Stranger Things: In praise of Nancy Wheeler

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Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) – source: Netflix

Stranger Things is great. A wonderful nostalgic series that creates its own original narrative that never feels derivative nor clichéd. The series has garnered much praise since its release on Netflix last month and rightly so, with many critics pointing towards the characterisation as being especially strong. Certainly the interactions between the young friends is believable and engaging, and the series has gained attention for its well-rounded and developed female characters.

For me, it is Nancy Wheeler’s character in particular that is worthy of praise. Her character begins the series as a seemingly archetypical love struck teen. The attentions of Steve (Joe Keery) apparently leads Nancy (Natalia Dyer) astray, at least, that’s what Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) believes when he remonstrates that Nancy is pretending to be someone else in order to gain popularity and Steve’s consideration.

At this point in the narrative, the viewer could find themselves siding with Jonathan’s assertion. While Nancy’s interactions with Steve, in which she readily mocks and laughs at him, have hinted at a more developed character, her rash actions and willingness to let Steve dictate her actions have indicated otherwise. She is, at this point in the narrative, seemingly another addition to the devoted, desperate female trope.

Her response, in which she angrily reasserts herself and tells Jonathan how wrong he is, is not only an indicator of great writing, but highlights just how brilliant Nancy’s characterisation is. In her diatribe she is simultaneously telling both Jonathan and the viewer that she is far more than first appearances may indicate. She is her own person, and she is making her own decisions. She refuses to allow Jonathan project his own fantasy upon her. Jonathan has clearly created a sense of who he thinks Nancy is, one that fits into the fantasy that he has of her, yet Nancy refuses to allow anyone to tell her who she is or how she should act.

It is Nancy, who after witnessing the monster, is determined to act in order to save her best friend. She willingly teams up with Jonathan, proving herself to more than adept with the typical masculine pursuits of shooting and tactically planning.

Most importantly, it is Nancy’s function within the narrative that is so impressive. She is not there to serve as a prize to be won. While it is clear that Jonathan has feelings for Nancy, his feelings are inconsequential. Nancy is friends with Jonathan, but she does not allow her romantic or sexual feelings to be dictated by others. She is firmly her own person.

Take the scene for example, in which Nancy asks Jonathan to stay with her after her experience in the Upside Down. A lesser writer would have used this scene as an opportunistic chance to introduce a sexual relationship between the two, reducing Nancy to a female foil for Jonathan’s male character. Instead, it is a moment in which Nancy is once again able to assert herself. Jonathan, seeking to comfort Nancy, tells her that the monster will not be able to attack them in the safety of their own home. Nancy, having been the person to actually see and interact with the monster in the Upside Down, quickly informs Jonathan that there is no way of knowing that, and that ultimately his comfort, while well meaning, is relatively useless. Nancy knows that the only way that they can be safe is to challenge the monster, and defeat it.

It is notable that in the scene in which Nancy enters the Upside Down, there is clearly a sense of gender role reversal at work. Typically, we would expect the male character to be the one to willing enter the sphere of danger, but here it is Nancy who takes the risk while Jonathan has to wait. Certainly Jonathan aids Nancy’s escape, but his help doesn’t extend to his entering the Upside Down himself.

Finally, it is Nancy’s role in attempting to defeat the monster that fully emphasises the development of her character. Purchasing various equipment, including guns and traps, with Jonathan highlights that Nancy is fully ready to undertake an active role in the monster’s defeat.

She is shown to be an equal; helping Jonathan and working with Steve in order to injure the creature. She doesn’t require rescuing, nor does she panic. She is level-headed throughout. She became involved in attempting to defeat the monster due to her friend Barb’s disappearance, but even though she now knows that this futile, she continues in the attempt. Nancy is truly an impressive creation: a developed, complex female character.

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