Last week, an article came out on Vice claiming the worst character in Stranger Things 2 is Nancy Wheeler. The article, penned by Vice UK writer Roisin Lanigan, reveals a bigger problem with the way we view male versus female characters. Men get away with (sometimes literal) murder but a woman commits an infraction as minor as hurting someone’s feelings, and she is raked through the mud. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Plenty of spoilers ahead.
A Case for Nancy Wheeler As a Complex Heroine
According to Lanigan, Nancy is worse than Dustin, who adopts a slime creature after a Demogorgon kidnaps one of his best friends. Worse than Mr. Wheeler, who personifies the toe lint you get after wearing wool socks. And worse than the aggressive, racist, mentally abusive, aspiring murderer Billy Mayfield.
Lanigan doesn’t mention these misdeeds, instead she slams the crown of “Hawkins Most Trash Human” on Nancy’s head for hurting poor Steve. The article reads like the burn book of a dude that uses the phrase “friend zone” seriously. Lanigan makes points which are either factually wrong (Nancy doesn’t laugh at Steve’s college essay…) or else don’t allow the character her teenage flaws (her advice to Dustin isn’t GREAT but that certainly doesn’t make her a misogynist).
Compare Nancy to male protagonists whose behavior we excuse or praise on other shows. Dexter, Hannibal, Sherlock, Walter White, any male character on Shameless, only to name a few. We forgive them for their crimes, doodle them in flower crowns, quote them, and wear their faces on t-shirts. The difference is clear. While men can be many things, women can only be good or bad. To make matters worse, we typically make the distinction based on how they treat the men around them.
The Wheeler Kids Aren’t Alright
Lanigan makes a flawed argument from the start. “Nancy Wheeler is so awful that when she leaves Hawkins for days—the town where children go missing and end up in a terrifying vortex full of hell-creatures—not even her mom and dad care.” True. However, this has nothing to do with Nancy, and everything to do the Wheelers’ neglectful parenting style.
They never know where Nancy or Mike are. Neither noticed that there was an extra kid living in their basement—and after finding out, they didn’t change their hands-off style. Mrs. Wheeler in season one tells her kids they can talk to her, but when they push her away she gives up. And in season two, instead of talking to Mike about his dramatic personality change, she punishes him. If anything, Nancy’s doing well for a girl with so little supervision and a faulty window lock.
Nancy Wheeler is Not A Criminal…but Billy Mayfield Might Be
Let’s back up a tick and highlight the biggest problem with this argument: Billy Mayfield. In Beyond Stranger Things, show creators The Duffer Brothers explain they added Billy as a human antagonist when Steve Harrington joined the light side at the end of season one. They might have overshot a touch.
Here’s Billy’s rap sheet so far:
A) screams at Max several times, making vague threats in the process.
B) tries to run over “the Party” while driving two or three times the speed limit in a suburban neighborhood.
C) stands uncomfortably close to Steve in the showers after gym class in a show of dominance.
D) calls women “bitches”.
E) objects to Lucas in a way that codes him a racist.
F) pummels Steve Harrington into the ground before threatening the kids one more time.
He should have ended up in handcuffs, or as a human sacrifice to Dart, or left to rot in the Upside Down. The scene in his home, where we see that his behavior mimics his abusive father’s, does very little to make him sympathetic. You cannot blame Billy for the abuse he suffers, and someone should call child services (NOT YOU, MRS. WHEELER), but you can blame him for the abuse he inflicts on others. While his father’s abuse seems circumstantial (still inexcusable and traumatic), Billy might be a real-life psychopath. But please, tell me more about how Nancy deserves to die in Stranger Things 3.
The People’s Princess
“Hating Nancy feels subversive. It feels a bit wrong. You’re not really supposed to hate her, that feeling seems to say. You’re not really supposed to hate her because Nancy Wheeler is a badass girl. She’s empowered. She kills monsters. She cuts her hair. She sleeps with who she wants, when she wants. She drinks. She stands up to the government. You’re supposed to like her.” (Lanigan)
According to Lanigan, Nancy failed to “become the hero we want to rally behind”. Considering she helps blow up the Main Boss in season one, and stages a national coup in season two, it’s hard to see where her heroism fails. Much like the first season, there are many pieces to the Upside Down puzzle. While the boys try to figure out Dart, Eleven discovers her past, Bob and Joyce worry over Will…and on and on. Nancy and Jonathan set out to find justice for Barb, and they succeed.
