characters A and B against each other if they're both girls. You know what memes I'm not seeing? "In a world full of Steves/Jonathans, be a Jonathan/Steve." Because men aren't pitted against each other in quite the same way that women are. They just aren't. You might be asked to pick between Captain American and Iron Man, but it's not going to be worded in such a way that you feel bad about your choice. In Civil War, Steve and Tony were presented as ideologically at odds, but neither was presented as The Bad Pick. Fan wars will rage forever over whether you should be Team Cap or Team Stark, but Nancy and Barb? That's boiled down to this:

Nancy is a slut because she has a boyfriend and Barb is superior because she doesn't? I don't know. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but that's what it seems to boil down to. And the fact that Nancy searches desperately for her friend, and puts her life on the line, is ignored because it's more fun to make girls fight than have them fight for each other. That's tiresome.

We can have both, you know. We can have girls on TV who are bookish and still finding themselves, and we can have girls who are ready for boyfriends and sex. We can have bookish girls who are ready for sex, even. We can have girls who are introspective and would really rather not go to the stupid fucking party, and girls who are social butterflies and want to get out there. We can have girls who are serious students and can swing a mean baseball bat when required. We can have girls who support each other even when they disagree with each other. We can have Barbs and Nancys, and both are valid and both are fine, and what we really need in a world full of Barbs and Nancys is for people to appreciate both the Barbs and the Nancys.

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