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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.