Nancy gets mad at Steve because he wants to follow the rules. This makes him ineligible to assist her, and she leaves him behind. She has already lost her best friend and seen her brother in great danger—and for her the fight isn’t over. Instead of supporting or joining her, he first tries to dissuade her, and whines about having dinner with Barb’s parents.
He certainly deserves a moment of self-pity following their fight at the party, and Nancy’s unwillingness to apologize for what she said. But we don’t get mad at Steve for any of this, or for leaving her mid-conversation in favor of a gym class basketball game. Instead we pat him on the back with a “poor baby” and once again shove Nancy on the naughty list.
Pure Breakup Fuel
The Halloween party is a hot damn mess. Inebriation is not a free pass. Shouting at Steve is wrong, and he deserves an apology whether Nancy remembers saying those things or not. But Steve storms off, leaving her very drunk, alone, and vulnerable. Their behavior is equally difficult to dismiss.
Lanigan refers to Nancy as cruel, saying she “…is not the feminist savior of Stranger Things just because she ditched Steve”. Ignore that we’re soaring right over the leaving a drunk girl at a party misstep. Breaking up with Steve doesn’t make her a feminist savior, but it also doesn’t count against her. She was honest with Steve, and honesty isn’t always comfortable. Someone always gets hurt in a breakup. Sometimes it’s a good guy. It’s okay—he will heal.
If Nancy had stayed with Steve after knowing that she had no feelings for him anymore? She would’ve been in hot water for playing with his heart. By entering a committed relationship at the end of season one, Nancy also enters a no-win situation. Women are only ever allowed to break up with a guy if he does something wrong, but Steve hasn’t crossed that line yet.
We have discovered the endless conundrum of being a woman.
Friends Don’t Lie
The title of the Vice article is “Forget Barb. F*ck Nancy.” I didn’t know “F*ck Barb” was a sentiment anyone was struggling with. The general consensus after season one was #bringbackBarb; fans ran multiple campaigns, and cheered when Shannon Purser joined the cast of Riverdale.
For the sake of argument let’s say “F*ck Barb” was a popular opinion. What’s the core of that argument? We have no knowledge of Nancy’s life before episode 1.1, except two things. We know she dressed up as a monster for Mike and his friends, and she made out with Steve a few times recently. She wears a necklace with ballet shoes, but is it a hint at a hidden love for dance, or an accessory in her “nice girl” persona? Outside of these meager facts, we have Barb’s insistence that Nancy has changed. Is Barb right, or is she jealous of her best friend, and a little lonely now that Nancy’s splitting her time?
“You’re not this stupid”, Barb complains before the pool party. No, Barb, she isn’t. She bought a new bra. She knows exactly what could happen tonight. There’s nothing stupid about knowing what you want, but Barb’s newly-unpredictable bestie frustrates her. Maybe Nancy invites Barb along out of habit or because she doesn’t have a car of her own (not that her parents would notice if she took theirs). Maybe she invites Barb in case things go south and she needs an escape route.
Nancy breaks her deal with Barb immediately when Steve challenges her. She shotguns a beer, neglects to help Barb once she cuts herself, and then follows Steve upstairs to his room. If Nancy makes any offensive mistakes, this is the top of the list: sending her injured best friend home alone from a party she didn’t want to attend in the first place. The Halloween party mirrors these events. Both take place in their respective seasons’ second episode, meaning the similarities are likely not a mistake.
But Barb is better than ditching a friend with no ride home. She commits to her role as guardian, and sticks by the pool regardless of Nancy’s dismissal. Her loyalty leads to her death. So are we supposed to be mad at Barb for being mad at Nancy, but sticking around anyway, when we’re not mad at Steve for being mad at Nancy and fleeing the scene? I need to lay down.
Steve’s Scary Situation
When we only discuss Nancy in terms of Steve vs. Jonathan we’re doing her a massive disservice. However, the way her relationship with each boy unfolds feeds into the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. She doesn’t need to be in a relationship, but she is, so let’s not deal in “what ifs”.
“[Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship] was the love you were rooting for! This is how it’s meant to be! Why aren’t you enjoying it? Because Nancy sucks. And because, to get there, we had to see the destruction of unlikely good guy, Steve Harrington.” (Lanigan)
Ultimately if the relationship between Nancy and Jonathan rings false, that’s because it is: there’s no chemistry between them, and their “shared trauma” was also shared with the rest of the core characters. Maybe in an early draft, Jonathan/Nancy was a more appealing coupling. But season two takes Steve from “guy who makes good choices sometimes” to “Good Guy For Life™”.
