If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

Spoilers ahead. Seriously.

I recently wrote about how to do a better job coming up with racially diverse protagonists, as opposed to writing an all-white cast, realizing what you’ve done, and trying to find someone re-writable at the last minute. One of the tips was to mentally recast stories you like.

Stranger Things is ripe for this exercise. It’s a great show with talented actors, but it does not do well with race. The setting is Hawkins, a small Indiana town in the ’80s, which would realistically have a white majority and a few Black families. The fact that there are only a few Black characters isn’t what I’m objecting to. They still had full control over who they picked to represent that Black minority, and unfortunately the writers picked Lucas.

Lucas_Sinclair_001

Lucas barely has a personality. He is the sidekick who carries the conflict ball. Worse, he frequently insults my favorite character, Eleven, and that absolutely poisoned my ability to like him. Given how popular Eleven ended up being, I’m certainly not alone in that. If your audience keeps wishing your only Black character would shut the hell up, you’ve gone seriously wrong.

The last couple of episodes did redeem him somewhat, so I hope season two will make better use of his character. Still, I can’t help but wish they had represented the Black population of Hawkins with a protagonist, instead of a sidekick.

Hopper

Hopper

The thing about demographics is that your age, race, gender, orientation etc are always a part of you, but at some points in your life they are major factors, and at others they are minor. It’s fine to recognize that you aren’t qualified to write a Black Person’s Story (TM). But that’s no reason to never write Black protagonists, because everyone’s life is made of thousands of little stories. You can pick the stories where a person’s race isn’t the biggest element.

Hopper is a perfect example of this. His primary identity, in this show, is as a cop. He is pulled between his fear that he’s overstepping his jurisdiction to find a missing child, and his worry that he isn’t doing enough. He battles obstructive authorities, sorts through red herrings and struggles to see the truth. In this setting, those conflicts wouldn’t be changed by his race.

Hopper is also a good illustration of how the spotlight itself can act as a vaccine against stereotyping. In the course of his investigation, he sometimes resorts to violence. If he were a secondary character, those moments might comprise most of his screentime. Even though it’s heroic violence, it could still potentially feed into aggressive Black man tropes. But because he’s a protagonist, he’s allowed a greater degree of complexity. He gets backstory, moments of introspection, doubts, vulnerabilities, and even scenes that showcase his gentleness. He’s balanced and multi-dimensional.

I am white, so take everything I just said with a grain of salt. I might have completely overlooked something problematic; if you think I have I would love to hear from you. This goes for everyone below as well. But on the whole, based on what I’ve learned so far, Hopper feels like the safe choice.

Joyce, Jonathan and Will Byers

Joyce and Jonathan

If Hopper is the safe choice, this is the risky one. The Byers are dirt poor. Mr. Byers is a deadbeat who abandoned them a long time ago, and Joyce struggles to find enough time to spend with her sons. Furthermore, this isn’t a poor town. The Byers are outliers, looked on with suspicion by most everyone else. If you made them the only Black family as well… I’m sure you can all see the problem.

In this case, being protagonists wouldn’t fix anything. Hopper is shown being violent and gentle, confused and canny, confident and conflicted. The Byers don’t ever stop being impoverished. If the spotlight is the vaccine against stereotyping, they have the egg allergy.

Another issue is that Will and Eleven’s resemblance to each other is a plot point. This means Eleven would also have to be Black. Eleven’s mother is a catatonic addict. Sure, she took drugs as parts of an experiment, but you see the problem. Also, there’s an implication that Eleven’s biological father didn’t even stick around long enough to learn her mother was pregnant.

That’s not to say nobody could write the show this way. But if you wanted to do this, you couldn’t ignore the racial issues. You’d have to change the show, to actively discuss race and poverty. I, as a white writer who was raised in the middle class, would not feel comfortable doing this. My life so far hasn’t given me anything special to say about those issues, but my privilege would elevate my voice. I’d end up talking over people who really have experiences to share.

