Warning: Spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3 below…
I’ve always maintained that good subversion isn’t just random shock value or turning character arcs on their axis for the sake of it (looking at you Game of Thrones Season 8). Good subversion is taking well established tropes of TV and cinema in a direction that isn’t in keeping with the trope but is completely in keeping with the character. This is something I think Stranger Things has always excelled at, in somehow managing to play into the tropes of the 1980’s while also turning them on their head.
At the beginning of the show, every character started out as an 80’s cliche. Think of Nancy: sweet, innocent, brainy willing to throw it all away in pursuit of popularity; Hopper as the gruff, uncaring 80’s cop who will do whatever it takes to get results; Eleven as the mute “weird girl” with unchecked powers.
Yet across the three seasons of the show, Nancy has turned into an ambitious and determined journalist, unconcerned with what Steve Harrington has to say about her. Hopper is a morally complex character who cares deeply for his adopted daughter El and still feels the loss of his daughter Sarah. Even Eleven who I once thought was one of the most one-dimensional characters in the show has personality in leaps and bounds now, and has developed a great relationship with Max this season. But if I had to think of who best exemplifies Stranger Things’ subversive storytelling, that honour has to go to Steve Harrington.
One of the most interesting things that the Duffer Brothers’ have managed to do across the show is to subvert the 80’s “bad-boyfriend” or “jock” stereotype through the development of Steve Harrington from Season 1 to Season 3. Steve started out in Stranger Things as an awful person, bullying Jonathan and slut-shaming Nancy, so vain and attention seeking that he hung around with bad people and pushed good people away. But even by the end of the first season, he shows his strength by genuinely admitting where he’s gone wrong. By Season 2 he is befriending characters like Dustin, who would have been an instant source of abuse for Season 1 Steve. Instead of bullying Dustin, Steve genuinely listens to his problems and gives him advice (even his secret hair tips). By the end of Season 2 Steve had seemingly become the shows best baby-sitter, adopting a troupe of kids and protecting them with his life – not to look cool – but because he actually cared.
But it’s in Season 3 that Steve’s character really excels with the Duffer Brothers’ pairing of him with new character Robin (played by Maya Hawke). While I really enjoyed Steve and Robin’s chemistry across this season, I was slightly concerned that they were falling into the “Mr Popular falls for school reject whose not like the other girls” trope, but I was delighted by the approach they took. By creating real chemistry between the characters the Duffer Brothers’ give Steve an opportunity to realise that there is worth in relationships outside of any street cred they might provide, Steve and Robin develop a real companionship. They cause each other to cackle hysterically, not because of ulterior methods between them but because they really enjoyed each others company. Thanks to their shared trauma in the Russian bunker, a dose of truth serum and their constant banter, towards the end of the season you’re really rooting for them to get together. Then you realise that there is an even better outcome: friendship.
In an extremely touching scene in the bathroom of Starcourt Mall, Robin reveals that she was obsessed with Steve in high school, but not because she had a crush on him, but because a girl called Tammy Thompson liked him and Robin was jealous. I’d been waiting for an LGBT character in Stranger Things for a while since despite all the things going for the show, it is undeniable that the toxic masculinity expressed by characters like Hopper, Billy and Season 1 Steve created a heteronormative atmosphere which confined a lot of characters from real development.
By addressing Robin’s queerness so late into the season they show that her sexuality is but one tiny aspect of her personality; we learn to love her far before we know whether she likes girls or boys. It’s also nice to see that it’s not approached the way so many other shows approach LGBT issues, by making characters queer as if at the switch of a button, it’s clear that Robin’s interest in Steve’s romantic conquests went a bit beyond negging. But it’s really Steve’s reaction to Robin’s heartfelt coming out that hit me most.
It takes a few minutes for Steve to figure out what’s going on but once he connects the dots, he doesn’t react to his rejection in anger, or frustration, or entitlement or bitterness. Instead he takes the opportunity to have a go at her crush, Tammy Thompson, as the two of them laugh over Tammy’s high pitched muppet-like singing. Not only is this a really beautiful reaction for the “cool guy” of an 80’s drama to have to someone coming out but it also marks the start of a really wholesome new friendship. Not only do we see in this moment that Steve is totally beyond appearance and popularity, not just through the fact that he even expressed feelings in an unpopular girl but in the fact that his rejection by one was a source of laughter rather than entitlement but it also does so much for the representation of male/female friendships in the media.
How many times have we seen friendships between men and women in TV and film turn into relationships (because men and women apparently can’t be friends)? How many times have we seen friendships between straight and queer people turn into “gay best friend” scenarios were the friendship is purely defined by the difference in sexuality? How many times have we seen men continue to pursue women even despite the fact that they identify as lesbian, as seen in the god awful “Chasing Amy”?
Stranger Things Season 3 defies all these tropes. Robin and Steve’s friendship is a bold new step when it comes to presenting friendship in the media and it shouldn’t be overlooked.