When Robin Buckley came out as a lesbian in ‘Stranger Things’ Season 3, it was one of the most heart-warming moments of the show. Her coming out speech to Steve was beautiful, subtle and thoughtful. It felt like authentic queer representation while it also retained Robin’s individual personality. So, naturally, fans of the show expected Will — who has long been hinted to be gay — to be treated with the same respect.
Another reason for these high expectations was the promotional content put out between Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Season 4. During this one month — coincidentally, American Pride month — several official Netflix and ‘Stranger Things’ accounts posted content about Byler (the ship name for Will and Mike). A few other instances include a tweet in support of Byler by Noah Schnapp (who plays Will) and a video in which David Harbour (who plays Hopper) hinted that Will was interested in someone from the main group.
The cast and crew were clearly accepting LGBTQ character ships with open arms. It raised the hope that Will’s romantic arc would be treated with the same importance given to other characters. Then why was this not reflected on screen?
Will’s Big Speech Was Heart-breaking For The Wrong Reasons
When Will finally had his moment in Season 4, it didn’t hit the mark. There’s no doubt that Noah Schnapp did an absolutely amazing job in his monologue to Mike in the van in Chapter 8: Papa. Everyone watching could tell that Will’s words were about Eleven but the feelings were his own.
But it hurt for the wrong reasons. Because Will’s big moment was ultimately a prop for Mike and Eleven’s relationship. It may have given us some insight into Will’s character but its ultimate purpose was to push Mike to tell Eleven he loves her. Even during the finale, it is Will’s encouragement that gets Mike to finally confess to Eleven.
After years of building up Will’s queerness with hints and throwaway comments, it was a betrayal to see Will’s feelings be used to boost a straight couple. He was reduced to a plot device. While a tear-jerker, even the scene where Jonathan tells Will he loves him no matter what was a last-minute addition. This goes to show just how little thought the writers put into Will’s storyline. Why couldn’t he get his own spotlight?
Robin also faced similar treatment this season. While she did have her own romantic arc, more screen time was spent on her trying to set up Steve and Nancy. Are queer stories only worth telling in terms of their relationship to straight ones?
Can We Move On From The Tragic Gay Trope
Yes, we get it. Queer people have difficult lives. But there are more than enough tragic queer stories in media at this point.
There’s nothing actually wrong with Will’s story in ‘Stranger Things’. A lot of people can relate to being in unrequited love with a best friend. But it stings harder than it would, because of all the other trauma he has already been through — abducted into the Upside Down, possessed and manipulated by the Mind Flayer, losing a chunk of his childhood.
He’s already the odd one out and being gay in the ‘80s is bound to be difficult. To top it all off, he’s in love with his best friend who is clearly head over heels for someone else? Seems a bit too cruel for the one queer lead of the show.
The Problem With Subtext
Subtext can be a powerful tool in storytelling. But it becomes a problem when it’s used as an excuse to justify poor representation. Too often, queer characters have been at the mercy of subtext. Like Dumbledore, who was queer but whose queerness was not ‘relevant to Harry’s story’. It allows media creators to neither show outright support for LGBTQ communities nor entirely deny it, but conveniently straddle the line in between.
Season 4 of ‘Stranger Things’ did bring Will’s feelings to the forefront, even if the way they did it was problematic. But even then, many viewers were divided over what it represented. The internet was abuzz with arguments between those who believed Will was gay and those who believed he wasn’t and rather was in love with Eleven (how does one come to this conclusion? Answer: homophobia).
This. This is exactly why subtext doesn’t always work with respect to queer stories. Ultimately, the much-needed confirmation of Will’s queerness didn’t come from the show but from an interview released two weeks after Volume 2 dropped. Noah Schnapp revealed to Variety that “it’s 100% clear that [Will] is gay and he does love Mike”. While the actor should be commended for his acceptance of Will’s identity, it still begs the question of why an interview was required for 100% clarity?
The delight amongst queer fans after the interview proves why ambiguity can be harmful. When you see yourself on screen, you want it to be whole, not veiled fragments.
The Final Verdict?
The real queerbaiting in ‘Stranger Things’, after all, was a combination of all these things. It was the promise of the makers to portray an authentic queer character, to treat them with the same respect and attention given to the rest. And the consequent breaking of that promise.
All said and done we have to remember that Season 5 — the final stretch of the show — is yet to air. Despite the missteps in Season 4, the Duffer brothers could turn things around and give us a storyline we loved as much as Robin’s. But we can only make a final conclusion when the very last episode is out. For now, we wait.