The Wheeler Family

Mike is the classical  children’s protagonist. He’s brave, smart, and precocious, but still figuring out who he is and how to take care of things on his own. He’s part of a group of friends, but in this story he takes the lead, and their actions revolve around him.

Mike

For some reason, this character is always coded as white, but there’s no reason for him to be. I can think of Black cops, like Hopper. I can’t think of any characters like Mike who are Black, and I can’t think of good reasons for that. So I’m already liking this option.

Then there’s Nancy. When I imagine her as Black, she actually gains depth.

Nancy

She’s a good girl going through her rebellious phase; kissing boys instead of doing her homework, tasting beer, generally seeing what it’s like to not live up to her reputation. You can relate to her identity crisis, but it’s fairly prosaic. There’s nothing to set her apart from all the other characters like this.

Suppose, however, she was the only Black girl her age in a small, predominantly white town. She would exist in a world where she is spared some of the uglier, more overt displays of racism, but still has to deal with a constant feeling of not quite fitting in. She still sees a culture that doesn’t consider her type of beauty the “right” kind, and that will project a trashy image on her regardless of what she does. A few scenes could be enough to paint this picture. She sees a scene from a Blaxploitation film on TV, flinches and changes the channel. She stares a little too long at a blonde model in a lipstick advertisement. A shopkeeper is a little too watchful of her, and she imagines snapping at him, but doesn’t. All her life, she has overcompensated, by being a clean-cut, straight A student, and she’s sick of it. We would understand that Steve, who is edgy but rich and popular, offers an opportunity to cut loose while still fitting in.

The bulk of her story could remain the same. Stranger Things wouldn’t have to be about race, like in the example with the Byers. Race would just become a facet of Nancy’s character arc, which helps distinguish her, and raises the stakes of her conflict.

In fact, this change would actually solve a story problem. You know that scene, at the end, that made us all go “WHY??????!!!!!!!!?????” Imagine she’s the only Black teen girl in town. Imagine she has to decide between Steve, who elevates her status, and Jonathan, who associates her with stereotypes she’s desperate to avoid. I’m still mad at hypothetically-Black Nancy, but at least her decision makes sense, instead of being character assassination committed for no goddamned reason besides prolonging a love triangle.

Now, I’m not saying that making the Wheelers Black is the one true correct story choice. Rather, it’s the one that makes me, as a writer, go “ooooh!” Now I’m interested in someday writing a story with Black characters like Mike and Nancy.

That’s why I like this exercise. I think the reason we got stuck with Lucas as the token Black kid is that the writers weren’t excited about writing diverse characters. They were thinking, “better put a Black kid in there somewhere so nobody will yell at us.”

That’s not how either good writing or good representation works.

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

  1. I agree with your analysis that Hopper would make the best black protagonist. As a non-white person I see all too often how white writers try to fit someone black into a role written for a white person – a one size fits all. It’s insulting and comes off not just racist but inauthentic. I think black actors when playing these roles are burdened by the dilemma of this tokenized representation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment! I completely agree. Identifying the best character to recast is better than nothing, but it’s worth the work and research to come up with a non-white character to begin with.

      Like

  2. I’m curious what your thoughts are regarding an alternative interpretation of Lucas’ role in the story. Instead of him being just a “sidekick”, what if the entire group is viewed as the protagonist with each individual fulfilling different party needs? What if Lucas’ role as the party’s ranger represents clear-mindedness and bravery? What if his “carrying the conflict ball” is actually his praiseworthy unbreakable loyalty to Will? What if Eleven learned the importance of honesty and loyalty from Lucas? Honesty even when a lie is made in the attempt to protect people? What if his initial distrust of Eleven is keeping with the ranger character– a soldier, warrior, scout– someone who would inherently be distrustful of outsiders because his job is to protect his friends? What if we admired Lucas for his bravery in fighting the demigorgon with a slingshot even after it was clear it wouldn’t work because what else was he going to do? give up? No, he wouldn’t give up even when there was no hope! Maybe that inspired Eleven to get up and fight even though she was exhausted?

