This post contains a lot—a lot—of spoilers for Stranger Things, but you’ve probably watched it by now, haven’t you? What are you waiting for?
The world of Netflix’s Stranger Things orbits around a trio of preteen boys who set out in search of their best friend when he disappears under deeply mysterious circumstances. But a few of the hit show’s vital female characters burn particularly brightly, like the psychokinetic young fugitive Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), mother-on-a-mission Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), and the ill-fated cult favorite Barb (Shannon Purser).
But ultimately, the young woman who’s stuck with me the most is a relatively unsung heroine. That would be Nancy Wheeler (played with understated brilliance by Natalia Dyer), older sister to Mike—friend to Will Byers, the missing boy—and herself best friend to Barb. Through Nancy, Stranger Things indicts horror’s historically narrow-minded, sexist portrayals of teenage girls and even our own modern-day biases against them.
Nancy certainly isn’t flawless—she’s arguably responsible for the death of Barb (RIP, see you in heaven, you bespectacled, fashion-forward angel), who stays late, alone, at a party to look out for Nancy when the Demogorgon strikes—and the fact that we first meet her just as she’s fording the river that divides well-behaved obscurity from full-blown high school popularity doesn’t necessarily work in her favor. But she’s a lot more complex than that description would suggest. For one thing, while Nancy is happy to make out with popular jock Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) in a bathroom before class, she’s not so happy as to let their blossoming relationship—nor Steve’s desire to play strip flashcards—interfere with her studying.
Nancy, like the rest of Stranger Things, exists within a very specific context: The Duffer Brothers have lovingly layered their series with references to ‘80s cinema, mostly sci-fi and horror classics, from Steven Spielberg’s E.T. to Stephen King’s Cujo. Nancy, too, is informed by the rich history of teenage girls in horror movies that came before her—a legacy that’s evident even in her name. In 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, 16-year-old protagonist Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) rejects the sexual advances of her boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp), who climbs through her bedroom window the same way Steve does in Stranger Things. The horny boyfriend sneaking in the window, you see, is a staple of the genre. In Scream, possibly the most self-aware horror movie ever made, this is how Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) pays a visit to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). Billy even makes one of Sidney’s stuffed animals “talk,” just as Steve lends his voice to Nancy’s teddy bear.
When, to paraphrase from Scream, Steve tries to upgrade their edited-for-TV bedroom study session to an R rating, Nancy shuts him down: “I’m not Laurie, or Amy, or Becky.”
“You mean, you’re not a slut,” he says. “That’s not what I’m saying,” she responds.
I doubt that I’m the only horror fan who read something into the name “Laurie.” The most famous Laurie in pop culture might very well be Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis’ teenage babysitter in Halloween—and an archetypal “final girl.”
The “final girl,” first described by academic and author Carol J. Clover, is a decades-old trope of horror movies, and the two-word phrase that best embodies the genre’s problematic treatment of women. The term refers to a typically young female heroine—you’ll note that it’s “final girl,” not “final woman”—who outlasts the rest of the central killer’s victims by virtue of her virginity, purity, or general innocence. In the meantime, the characters foolish enough to drink, use drugs, or (god forbid) have sex are summarily dispatched with. If you’re a “slut,” then the value of your life is cheap.
Scream famously subverted the problem of the final girl by allowing Sidney both to have sex with Billy—who, 20-year-old spoiler alert, killed her mom and also a bunch of other people, whoops—and survive through the credits (not to mention three sequels). This is true of Stranger Things, too: Nancy and Steve also sleep together, an offense for which she doesn’t have to pay a mortal price.
But that’s just the starting point for Stranger Things. It takes down horror’s impulse to separate women into binaries—good and bad, virgin and slut, worthy and not—by having its characters repeatedly define who Nancy is and who she should try to be, despite her insistence otherwise. Even Barb—poor, sweet, soon-to-be-dead Barb—is dismissive of the apparent change in her best friend’s personality. “This isn’t you,” Barb tells Nancy as she heads upstairs to “change” (that is, change from a person who is a virgin into a person who is not a virgin) in Steve’s room.
