Why We Worship Barb
Stranger Things premiered in 2016 and gained a massive amount of fans with its '80s aesthetic, witty dialogue and complex plot/characters. It's a Netflix fan-favorite with dedicated viewers. Heck, I know people that waited for the second season premiere to drop at midnight and then proceeded to watch the entire season without stopping. People love the stories, the music and (mostly) the characters. This show gains a lot of attention from many different age groups, but a major percentage of its audience is younger viewers (considering that its cast is predominantly younger actors).
Today, I want to talk about one of those loved characters. Barbara Holland, more commonly known as "Barb," is one of the main characters', Nancy Wheeler, best friend within the first season of the show. She is characterized and costumed as nerdier, and she should be, as much of the plot regarding her, Nancy and Steve circles around Nancy sacrificing true friends and her true self for popularity or a relationship.
Barb acts as the voice of reason in key moments of the show. She calls out the behavior of Steve's toxic friend group that Nancy desperately wants to be accepted by. She tells Nancy when she is acting unlike herself, especially when that behavior is dangerous. However, she also supports Nancy when she can tell that it means a lot to her. For example, Barb steps outside of her comfort zone and into the company of the toxic people she earlier critiqued when Nancy wants to go to a party to "get with" Steve. Barb even tries shotgunning a beer to make it less awkward, but she cuts her hand terribly and is left outside while Nancy ditches her for Steve. (Spoiler: This is how she dies)
Barb wasn't written to get much attention, and so her demise was downplayed and seemed to be an accessory to the discovery of Will Byers in the Upside Down. However, fans are what made Barb the massive deal she is. With a simple search for Barb merchandise, you can find t-shirts, mugs, dolls, enamel pins and plenty of buttons. Most of these are demanding "Justice for Barb," as many found Barb's quick demise to be a shame due to her kindness, her wisdom, and her sensibility. Fans made Barb such a big deal that a large part of the plot in the second season revolved around dealing with Barb's death, even though the actress wasn't featured for, um, obvious reasons (her character is dead).
Barb's character proved an important point, in my opinion. She proved that a massive amount of fans COULD root for a character who was tall, strong, chunky and a protagonist. Barb is 5'9, her actress is plus-sized (she's actually starring in a movie revolving around body insecurity called Sierra Burgess is a Loser that I am so incredibly excited for) and her character is strong, in the sense that she stands up for what she believes in AND she's sort of muscular. Barb is undeniably a protagonist, as are most voices of reason, and she's just GOOD. She's pure and loving and kind, and she has many qualities that we would want to see in our own friends and in ourselves.
This character shows that fans can love TSC women. She proved that TSC women can be soft, feminine, kind, etc. She proved that you can be a TSC and not be brash/tough. After walking around for two separate Halloweens and running into multiple Barbs (ranging in all shapes and sizes), it is clear that a TSC woman who is well-written will be loved by her viewers.
Actress Shannon Purser who portrays Barb made her acting debut in Stranger Things. She now plays characters in several other shows and movies, a key example being the CW's Riverdale. In that show, she plays Ethel Muggs. Ethel Muggs was a character born out of body-shaming in the original comics that the modern Riverdale is attempting to rewrite. For proof, here's how she's described in the older stories:
Given this description, we can quickly see why including the character in the modernized television series might be risky. Ethel, instead of being boy-crazy, is made quiet, jealous and sometimes revenge-seeking, though she is also often very kind to her peers (her character is very inconsistent). It always feels like the core four characters of the show pitty Ethel, in a way that mirrors how she was probably treated in the comics. This begs the question: Why is Barb so lovable while Ethel has few fans?
The short answer is that Stranger Things has far better writing, casting, plots, music and everything else. Yet, when we boil it down to the two characters side-by-side, Barb was written with traits that made her easy to root for. While she was nerdy and a little awkward, she had a clear moral compass, bravery, kindness and sensibility. Ethel doesn't have a strong set of characteristics. Other than being the dowdier of the female characters, her characteristics seem to meld to whatever is convenient for the plot, be that depression, jealousy, bravery or kindness. Ethel acts the way that the entertainment industry THINKS bigger women act, as they write her as deeply insecure and jealous of leading lady Cheryl Blossom. Barb was what most bigger women actually are: Deeper than their appearance. Her traits were grounded in her person, not in her style or insecurities.
That was my daily reminder to you all that I love Barb and everything that she stands for. Check in tomorrow where I'll be b*tching about the new Netflix show Insatiable, which is a stark contrast to Barb's edition of a TSC. Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a pleasant today.