    What if, instead of superficial engagement with the outward appearance of characters, we instead looked deeper into the story and viewed characters by how they drive the story forward? What if we looked at a black character and saw a strong and ethical personality that is essential to the story? What if we look at Eleven, a character we all love, and saw that she learned the most important life lessons from Lucas?

    Like

    1. I’m sorry for the delay in approving and responding to your comments. I had a chaotic weekend and I wanted to make sure I took the time to address it fully. Also, I hope you’ll excuse me for only publishing one. They both covered the same points and so I thought only one was necessary.

      That is certainly a good take on Lucas’s character and his role in the series. There are multiple ways to analyze any given character, and different lenses can reveal different things. Every point you made about Lucas is true; none of that negates the fact that he objectively has less screentime than the other boys, and spends a good deal of his time calling Eleven hurtful names. This makes him part of an overall trend of Black characters being less important and less sympathetic than white characters, across all media. It also made Stranger Things a good show to illustrate a mental game I’ve used to teach myself to write better diverse characters.

      I also think there’s a false dichotomy in your last paragraph. You are implying that we can either look at his race, or his deeper role. This is a false dichotomy that exists throughout white culture. A person’s skin color is still a part of who they are, and many people of color have written about how “color blind” attitudes can make them feel just as stigmatized as blatant racism. After all, do we ignore things that are positive? Even positive things that are also relatively superficial? Furthermore, blatant racism still exists, and we’ve never successfully solved a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist.

      In fact, I think color blindness has a lot more to do with protecting white egos than fighting racism. A reality of conversations about race; we inevitably have to address mistakes we make. Ignoring the problem entirely is more comfortable than admitting there’s work to be done. But we don’t get the chance to improve as human beings until we let ourselves be vulnerable to criticism.

      Like

      1. Thank you for the response. There’s a lot to unpack here. The second paragraph made no such implication. The “superficial” statement referenced the seemingly postmodernist deconstruction which failed to recognize Lucas’ indispensability. This stems from the doomed search for accurate representations of reality within literature/film. Doomed because stories don’t represent reality, they impart morality. “If Stranger Things Had a Black protagonist” explicitly argued that Lucas is not a protagonist. As a person of color, I find that extremely offensive. Your analysis hyper-focused on Lucas’ flaw and completely negated his positive attributes: bravery, loyalty, determination, honesty. Worse, you down-played and minimized his progression. He is “less sympathetic” only in your subjective, superficial interpretation, which is very revealing. Why didn’t you see that Lucas was brave when he found the gate on his own? That he warned his friends they were coming? That he never gave up fighting the monster or looking for his friend? Every other character struggled with their flaws, why can’t Lucas struggle with social awkwardness in a time of stress? Instead of dehumanizing POC characters through negative stereo types, you dehumanized Lucas by insisting he be flawless and stagnant.

        As a literary person I find your analysis terribly ignorant of universal story-telling techniques, purposes, and deeply meaningful motifs. It even failed to recognize the importance of Lucas’ and Eleven’s reconciliation. It’s the moment when hope is restored (postmodernism is deeply skeptical of hope, the monomyth centralizes it). Read Joseph Campbell.

        My original comment reveals that I was not insisting on a “color blind” analysis. I was proposing an alternate methodology which looks at characters and story equally. Thus, Lucas is indispensable despite his flaws because he is human, just like the other characters. Mike is childish and plays with toys too much. Dustin is obsessed with junk food (who also received little screen time). Jonathan is a little creepy with his camera. Hopper is addicted to booze, pills and uses women for sex (be honest, if Hopper had been black, you would have latched onto those as racist stereotypes). Nancy isn’t true to herself and abandoned her friend. All these characters are protagonists and flawed humans. All have their individual hero’s journey. All are vital to the success of the quest, which is the moral of the story: the community needs the individual, the individual needs the community. Lucas bears that torch, revealing that individualism versus collectivism is a false dilemma.

