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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Black Kids in 'Stranger Things' Never Get the Story They Deserve

It’s amazing how the writers of Stranger Things can imagine a world of Demogorgons and alternate universes, but not Black people in Indiana.

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Image for article titled The Black Kids in 'Stranger Things' Never Get the Story They Deserve
Image: Netflix

In case you’ve been under a rock, Netflix’s ‘80s sci-fi thriller, Stranger Things, recently dropped its fourth season, reuniting us with all the iconic Hawkins kids. This season, they’re on a desperate quest to stop Vecna, rescue and extract Elle (aka Eleven) from Dr. Brenner’s lab before the government officials find her, and prevent the basketball jocks from capturing Eddie Munson—who everyone believes is the one mysteriously killing all the town’s kids.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

While I thoroughly enjoyed the fast-paced, nonstop action of this season, there’s still one giant upside-down-sized hole: If this is the second to last season, why have the Black characters still not been given rich backstories or subplots? And why do the writers continue to rely on tired tropes, like the sassy Black woman or the basketball player, to move their stories along? Racism is glazed over or not mentioned at all, and the season’s soundtrack missed a huge opportunity to highlight the major influence Black musicians had on the 70s and 80s. Needless to say, Stranger Things left me wanting so much more from Lucas, his sister Erica, and (the few) supporting Black characters.

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“It’s not about what they wrote per se, but what they didn’t write. They wrote the Black character, but didn’t write the Black character with an audaciously Black consciousness of the time that also knew how to move and maneuver in various settings,” Danté Stewart, a Sci-fi scholar, Stranger Things expert, and culture critic told Jezebel in a phone interview. “The interior Black world is all but missing.”

I’m not sure what I actually expected from the Duffer Brothers, but as a young Black girl that grew up in a very Black town in Indiana, I did not feel seen by the Black characters in the series, nor did I feel compelled to care about any of them (except for Erica). It’s amazing how the writers can imagine a world of Demogorgons, alternate universes, and spiritual beings...but not Black people in Indiana.

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I shouldn’t be surprised. Stranger Things has a problem with writing in-depth, exciting Black characters that don’t revolve around whiteness or rely on stereotypes. Let’s start with Lucas, the loyal and headstrong friend of the crew, who is cautious and skeptical but remains curious about everything around him. We get these small tidbits of his personality in the first two seasons, and then it seems we learn less and less about him as the show progresses.

We start Season 4 with Lucas joining the Hawkins basketball team, and then grappling with choosing the team over his friends and their “Hellfire” D&D club. But we never get insight into how he’s feeling after the shock, grief, and fear the group has experienced over the previous three seasons. I kept wondering: How is Lucas processing all this trauma? Why do I know so much about his friends’ pain and not his?

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“Vulnerability for Lucas is transactional and transformational. Transformational vulnerability is what catapults a coming-of-age story, but Lucas never gets that,” says Stewart. “Every other character, (even Billie) gets that, except Lucas and Erica.”

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We do get a glimmer of vulnerability when Lucas confesses to Mike and Dustin that he no longer wants to be a bullied nerd, and would rather lean into the popularity the basketball team affords him—yet he’s still enveloped by whiteness. The writers restrict opportunities for Lucas to share camaraderie with other characters of color on screen—and I longed for those moments. What does Lucas love? What are his hobbies and interests besides basketball? As Black viewers watching Lucas mature, we want to see him fully formed as a young adult in the same way as the white characters are.

The biggest misnomer is that Lucas rarely does anything that reflects the Black culture of the time—picking out his afro, dancing to Motown or funk music, even eating the snacks that Black kids in the ‘80s grew up with (while the white characters are always seen with some ‘80s-era treat—Nutty bars, Bazooka bubblegum, Smarties, etc.).

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“Fullness means giving various iterations of Black life as it would have been lived in this moment. This means writers in the room who knew and loved and understood the creativity and nuance of Black life and culture,” Stewart says. “This starts before the screen. It begins in the imagination and how we are written on the page.” Unfortunately, Lucas’ Blackness is stripped down to either basketball or his connection to his white friends, leaving him with little agency as a Black character. He’s forever hushed by the white majority, and even when he does lean into his desires and chooses himself by joining the basketball team, the team just uses him to get to the “Hellfire Club.”

“I think we don’t give Black characters enough room to laugh, love, cry, and be missed,” Stewart adds. “Most Black boys in Stranger Things are disposable.” This is definitely the case with Patrick McKinney, the only other Black Hawkins basketball player, who ends up getting killed by Vecna. Patrick only has a few lines, and we never get any backstory—despite getting backstories for every other student who’s murdered, like Chrissy and Fred. Patrick’s body is mutilated, and then he’s forgotten about shortly after.

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It’s the same case with Jeff, the basically invisible Black “Hellfire” club member who has one line, and then poof, he’s also gone.

Finally, we have Erica. Lucas’ little sister Erica is everything. As the funny, scene-stealing know-it-all, she’s easily the fan favorite. But her character is largely built around the “sassy Black girl” stereotype. Erica is seen as refreshing because she brings a “coolness” and “hip-ness” Hawkins and Lucas’s otherwise bland white friends, and that’s where, as a Black viewer, I cringe. “Like most Black women, Erica is an integral part of the liberation of Hawkins from demonic forces, and yet her contribution is subjugated by her white counterparts,” Stewart agrees.

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Image for article titled The Black Kids in 'Stranger Things' Never Get the Story They Deserve
Image: Netflix

Another major miss is not allowing Erica and Lucas to join forces and work together in some capacity. The Sinclair family is fascinating, yet we know nothing about them the way we do the other boys’ families. We saw them eating breakfast together once in an earlier season, but in Season Four, they’re all but forgotten. While Mrs. Sinclair is seen on screen during a few town functions, we never learn anything about her. She doesn’t even have lines in this season. I had hoped that as the season came to a close, the writers would give Lucas, Erica, and the Sinclairs space to roam on screen. Sci-fi is a genre where anything and everything is possible—we can go on a journey where alternate dimensions exist, but a Black character being anything more than a supportive friend or stereotype is unimaginable?

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“We give Black characters layers by giving Black characters to people who treat their stories with care and creativity. This is the bedrock of storytelling that’s believable, humorous, gritty, compelling, intimate, and honest,” Stewart says. “It’s clear the writers see Black people and want Black people seen, but do not actually know us and believe our worlds to be worth exploring and centering. This means we have to not only be commissioned in the writer’s room but also trusted.”

In Season Five, which will be the final season, I hope to see Erica standing next to Lucas with a key in her hand that leads to them both defeating the Demogorgon, side by side and center stage. They deserve their main character moment.