Warrior To Wallflower“Stranger Things” Shrinks Nancy Wheeler

Spoilers throughout for seasons one and two of Stranger Things.

Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) has emerged as the brainy, badass teenage heroine of Netflix’s hit sci-fi/fantasy series, Stranger Things. She’s an unusual character within the show’s entourage: She doesn’t have the superpowers of the ethereal Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and lacks the clear-cut motivation of Joyce (Winona Ryder), who channels motherly grief into a fierce, steely-eyed determination to find her missing son Will Byers (Noah Schnapp). Nancy is, by all appearances, an ordinary high school honor student, the suburban girl-next-door who can’t shake the feeling that something bad has happened when her friend Barb (Shannon Purser) goes missing—and not coincidentally—within days of Will’s disappearance.

Her quest to find out what happened to Barb—and eventually bring her friend’s killer to justice—transforms Nancy from wallflower to warrior. She trains for battle by swinging a baseball bat and shooting a gun, willingly wriggles into another dimension, and rigs an ingenious fire trap to lure a Demogorgon monster from the dark realm of the Upside Down. It’s Nancy who figures out that the monster has a taste for blood—and it’s Nancy who slices open her palm with a steady hand, ready to face the Demogorgon’s wrath. But in season two, Nancy is less concerned with fighting villains and more focused on male affection and approval. In a series that’s broken fresh ground in writing strong roles for girls and women, the creators of Stranger Things are sending a curious mixed message: Girls can kill fantasy monsters, but they’re still beholden to the lure of human horror—men.

Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery in Stranger ThingsPhoto courtesy of Netflix (Left to right: Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things)

In season one, Nancy defied television tropes of heterosexual “smart girls” and shocked both her mother and Barb by sleeping with school stud Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) after only a few dates. We rarely see the smart girl initiate sex in high school dramas, let alone walk home the next morning without obsessing over whether the guy’s into her. But unbeknownst to Nancy, there’s an audience on the night she has sex with Steve: Her reclusive classmate, Will’s older brother Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), lurks in the woods nearby, and photographs Nancy in her underwear. This is clearly stalking, but Jonathan doesn’t seem to harbor any sense of shame. And later, when Steve breaks Jonathan’s camera in retaliation for the photos, it’s Nancy who becomes the target for all of Jonathan’s misdirected rage.

With all the finesse of a modern-day pick-up artist, he berates Nancy for dating Steve, claiming that she has sealed her fate as a small-town nobody who will never go to college, leave their small Indiana town, or do better than a guy like Steve. Jonathan’s cruelty is a classic negging technique—delivered via a scathing monologue that the show never overtly challenges—and we quickly see Nancy’s confidence crumble beneath a teenage boy’s disapproving gaze. Often, in Jonathan’s presence, Nancy reverts to the role of traumatized child, eager for his platonic reassurance in the dark of her childhood bedroom. Whether she’s begging for him to stay the night on her floor after being chased by a monster, or letting him tuck her in at night after one too many trips to the punch bowl, we see Nancy repeatedly elevate Jonathan to the role of protector whenever she’s feeling vulnerable. But it’s never clear what Jonathan has done to redeem himself and earn Nancy’s trust.

By way of a mea culpa for his Peeping Tom behavior, Jonathan explains to Nancy that he “shouldn’t have done that,” much in the same way that serial predators in real life often obfuscate their misdeeds through vague, distancing language and nonapologies. In a fit of self-justification, he claims, “People don’t really say what they’re really thinking. But when you capture the right moment, it says more.” This quote is frequently interpreted by fans as a sign of Jonathan’s emotional depth, and perhaps his inability to fit into the straight-laced, small-minded environment of Hawkins, Indiana. What this fails to account for, however, is that no one owes Jonathan their real thoughts—his violation of Nancy’s privacy at a critical moment in her sexual awakening demonstrates that on some level, Jonathan believes he is entitled to know what other people are thinking and experiencing, even if the other person wouldn’t have shared that information with him under more consensual terms.

Natalia Dyer and Joe Keery in Stranger ThingsPhoto courtesy of Netflix (Left to right: Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler and Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things)

Nancy is supposed to be able to see through the machinations of a guy like Jonathan; throughout the first season, she’s highly intuitive and has an uncanny knack for figuring out exactly who to trust and what the next steps of the plan should be. But when it comes to Jonathan, her responses to his off-putting behavior reflect a curious mixture of pity and recognition: In her mind, he’s as much of a too-smart social misfit as she is, except he doesn’t have a pretty or popular partner to give him the kind of clout that dating Steve affords Nancy. Steve isn’t Nancy’s intellectual equal, and Jonathan, referred to as “Nancy’s other boyfriend,” seems a bit too eager to remind Nancy that she always has other choices. When she’s drunk at a party and filled with outrage at Steve’s cowardice (he was afraid of the police discovering that Barb went missing at his backyard pool party and later worries that telling Barb’s family what really happened to her will lead to swift retribution), Jonathan enters the party to the rock strains of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film,” a cheeky nod to his true nature.

Stranger Things seems to want to play it both ways—Jonathan’s behavior is disturbing, yes, but he’s not beyond the redemption that could surely be found through the love of someone like Nancy. And that’s why it’s so frustrating when seasons two seems to reward Jonathan the Perv’s creepiness with a scene straight out of the rom-com playbook: He and Nancy sleep in different rooms, only to wind up meeting in the hallway, making out, and spending the night together. It’s a genuine let down to see Nancy, a brilliant fighter in the making, choose a manipulative, boundary-crossing guy like Jonathan.

The creepy voyeur seemingly “gets the girl” because the mechanics of the show’s plot require a love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. What if Nancy didn’t have to choose between two unsuitable guys? A more grown-up Nancy in season three won’t need a guy like Steve to make her feel popular or a “friend” like Jonathan to help her when she’s most afraid. Nancy’s truest expression of her power won’t come until she realizes that she doesn’t need either boy to get out of Hawkins—and that her romantic ties to Jonathan are bound to hold her back from becoming who she’s meant to be.

by Allison Mccarthy
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Allison McCarthy is a writer with a focus on personal essays, intersectional feminism and social justice.  Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian (U.K.), AlterNet, The Establishment, Vox, RogerEbert.com, Time.com, xoJane, DAME, Autostraddle, Ravishly, The Frisky, Medium.com (“Human Parts” series), Bitch, make/shift, Ms. (blog), Girlistic, YourTango, Hip Mama, Bustle, Global Comment, Role/Reboot, Shameless, The Feminist Wire, ColorsNW, The Baltimore Review and Hoax, as well as in several anthologies. A graduate of Goucher College and the Master of Professional Writing program at Chatham University, she currently lives in Maryland. She tweets at @allison_writes and her website is http://allisonmccarthy.net.

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