Chad Collins explores the series’ relationship to homosexuality.
In an interview with VarietyNoah Schnapp, the actor who plays Will Byers, the eternal target of Upside Down, in strange things, remarked, “I find people manage to put a label on him” in response to growing speculation that the character might be gay. Other cast members chimed in, a veritable mix of questionable responses and sanitized platitudes. Most of them formed the core of Will Byers as a character and hub of the young cast entirely transcending sexuality. This has sparked confusion at best and anger online at worst, with many fans (rightly) questioning the resistance popular media still has towards queer characters. Of course, Buzz Lightyear’s bandmate could be queer. But even in 2022, Buzz Lightyear himself would never be.
Unexpectedly, however, I feel inclined not only to defend Schnapp – not that he did anything wrong and bearing in mind that he is only 17 – but to see Will Byers as an ambiguous and gray queer character. Certainly, popular media continues to struggle with queer characters, especially when they come from non-queer creators. Too often they are inserted at the periphery to assuage audience expectations with little thought or care given to their story arcs or characterization.
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The argument against is tapped on his face. A good character is a good character, queer or not. Of course, this hugely devalues the dearth of queer characters in popular media even today. It often comes from people, even those with the best intentions, whose identities have mirrored each other for decades. It’s easy to expect little when the media has given so much. Queer people have rarely had this privilege.
Like other minority identities, these media are often relegated to subgenres of their own. Black cinema. queer cinema. It is not an unreasonable expectation to want these identities to feature prominently, unambiguously or, as the stranger things cast, the desire to exist without labels. It’s good to say it, at least in theory, but homosexuals don’t exist without Labels. Grocery shopping with a partner, posting online, and simply existing in any space as a visibly queer person is labeled. There is no “It’s 2022 and the labels are redundant” privilege for the lived experience of a queer person, the details of the transgressions and prejudices encountered daily.
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This then brings us back to stranger things and Will Byers in particular. The show’s third season featured a considerable change in Will’s characterization. He slowly drifted away from the core group, a change at first based on his experience as a vessel for the Upside Down. Of course, his friends didn’t quite understand him; he had endured a trauma they only joined at the end. In the first season, Will was trapped while his friends were making jokes and riding their bikes. They were looking for him, of course. But the extent of their trauma was marginal compared to Will’s imprisonment in literal hell.
As season three developed, audiences, especially queer audiences, picked up a not-so-subtle subtext. Will’s frustrations and growing pains didn’t just feel like frustrations and growing pains. Instead, they distinctly resembled the burgeoning internal process of queer awareness. That is to say, Will behaved just like so many young gay men do as their identity settles. For young gay men, riffing with boys is easy at first. It’s natural and comfortable. Then these boys start having girlfriends. They spend less time together and talk about pretty girls, cool girls, and girls they’d like to hang out with. They chat with them on the phone and awkwardly flirt with them in the school hallways.
For young homosexuals, the chasm grows. So D&D becomes T&A. Even the most talented comedians struggle to perform well, mimicking the vagaries of teenage hormones in a way that doesn’t immediately eliminate them. It’s an alienating and isolating experience, and like Will Byers, the default response is to go wild. Destroy an old fort or break innocuous comments. Pushing back the expanding social circles desperate to cling to the easier days of basement hangouts and lakeside bike rides.
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Season four Will Byers is that struggle personified. That’s the only reason Will Byers’ sexuality, at least to me, doesn’t need explicit confirmation. The subtext is rich enough and the development serious enough to work in the absence of any explicit confirmation. The conflict would dissipate if Will walked out. Namely, it would leave additional characters with two choices; accept or reject. Rejection wouldn’t work, and acceptance would resolve the conflict immediately, depriving queer audiences of the very real, very poignant internal struggle of Will Byers, particularly in the mid-1980s. A decade infamous for literally targeting people queer, Will’s journey resonates, even if the creative logic is tenuous at best.
stranger things was randomized with broad representation. Maya Hawke’s queer Robin Buckley is a standout, easily eclipsing the legacy cast with her season three introduction. But from one scene to another, the show remains just as homogeneous. It’s not perfect, and audiences frustrated with Will’s characterization aren’t wrong. It is not a dispositive defense. Critics raise several valid points, including the media’s tendency to dismiss labels when they really want to maintain as wide an audience as possible, whether that’s fair or not. In the specific case of Will Byers, however, his being in the closet, free of a clear identity, reads like a serious exploration of the development of sexuality. Straight, gay, questioning or curious, Will’s arc arrives.