Warning: This article contains “Stranger Things” Season 4 spoilers.
In the words of blogger @bi-booklover, “Queer characters are not plot devices for straight characters.”
First, let’s talk plot. In Hawkins, an evil being nicknamed “Vecna” is brutally murdering students by invading their minds, causing visions that result in their deaths. Nancy, Steve, Robin, Dustin, Max, Lucas, Erica and Eddie, a new character, work together to stop Vecna from destroying Hawkins. Meanwhile, El is taken to a secure facility in Nevada to regain her powers by reliving her repressed memories. Will, Mike, Jonathan and his friend Argyle attempt to track down El and warn her that the government is trying to kill her.
Joyce and Murray then discover Hopper is alive and imprisoned in the Soviet Union, so they travel there to rescue him. El regains her powers and stops Vecna, who turns out to be a man named Henry who was corrupted in the Upside Down; Eddie dies and Max nearly does, but she is saved by El at the last minute, though she appears to be braindead. Joyce and Murray save Hopper, and everyone reunites in Hawkins.
Season 4 was action-packed but “Stranger Things” failed yet again to do its queer characters justice. While many characters are queer-coded, meaning they are sub-textually implied to be queer through their traits, stereotypes or storylines, the characters themselves have yet to admit their sexual identities in the show. The show does incorporate some more explicitly queer characters — well, there’s only one — namely Robin.
Robin Buckley is a fan favorite. Despite only joining the cast in Season 3, she’s inserted herself into the hearts of fans because of her sarcastic and blunt personality. Robin is also the only canonically queer character on the show, admitting to Steve in Season 3’s episode “The Bite” that she is a lesbian. Fans were initially excited when introduced to her potential love interest, named Vickie, in Season 4, but that excitement dropped almost instantaneously.
Robin and Vickie are essentially the same person — they share many of the same quirks, including a similar sense of humor. They are both awkward characters who often ramble when they speak and are both members of the school band. Even while introducing another potentially queer character, the Duffer brothers creative duo essentially cloned Robin, implying there is only one way to be queer, or perhaps that they didn’t put a lot of thought into her love interest. Robin is crushed when she sees Vickie kiss her boyfriend, which is a devastating and completely unnecessary scene for the sole “out” character on “Stranger Things,” something made even more needless by the fact that Vickie is no longer in said relationship when she appears next.
Outside of Steve, Robin has still hidden her identity from everyone. However, the Duffer brothers use Robin’s secret sexuality as a plot device to further the tension between Nancy and Steve. Nancy is jealous of Robin’s relationship with Steve because of the heteronormative belief that men and women can never be just friends. Though Robin repeatedly states that she and Steve are “platonic with a capital P,” most characters remain skeptical.
Then, there is Will Byers. It is continually implied that Will is a queer character, but until “Stranger Things” confirms it on screen, his character equates to a specific type of queerbaiting. Joyce makes a statement that implies he may be queer as early as the first season when she says that her ex-husband “used to say he was queer.” In the Season 3 episode “The Case of the Missing Lifeguard,” Mike and Will argue because Mike wants to hang out with Eleven, his girlfriend, eventually prompting Mike to say, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls” — implying yet again that Will is gay.
In the Season 4 episode “Dear Billy,” Mike and Will have a heart-to-heart where they discuss the deterioration of their friendship and how they can mend it, but it isn’t until Season 4’s penultimate episode, “Papa,” that Will appears to confirm his sexuality. However, it is never explicitly stated that he is gay, and much of the audience either missed or ignored the clues.
When Mike expresses his fear that Eleven no longer cares for him, Will offers a disguised confession of his love in the form of a reassuring explanation: He says that Eleven feels different and that being different is hard, but Mike makes Eleven feel safe — which is exactly how Will feels about Mike. Will then looks out the window, crying quietly, so Mike does not realize how upset he is. The Duffer brothers literally used Will’s sexuality as a plot device to further a straight relationship, leaving their queer character feeling miserable and ignored. Though Noah Schnapp, the actor who plays Will, recently confirmed in a Variety interview that Will “is gay and he does love Mike,” audiences are still waiting for an explicit on-screen confirmation.
Outside of these more obvious LGBTQ+ characters, the queer-coded characters have faced depressing endings. Season 4 features a new character, Eddie Munson, who may or may not be a queer character. Viewers picked up on Eddie’s notable queer traits but he never comes out on “Stranger Things.” Maybe this is because the Duffer brothers failed to understand Joseph Quinn’s portrayal of Eddie, or perhaps they just didn’t care about including another confirmed queer character.
Eddie’s storyline as “the freak” who is bullied for his exuberant personality is relatable to a lot of queer people. He is unapologetic about who he is and often flirts with Steve. Eddie wears a handkerchief in his back pocket throughout Season 4, alluding to the hanky code — a code originating in the 1980s that reveals an (oftentimes) LGBTQ+ person’s interest in certain sexual activities. The location of the handkerchief in Eddie’s back right pocket indicates he’s a bottom while its black color reveals he’s into S&M.
Even though this costume piece is a possible nod to his character’s sexual preference, nothing comes of it. And whether it’s a fluke or not, Eddie’s seen as queer by many LGBTQ+ fans, making his ending in the show even more heartbreaking. Eddie sacrifices himself to save Nancy, Steve and Robin by creating a distraction for the demobats. He never fulfills his arc or graduates high school and will instead be remembered as a serial killer despite his true actions.
Billy Hargrove is another incredibly queer-coded character. His queer nature becomes obvious during his interactions with Steve. After beating Steve’s keg stand record, Billy gives him an intimidating stare down in the Season 2 episode “Trick or Treat, Freak.” He taunts Steve multiple times while playing basketball in episodes “The Pollywog” and “Will the Wise,” and he even stares at Steve while licking his lips during the latter episode. After multiple scenes fraught with sexual tension between Billy and Steve, Billy is corrupted by the Mind Flayer in Season 3.
He does the Mind Flayer’s bidding until Eleven brings his consciousness back to his body, which leads him to sacrifice himself to save her. Until his final redemption, not only is Billy an aggressive and abusive character for two entire seasons, but he becomes a major villain that ends up dying.
Both Eddie and Billy’s deaths were seen as heroic yet their ends represent the failure of “Stranger Things” to uplift its potentially queer characters. “Stranger Things” plays into the Bury Your Gays trope, meaning the show considers its queer characters to be expendable and subsequently kills them off more often. I was honestly shocked that Robin survived Season 4 based on the Duffer brothers’ horrible queer representation.
It’s 2022. Queer people exist and deserve to have their stories told. Setting the series in the 1980s does not excuse the lack of queer representation. Gay people existed then and they exist now, and while multiple queer-coded characters appear in the series, they are killed, miserable or are left pining after someone they can’t have.
“Stranger Things” has a lot to improve before Season 5. Robin and Will deserve to have their own character arcs that include relationships rather than just being plot devices for the straight relationships the show centers on. Will needs to come out — he is more than just a teenager obsessed with his friend Mike. Straight is not the default and “Stranger Things” should recognize that even in a small town like Hawkins, queer people exist and can have meaningful relationships.