        The monomyth methodology argues there is deep meaning beyond the text and allows identification of negative stereotypes as well as to see a POC protagonist. Your analysis allowed for only the former. Which one is the false dichotomy?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. First of all, I owe you an apology. I let some prior conversations color my reading of your comments. I made some big assumptions about who you were and why you were making your arguments; ironic, considering the topic of the conversation. You weren’t a pseudo-intellectual trying to talk me out of my search for learning how to do representation better; you are a person who identified and cared for Lucas, seeking to defend his character. I shouldn’t have leapt to conclusions, and I’m very sorry.

        Perhaps I was wrong in my overall understanding of his character. I did mention that the last few episodes did redeem him. Because I’ve been told I’m too wordy, I didn’t go into what exactly changed my mind. But for the record, his bravery and deeper motivations for treating Eleven the way he did were a big part of why I liked him more in the end. I feel like, after I saw the season one finale, Lucas and I were ready for a fresh start (I am saving the second season as a reward for some things I need to do, so no spoilers please).

        I also have read Joseph Campbell, and I like him quite a lot. I also have tried to get into some more postmodern deconstructionists, and I just can’t do it. They’re bland and often seem to be intentionally confusing the reader so they can come across as smart. As I mentioned, I like using many lenses to analyze a story, but my favorite one is just to let myself feel what I feel, then try to trace where those feelings came from. Is that deconstructionism? I don’t know. That’s a lot of why I chose to publish your second comment and not your first. I didn’t want to get derailed arguing which of various academic labels fit me.

        Here’s the truth; I’ve never taken an academic literature course. I’ve only taken a few courses at a community college, and most of that has been vocational training. This isn’t for lack of interest. I am addicted to audio courses and books. I’ve always been a passionate self-educator. I don’t know if you’ve read my bio, but I was homeschooled by religious fundamentalists. They wanted me to be smart and well read, but they also were afraid that if I got too educated, I’d become a brainwashed liberal heathen. When I came out as queer, they decided even the taste of community college had been too much for me. They cut off my college funding and kicked me out. I’ve been working to support myself ever since. As a result, I have a mixed reaction to intellectualism. On the one hand, I love getting sucked into an eggheaded debate. On the other hand, if I feel like unfamiliar topics are being brought up as shibboleths, well, I feel anxious and like I’ve got to prove myself, by showing off with words like “shibboleth.”

        I related very intensely to Eleven. I think most people have felt lost and alone and a bewildered at some point in their life, and those parts of their life are memorable, transformative and painful. Eleven was lost, alone and bewildered. Because she was isolated for such bizarre reasons, she became a blank slate on which we could all project our diverse experiences of isolation. It’s a funny quirk of how humans work. Eleven reminded me of the scariest part of my life. Lucas spent a lot of the series playing the role of the person I most feared when I was in her shoes; the one who was telling me I was a freak, my safety was unimportant compared to his own needs, and I would never belong in his world. He took the role of everyone who ever made me afraid that I would never find a new home, once my old one had rejected me.

        I think I could have liked Lucas, despite that. I did like him more in the end. And I agree that characters of color absolutely need to have their own flaws (Rufus from Timeless is easily my favorite, because of the contrast between his kindness and social awkwardness, and his growth from fearful to courageous). I think there was a poor balance when it came to Lucas’s scenes. In the first few episodes he wasn’t distinguished much from the group as a whole. Too many episodes in the middle gave him nothing to do but complain and bully. Then the last few episodes finally let him shine. If he had been given more complexity in the middle of the series, I probably wouldn’t have written this post.

        I love intellectual analysis. It’s especially helpful for understanding someone else’s point of view. I, for example, liked reading your analysis because it helped me understand another way of appreciating Lucas. That said, at the end of the day we all come to stories with our own biases and subjective experiences. We cannot be persuaded to feel, only made to understand why someone else might feel a different way.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s