What's Up With How 'Stranger Things' Treats Its Black Characters? [Opinion]

July 16th 2019

Netflix's hit show Stranger Things is an '80s-set sci-fi thriller which features a group of kids in Hawkins, IN, battling government agents and otherworldly monsters from The Upside-Down dimension. The one consistent Black lead in the group is Lucas, played by Caleb McLaughlin. After a fan-favorite guest-starring spot in season two, Lucas' little sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) got an expanded role in season three, making two Black characters significant to the Stranger Things plot. But the way the show handles the race of its two Black kids in a lily-white town--and the way it handles racism--leaves much to be desired. 

In the Halloween episode in the second season, the show seemed to begin introducing its version of purposeful racial discourse when Lucas confronted his white friend Mike (Finn Wolfhard) about Mike's insistence that Lucas dress up as Winston for their Ghostbusters-themed costumes. Mike's unspoken reasoning was that Lucas and the Winston character are both the Black friend of their groups, a fact that Lucas insisted was insignificant to determine which of the Ghostbusters the four friends should dress up as for Halloween. While Lucas stood his ground and was determined that he didn't have to be Winston just because he was Black, the story kept moving forward and the situation was never really addressed again or resolved; it's possible that no one ended up being Winston since none of them wanted to be the Black Ghostbuster. It was also unclear why Lucas didn't want to be Winston or if  Lucas' rejection of Winston was about not being pigeon-holed or if it was about dealing with the underlying anti-Blackness that often comes with being the only Black kid around. Since the writers didn't let the characters delve any deeper into the convo, the audience can only speculate.

Another example of Stranger Things' touch-and-go relationship with race and racism in season two was when Lucas faced violence from his girlfriend Max's brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery). Billy essentially told Max (Sadie Sink) that she couldn't date Lucas because he was Black. In one episode of the second season, Billy, after seeing Max and Lucas' interactions, warns her to stay away from him. He says,  "There are a certain type of people in this world you stay away from, adding that Lucas was "one of them." If Billy literally knows nothing about Lucas and didn't have any other interactions with him...what could his assumptions about him be based upon? Max pushed back on her brother's racism and kept dating Lucas. While Billy was awful to all of the kids, racism fueled Billy's interactions with Lucas, which no one ever addressed and Billy's racism was never mentioned again. In fact, by the end of season three, Billy had been transformed by the writers into some sort of tragic hero. 

In order for this transformation to stick in the season three finale, Billy's terrorism of his sister and racism towards Lucas in season two are whitewashed. Billy's been possessed by the Mind-Flayer from the Upside-Down, which provides an opportunity for the audience to get into his mind and learn more about his difficult childhood. This comes across as a deliberate attempt by the writers to explain why he behaved to his sister in such a hateful way but does nothing to address how he became a racist. But once he saves Eleven in the finale, we're all supposed to shed a tear that he had to die to do it.

Once Netflix announced that Ferguson's Erica would have an expanded role this season, there was an expectation not only of some #BlackGirlMagic in Hawkins, but also a more nuanced presentation of race. While Ferguson is a rising star with great presence, unfortunately, nuanced presentations of race weren't in the cards this season either.

Early in the season, Erica appears at the Hawkins Mall ice cream shop Scoops Ahoy with a posse of other Black girls in what would be the first time viewers get to see so many Black people at once, let alone Black girls in one scene. As Hawkins doesn’t seem to be one of the most diverse places to live, this leaves room to question where the Black people Lucas’ age are. In the context of all-white Hawkins, Erica's friends, who don’t have lines at all, come across as props.

In the hands of Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer and their team of writers, Erica's annoying little sister persona became a sassy Black woman trope in little girl form, with a stinging comeback for every other statement her co-stars made. While she's also presented as brilliant and, to her chagrin, a "nerd," Erica never gets to have the vulnerability and depth of character that her co-stars have enjoyed over three seasons. Though she plays a big role in discovering the underground Russian operations happening at Hawkins Mall with the spunk that viewers fell in love with from previous seasons in tow, she's little more than the comic relief with a mean one-liner, all the way to the end.

In the one scene she shares with her brother Lucas this season, Erica is just as cutting and rude to him as ever. In contrast, Mike and his sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) didn't get along in the first season, but after all they had been through, fighting monsters and surviving, Mike and Nancy actually become friends. Lucas and Erica fight the same monsters and experience horrors from another dimension, and still Erica has nothing but shade and dismissiveness for her brother and Lucas barely acknowledges her presence or what she's been through either.

We were all-in for the expansion of Erica’s role in the story, but the caricatured writing gave Ferguson little to work with and left us yearning for more. It is evident that Ferguson has the ability to rise to the occasion, so, track record aside, hopefully the show will let her show the full extent of her talent and Erica's humanity in future seasons.

Another disappointing turn this season came when the first Black woman on the show with a significant speaking role entered the scene at a crucial moment in the plot. The kids were at a hospital trying to track down the source of their neighbor's mysterious illness and a Black woman nurse stands in their way. In an unsurprising move by the writers, the nurse, portrayed by Chantell D. Christopher, turns up the sass as she attempts to block the kids from getting past her to visit the sick neighbor. In the second encounter with the nurse, who could actually come in handy and help the kids at a critical juncture, she's too busy laughing on a personal call instead of paying attention to her job. So, the only memorable Black woman in Hawkins is presented as both sassy and useless. It’s also worth mentioning that though Christopher appears in three episodes, her character doesn’t even have a name, and she’s only credited as “hospital receptionist.”

While season three certainly lived up to expectations in terms of suspense and overall character development of its leads, Stranger Things has been less than thoughtful about how it should tackle race. We've now seen the show use race as comic relief and added tension when needed, but not a fully realized element to the characters' experiences and development. Integrating race into a sci-Fi/adventure story requires a much more creative and deliberate approach, as well as more consideration--both on the page and by hiring Black writers in the writers room--to remain conscious of the racial implications associated with its writing decisions.

Moving forward, it would be great to see the show utilize race to enhance character experience rather than character behavior. If the decision to cast a Black person for a role is rooted in associated stereotypes, then we’re good without them.

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Photo: Netflix 

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