This isn’t as much of a transformation as it seems—Steve apologizes for his mistakes and backs those apologies up with action. He takes Nancy’s lead in their sex life, and recognizes and admires her intellect on multiple occasions. The breakup with Nancy does not “destroy” Steve, and he’s certainly not a “shitty boyfriend”. The important takeaway, however, is that no matter how good Steve or Jonathan or any guy is, Nancy doesn’t owe him anything.
Goonies Make Mistakes but They Never Say Die
Having flaws along with her strengths helps make Nancy a Strong Female Character. Consider in comparison an 80s equivalent: Andy from The Goonies. Andy does help the gang escape the underground tunnels, and she is not afraid of her own sexuality. But she also performs the damsel in distress role, and she can only help with proper lady-like skills. You root for her to leave Troy for Brand, even though his character doesn’t seem that interested in her as a person.
The love triangle between Jonathan, Steve, and Nancy is almost the same as the one between Brand, Troy, and Andy. It’s clear where the narrative was supposed to go, but Steve became a good guy and the analogy got messy.
“Girls this age are stupid”–Nancy Wheeler
Nancy also deviates from her Goonies twin. She exists outside of the love triangle and makes mistakes. Teenage girls are not infallible; both Andy and Nancy offer horrible advice to younger admirers. Nancy comforts Dustin clumsily, but her advice is not, as Lanigan puts it, indicative of sexism or a “…superiority complex and ‘not like other girls’ attitude…”
If anything, this advice shows self-reflection. It is an admission that she allowed Steve’s popularity to distract her from other relationships. It subverts another trope, in both movies and life, that girls invariably mature faster than boys. Nancy’s advice allows younger girls to be single, or not recognize what’s best for them and tells Dustin that girls don’t owe him their time (no matter how slick his hair).
Nancy also comes by her skill in shooting naturally and doesn’t feel the need to explain where it came from. Typically when a female character has “male” skills, she explains them away with some variation of “my dad taught me”! It’s clear that Mr. Wheeler has never taught anyone anything.
Sincerely Yours, The Hawkins A.V. Club
A minor point in Lanigan’s article is that the moniker “Princess” should be offensive to Nancy. As though being a Princess—and by extension, what society expects of women—is bad.
“You see us as you wanna see us—in the simplest terms, with the most convenient definitions.”—The Breakfast Club
The Breakfast Club is all about subverting tropes. At the end, the characters pen an essay about what they’ve learned in detention. They conclude that they are more than their high school stereotype, less easy to define. But it does not reject those stereotypes wholesale.
Calling Nancy a princess was not a mistake. Like Molly Ringwald’s Claire before her, Nancy Wheeler embraces and extends beyond the title. But she is not alone. At the end of Stranger Things, the boys ask about unresolved story elements in their game—one of which is the lost princess (Eleven). At the beginning of Stranger Things 2, they fight over Princess Daphne in “Dragon’s Lair” (Max). Do these comparisons make these characters less respectable? (hint: no).
A Princess is not a bad thing. A woman is not a bad thing. Nancy is not a bad thing. Barb is not a bad thing. You don’t have to take off your crown to date a criminal, or shoot a Demogorgon in the face, or threaten your abusive brother with a baseball bat. Nancy’s whole character arc is about accepting who she is. It’s about turning towards herself. But in the micro-est of all micro-agressions, while the girls are Princesses, Steve and Billy battle for the title of “King of Hawkins High” instead. It’s almost too easy.
What’s Wrong With You? I Gave You What You Wanted!
The treatment of women in general on Stranger Things is still weak. The main evidence of this is the conversation between Lucas and his parents, when he asks what to do when a girl is mad. His father’s response is troubling “First, I apologize, then I get your mother whatever she wants.” “Even if she’s wrong?” “She’s never wrong, son.”
This advice is bad, but Lucas is not the only character putting it to use. Steve marches up to the Wheeler’s front door, roses in hand, mumbling to himself. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry? What the hell am I sorry for?” This model for male/female interaction is weak and even destructive. Instead of honest and open communication, men assume they are always right and women are overreacting. It allows men to think they can arrive bearing gifts and expect the relationship to go back to normal.
Nancy is not a feminist hero unless you consider women people. If she makes viewers uncomfortable, it’s because she ISN’T perfect. Nancy responds to her surroundings in unpredictable ways. For that, she is never forgiven.
Find the original article on Vice here.
Stranger Things and Stranger Things 2 now available for streaming on Netflix.