Heads up, we'll be talking SPOILERS for the whole first season of Stranger Things. You should really finish it already.
Thanks to wandering_dinosaur for sharing this amazing theory about Barb!
Many viewers have expressed their frustration and outrage over the death of Barb. She was a good friend to Nancy, a lovable character, and an innocent young life. On the surface, her brutal on-screen killing by the Demogorgon seems like a bizarre, sadistic travesty.
However, Barbs death is actually a powerful rejection of the weirdly old-fashioned conservatism and misogyny that undergird even modern horror.
We must first understand that Barb mainly exists to symbolize Nancys virginity. When Nancy and Barb are first shown together onscreen, it becomes apparent that until recently, they have been on the same page regarding sex and attraction to boys: such things are taboo. However, Nancy is starting to deviate from this attitude. She reveals to Barb that she recently made out with Steve, which is clearly groundbreaking for either of them. (In a later scene, Nancy again makes out with Steve.) Barb reacts with chiding disbelief: what is Nancy doing, drifting towards such new and perhaps scary sexual experiences?
The rift widens dramatically when Nancy brings Barb along to Steves house party. In the car, Barb disapprovingly speculates that Steve wants to get into Nancys pants. Although Nancy denies this, the fact that she bought a new bra for the occasion belies her true intention: she is ready for sex.
At the party, Steve shotguns a beer and invites Nancy to do the sameshe does. Nancy in turn invites Barb, who is clearly not having a good time, to do so as well. After much prodding, Barb reluctantly attempts to follow Steve and Nancys example, but she instead cuts her hand and returns to moping. Ill return to the significance of this scene.
After some impromptu swimming (guess who doesnt participate), Nancy follows Steve inside to change out of her wet clothes and warm up by the fire. Barb, irritated, insists that she and Nancy leave; its getting late. Barb is obviously aware that her friend ...
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is on the brink of sex. At this crucial moment, Nancy dismisses Barbs concerns and tells her to go home alone. The choice is madenot only to separate from Barb, but to explore her sexual options with Steve.
Finally, the big scene: as Barb sulks at the pool outside Steves house, adhering awkwardly to her non-partying, virgin ways, Nancy initiates sex with Steve inside. This is the first time that Nancy and Barb have not appeared onscreen together.
At this point, we watch a series of cuts between Nancys first sexual experience and Barbs descent into the Upside Down, where she is brutally killed at the hands/mouth of the Demogorgon. It is plainly obvious, due to the nature of these back-and-forth cuts, that there is some relationship between Nancys sex and Barbs death. The more Nancy seems to relish the sex, the louder Barb screams and struggles.
Lets examine some patterns in this timeline. Nancys path from virginity to sex precisely parallels her abandonment of Barb. Every interaction between Barb and Nancy, from the lockers to the pre-party to the beer, revolves around their increasingly heated disagreement over sex and boys, and every time Nancy drifts further from Barb, she drifts away from her virgin tendencies to the same degree. In abandoning Barb and going upstairs with Steve, Nancy also abandons her virginity. The two decisions are unified in a single actfunctionally, the same decision. Most importantly...
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the instant Nancy has sex with Steve, Barb not only dies, but vanishes completely from Nancys life. After sex with Steve, Nancy attempts to find Barb, but she can never get Barb back. Just like Nancys virginity, Barb is gone, and Nancy shows feelings of panic and regret about both Barbs disappearance and her relationship with Steveespecially after Steves slut-shaming, which itself has complex ties to Nancys sex life, as perceived by Steve.
In short, Nancys every decision regarding sex is reflected in her relationship with Barb. Barb is thus a symbol of Nancys virginityits prudish, physical manifestation.
Now is an appropriate time to examine the pattern of tropes surrounding female sexuality in horror films. For reference, I am mostly drawing from the following TV Tropes articles:
- Virgin Power: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VirginPower
- Final Girl: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FinalGirl
- Death by Sex: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeathBySex
- Sex is Evil: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SexIsEvil
- A Man is Not a Virgin: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AManIsNotAVirgin
In horror films, especially slasher flicks, female virginity is equated with conservative ideas of moral purity, while female sexuality is equated with base moral failings. Sexually active females are typically punished for their behavior with death or similarly grave consequences, while virgins survive longer, possibly through being more resilient and resourceful. In some cases, as in the Final Girl trope, the virgin is the only survivor of a monsters onslaught, and finally secures victory in the climax sequence.
