Last year, Netflix’s retro sci-fi show Stranger Things exploded onto the pop culture scene and quickly developed a huge fan following. As with all big fandoms, there were certain memes and hashtags that caught on quickly. One of these tags was “#JusticeforBarb,” named in honor of Barb (Shannon Purser), the doomed best friend of Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Despite only being in three episodes, Barb gained a surprisingly passionate following, with fans complaining about the lack of attention centered on her disappearance, and in general the lack of care the other characters seemed to display. The hashtags and memes have continued for a year now, and recently culminated in Purser receiving a nomination for Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series at the 2017 Emmy awards.
But even as her legions of fans celebrated, numerous news outlets raised a question over the nomination. Many felt it was more a nod to audiences than an actual nod to Purser’s performance. Purser has begun a steady career, but her work as Barb is hardly noteworthy, especially given the snubs at the Emmys this year. Even from her own series, Winona Ryder failed to receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and she was one of the actors who carried the freshman sci-fi series. It feels less like a truly earned nomination, and more like a wink at the larger culture. This is no offense meant to Purser, but rather to a geek sphere that has meme-ed her character to importance beyond what the character was intended to be.
Barb is, quite frankly, canon fodder. Introduced mostly to draw Nancy into the search for the demogorgon and Will, her purpose in the show was to die so that the audience had a character they knew fall prey to the demogorgon without sacrificing a major character such as one of the three main boys, Eleven, or any more of the Byers clan. Purser gave us a solid turn as Barb, letting us feel for the character even in the simple arc that she was given. Yet audiences responded far more strongly to Barb than anyone could have anticipated, to the point where the Duffer brothers had to flat out say she would not be brought back to life in season 2 despite fan demands.
This is not to say that the hashtag wasn’t fun at first. After all, the difference in reactions to Will’s disappearance vs. Barb’s was somewhat noticeable, but we can write that off as the writers focusing more on Will’s disappearance in general. And it’s not like Barb’s best friend Nancy wasn’t concerned and didn’t go looking for her – even as fans cried that Nancy was a horrible friend. But at this point not only has Purser been nominated for an Emmy, she also appeared in Riverdale season 1 as a character called Ethel, with an entire subplot dedicated to “Justice for Ethel.” The hype has become a little embarrassing, especially when stacked up against the lack of fan response to characters far more mistreated by their narratives and shows.
Barb does not need justice, because Barb was always meant to be killed off. It’s not like she was a beloved fan-favorite suddenly tossed to the side in an unfair way. She was written into three episodes to exist, to die, and to motivate Nancy. There was no injustice surrounding her character. Could the inhabitants of Hawkins cared a little more? Absolutely. But compared to other notable TV deaths, she was treated entirely fairly.
Where were the hashtags and complaints of this magnitude surrounding the gross, shock value-filled deaths of characters such as Glenn from The Walking Dead, Poussey from Orange is the New Black, or Wes from How to Get Away With Murder? All three characters were major players in their respective shows who were written off in terrible and unfair ways, and all of them had an actual story to tell. And yet while there was backlash, these fans were told to be silent. It was “good writing,” or it happened in the comics, or the character had no story left to tell. Those were the excuses given for the deaths of these characters, all of whom deserved better.
Even in Stranger Things itself there’s a character who deserved better, even if they didn’t end up as the demogorgon’s dinner. Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) is the only major character of color in the show, and yet he is the one who is villainized by the narrative because he doesn’t trust Eleven. Never mind that she is a stranger who has superpowers and who might be tied to the disappearance of one of his best friends. No, Lucas is forced into a minor antagonist role, and even though he eventually comes to trust Eleven, the fandom has responded by disliking him for his completely justified distrust. If anyone on the show deserves justice and better writing, it’s Lucas. Not Barb.
But even with multiple characters who truly deserve justice being sidelined, and even though there are other characters who deserve mere protection and support from their fandsoms, there’s a simple point to be made about Justice for Barb: it’s time to let it go. The show has been out for a year now, and season 2 is well on its way. Barb is gone and she is not coming back. Fandom jokes are funny, but like all jokes they can become stale if carried on for too long. This is not a slight to Purser, who will almost certainly move on to bigger things thanks to the buzz she got from the role. This is a statement about fandom at large.
This might seem harsh, or like a misunderstanding of how fandom works. But the joke has gone on long enough, and stopped being funny months ago. Find something new to champion, especially when it comes to marginalized characters who are often treated with injustice by their narratives. Purser has an Emmy nomination and justice for Barb has been delivered. Let’s call this one a win, and move on. Who knows, maybe in season 2 we’ll get Justice for Lucas.
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