The hit Netflix series Stranger Things portrays Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) as the show’s youthful heroine. This is fine because she has an arc that is worth appreciating (despite ending up with Steve), but as fans have raucously pointed out since the series skyrocketed in popularity, there is another character who makes for an even better heroine.
Barbara Holland (Shannon Purser). Or Barb, for short.
— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) August 24, 2016
The character appears in five of the eight total episodes of the show, and only for small moments. But in those moments she managed to strike a chord so strongly with viewers that (spoiler!) when she was killed in episode three, it sparked fan outrage and mourning.
One of the more trendy ways of communicating about Barb’s death was through the use of social media, particularly Twitter. Multiple hashtags arose in homage to Barb, with #WeAreAllBarb being one of the most popular. Not only has this hashtag been used to express feelings about the character, but people have decided to post photos of themselves from school, or photos of themselves dressed up like Barb.
But why Barb?
While fans can see that Nancy is a good-hearted person and generally pretty likeable, she is still a character that most girls (and boys) strive to be. She’s popular, liked by a lot of people (including attractive boys), intelligent, and beautiful.
Barb isn’t entirely Nancy’s antithesis, but she’s close. Barb is invisible in school, even when walking beside Nancy. She’s smart, but none of the other characters care because she’s awkward, introverted and not as attractive as Nancy. She even dresses conservatively. Everything about her gives off a humble air.
Yet characters like Nancy will never be pulled from the oft-unjust realm of television. The idea of watching someone who has it all and still struggles is a gripping one. But the saliency of Barb cannot be understated; there aren’t enough characters in media—especially youth media—who stand as realistically accurate role models.
When it comes to Barb, youth aren’t interested in being pretty like her (as they would be with Nancy). Rather, they’re interested in virtues immediately applicable to their everyday lives that simply make them better people.
Barb is kind. Barb is smart. Barb is a good friend. Barb never lashes out. Youth see this, and they see someone they can be right away. They see something that is within their grasp, that is attainable. The Nancys of the media world just don’t supply that.
Barb is the everywoman champion that parents should be rooting for their kids to watch.
— Pau Varela (@Jonseyelgato) August 28, 2016
One of the greatest things about Stranger Things, which is essentially a love-child of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, is that the show doesn’t talk down to anyone. It’s not so graphic or terrifying that young people can’t watch, but the show doesn’t pull many punches. As author Neil Gaiman once said, “The point of telling scary stories is inoculation; that you get to take and deal with a little bit of the things that scare and hurt.” Stranger Things gives it to you straight, and youths are always looking for that.
Barb is a prime example. She’s relatable. She’s what most youths see themselves as. She is the everywoman. As Purser said in an interview with Vulture.com, “People really relate to her and her outcast, left-out position because everybody’s felt that way at some point.” At a period in their lives where so many things are happening in their environment and bodies, youths of any sort can find something in Barb that resembles themselves. And so they get attached.
Unfortunately, Barb was a character built to die. Her story is a short one; Nancy survives and she doesn’t. So she has become a victim of injustice, a modern tragic heroine. But her loss felt somewhat less like that of a fallen hero, and more like a fallen friend.
A fallen you.
In limited screen time, Barb managed to cement herself as an all-time fan favourite character. But she didn’t do it alone; she did it by virtue of all the people who saw something in her that hit home with enough force that a new Internet milestone was born.
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