Virgins are typically portrayed as...
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modest in dress and habit, kind, and overall really great. On the other hand, their sexually active counterparts wear revealing (slutty) clothes, go to bed easily, may be stupid, and have less reserved personalities. Of the two, virgins are less likely to drink or smoke. (Recall the beer scene.)
Problems abound when we attempt to fit Barb and Nancy into this framework. There are some easy calls: between the two, Barb is to some degree the virgin stereotype. She dresses modestly, has a prudish (morally pure) attitude about sex and alcohol, and doesnt go in for free-spirited night swimming. So, the conventional narrative about virgins in a horror movie is running along smoothlythat is, until it runs into the brick wall of Barbs sudden death and completely falls apart. The virgin isnt supposed to die! A rule is clearly being broken here.
Let us turn now to Nancy. While she obviously is becoming sexually active, its hard to label her as the conventional horror bimbo. She starts out almost as prudish as Barb. Yes, she shotguns a beer, but its a new experience to her. She has sex with Steve, but unlike the casual romp of a blond horror-movie slut stereotype, the sex is very new and emotionally profound for her. Most importantly, despite having sexa crime punishable by death in many horror storiesshe survives the entire series, becoming one of the main heroes.
Barb, the virgin, is killed, while Nancy, the sexually active teenager, helps beat the monster.
The conventional rules of female sexuality in horror are being flouted here, and frankly, its about time. After all, what do these rules teach young women? That sex is dangerous and unacceptablebut only for them, and not men? (Granted, sometimes both sex partners in horror movies bite the dust because of their acts. Nevertheless, the stereotype is much more intense for female characters.) Should we really accept that the only way to be a moral person is to avoid sex? And as for the morals themselves, we find...
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genuine traits of kindness and integrity (or the lack thereof) bundled with ridiculously conservative and superficial notions about substance use and how reserved or talkative a female character should be. These are terrible standards of decent behavior; one can be a morally upright person who enjoys being outgoing and who likes to drink and/or smoke. To me, these stereotypes have laughable signs of patriarchal repression written all over them.
Stranger Things teaches vastly different lessons, and the most important one is that as a young woman, its okaymaybe even necessaryto kill your virginity. Its a normal part of life, and you can be a decent person afterwards. Though it is sometimes painful, Nancy learns a lot about her romantic partner after sex and its related dramas. She gains fresh independence after leaving Barb and her virginity behind, ultimately summoning the nerve to strike out against a trans-dimensional, man-eating monster. Another lesson: new experiences can help you explore who you are as a person and test new boundaries. This may come in the form of learning big life lessons and slaying your monsters, or it may be little things. Often, youll find it quite enjoyable to breach your comfort zone. Drinking a beer with friends can be fun. Sex can be fun.
Stranger Things brings horror into the twenty first century by shattering the bonds between abstinence and moral superiority. Barb, who we are led to believe has more integrity and principle because of her aversion to sex, is not rewarded as she might be in the typical horror film. In fact, she is killed for sitting on the sidelines, having failed to shotgun a beer (the blood from this failure literally drawing the monster), while her friend has sex. In this context, its not Barb being destroyed, but the thing Barb represents: a hard-line, unequivocal link between abstinence and the moral high ground. If this seems like a rather harsh way to break the mold, perhaps that is because the mold needs a good, bloody ker-thwacking.
When Nancy says her final good-bye to Barb, she also invites the audience to consider a more realistic and nuanced woman in the horror genre: dynamic and sometimes flawed instead of one-dimensionally upright, this character can represent not only virginity and sexuality but also the struggle between them. As a young hero, she can explore her sexuality in ways that are not central to the main struggle, but that help her mature emotionally in order to face it.