Steve’s perspective on Nancy is certainly myopic. Perhaps the only shot in the whole series explicitly constructed from his point of view is misleading. After Nancy narrowly escapes from the terrifying parallel universe of the Upside Down with the help of Will's older brother Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton), Steve climbs to her window once more.
This time, he spies Jonathan sitting next to Nancy on her bed and putting a sweater around her shoulders. Steve’s interpretation of the scene is fundamentally wrong: what to him appears compromising is actually a purely innocent moment.
As misguided retribution, Steve—or at least Steve’s friends, with his tacit approval—deface the local movie theater’s marquee. By the time Nancy sees it, All the Right Moves bears a spray-painted subtitle: “Starring Nancy the Slut Wheeler.” It couldn’t be more fitting that this (very literal) instance of slut-shaming is found on the face of a movie theater, directly implicating cinema for its history of exploiting and abusing characters just like her.
Later, Steve—bloodied after getting his ass deservedly beat by Jonathan—confronts his “asshole” friends for perpetrating this prank. Tommy argues that they were only “[calling] her out for what she really is.” And what Nancy “really is,” according to a sneering Carol, is a “slut with a heart of gold.” This, without a hint of irony, from the same girl who previously dismissed Nancy as “Miss Perfect.”
For all the kindness he shows Nancy, Jonathan too has a very specific, prescriptive vision of who she is. A keen photographer, he snaps pictures of Steve’s pool party from a distance—including a shot of Nancy changing—after he stumbles on the festivities by accident. When Nancy presses him as to why he took her picture, he explains that he apparently knows her better than she knows herself: “I saw this girl, you know, trying to be someone else. But for that moment, it was like you were alone, or like you thought you were. And, you know, you could just be yourself.”
“That is such bullshit,” she protests. “I am not trying to be someone else.”
When the two have an argument, he appropriates language she’d previously used to complain about her mother and father in an attempt to diminish her:
Well, I was just starting to think you were okay. I was thinking, ‘Nancy Wheeler, she’s not just another suburban girl who thinks she’s rebelling by doing exactly what every other suburban girl does, until that phase passes and they marry some boring one-time jock, who now works sales and they live out a perfectly boring little life at the end of a cul-de-sac.’
What if Nancy were just “another suburban girl?” Unlike Jonathan, I’m not convinced that there’s anything wrong with that.
But the final masterstroke of Nancy’s character arc is that she manages to subvert even our savvy, seasoned-moviegoer expectations. In just the same way that Nancy’s friends insist they know what’s best for her, those of us on the other side of the screen mistakenly come to believe that she’ll end up with Jonathan. The two teens share some genuinely tender moments—as when they spend a chaste night sleeping beside each other in Nancy’s bed—and a special bond that forms after they survive an encounter with evil together.
The season ends at Christmas, and when Jonathan stops by the Wheeler house, Nancy gives him a wrapped present and a kiss on the cheek. But a kiss on the cheek is all that passes between them: Nancy says goodbye to Jonathan and snuggles up next to Steve, a few feet away from her napping dad, beside the family Christmas tree.
By this point, Steve has at least partly redeemed himself—scrubbing off the “slut” graffiti, apologizing for his atrocious behavior, and even helping to fell the monster with a baseball bat—but their reconciliation likely came as a surprise for most viewers (it definitely did for me). It turns out that our superficial assessments of Nancy are just as skewed as anyone else’s.
“Did you give it to him?” Steve asks when she sits down.
The “it” in question proves to be a camera, to replace the one Steve smashed after he discovered Jonathan had taken photos of their pool party. This moment is a satisfying bookend to the slur on the theater marquee. Because it’s Nancy who gives Jonathan the camera, it’s as if she’s asserting her own agency over the narrative that’s told on film—a privilege that women in horror have too long been denied.
Like any teenage girl, like any woman, like any person, Nancy contains multitudes, with an inner life beyond our understanding: She’s altogether stranger than anyone would expect.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.