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Girls Like Barb

I'm not often happy to see a monster. Usually, a monster descends upon a town to destroy the otherwise bright future of its residents. Watching the monster in Stranger Things let out steamy, menacing breaths just inches from Barb's face, however, I let out a huge sigh of relief. Seeing the monster suggested that the forces that drag some people down while lifting others up aren't so cruel in their arbitrariness. A monster didn't descend upon Hawkins, Indiana. It's stalking presence had been felt through the thin partition that separated its dimension from theirs, and of course, ours, long before a nigh-mute girl let it in through an open gate. It was always just under the surface, going bump in the everyday.

A lot has been made of the show's authentic representation of the 80s and it can't be overstated. The wood paneled walls, the striped Izod t-shirts, single headlights bobbing along the in the dusk to signal a band of little boys cycling far out beyond the maniacal. Barb. With her chubby face and her cropped strawberry hair feathered at the sides, I knew girls like this. They sneak-watched Dirty Dancing while they babysat me. I watched the blue light from the TV flicker in the bottom half of their oversized glasses. Which is why, as soon as she shuffled up to her best friend Nancy in the hallway of their high school, eagerly awaiting the news of whether or not Nancy's new boyfriend would continue to play a role in their lives, I had to look away. Barb's fate was more than clear.

Like any predator, the monster is attracted to blood. It's merely following instinct. When Barb said to Nancy, in half-jest, "You are going to be so cool. You had better not stop hanging out with me," she exposed a tiny wound to the open air. Her fear and vulnerability, of things changing, of being replaced in her best friend's life, trickled out, imperceptible perhaps in the Right Side Up, but a dead giveaway to a monster trying to sustain itself on the warm blood of living things.

Barb could see her fate, too. Listen to the way Nancy says, "I'm fine." Standing in the middle of the staircase in Stephen's house, she was neither up nor down, but high enough to look down at Barb, who was still stuck at base camp 1. Ostensibly, she is reassuring Barb that if Barb leaves, she, Nancy, is in no danger of being kidnapped in the same way that her brother's best friend was. But listen again. She's really saying, "I'm fine. Unlike you, Barb. Because I have a boyfriend to elevate me to higher ground. I won't be alone and lonely wandering in our old life doing the same old thing. Someone chose me." "I'm fine," she says again, with equal emphasis on those twin 'i's, chiming back and forth like bells. Bells that toll for Barb.

Barb says, "This isn't you," meaning, "This isn't the way things are supposed to be. This isn't the way we implicitly promised things would remain when we both started out as wallflowers."

And with that Nancy ascends the stairs, disappearing into the buttery light of her new boyfriend's bedroom. And that's really where Barb proceeds to be dragged backwards by grasping humanlike hands. But Nancy is not a monster. She's a 16-year-old girl who was being pulled by her own instincts, her feelings for Stephen. Having devoured Barb for her purposes, (a ride to the party, a cover to assuage the fears of her worried mother, an uncool foil making Nancy look cooler by comparison), she discarded Barb like a carcass, making her fair game for a monster to drag down to its lair.

By the time Barb comes to in the UpsideDown, it's hard to know which is the alternate universe. Barb is alone in a pool drained of the mirth that the others had jumped headlong into, and so saturated themselves with it that they were inside drying off.

A she desperately clings to the pool's ladder, she doesn't call out for any of them. Not for Steve, nor for his obnoxious friends who surely would have abandoned their posts at the open gate that separated Barb and Nancy's dimension from theirs. But they couldn't, not only because they felt just as vulnerable as Barb of being dragged down below their best friend's life, but because the only one who could pull her back up was Nancy, who was held aloft in her new echelon by Steve's loving grasp. 

The monster gives a form, albeit a nondescript one, to the unseen forces that seem to claw and pull at us. That it's acknowledged but not reconciled is decidedly anti--Hughes-ian for a show that gives a nod to so many 80s movies. Some people are chosen, some people aren't. Some people walk around bleeding, unbeknownst to themselves, wide open to danger. It's not fair. That's what's truly frightening. A monster? There are stranger things.


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