In Praise of Barb, the Best Character on Stranger Things

All hail Barb. Photo: Curtis Baker/Netflix

This story contains spoilers for the full first season of Stranger Things.

There are many things to root for in Stranger Things, Netflix’s ode to ’80s horror movies. There is the group of outcast nerds hell-bent on rescuing their friend who disappeared; the powerful girl with the G.I. Jane haircut on the run from shadowy government agents that want to control her; the resurrection of Winona Ryder’s career that might finally stick. But there is no one greater to root for than Barb, the unsung and forgotten hero of the show. 

Barbara Holland (played by Shannon Purser) is Nancy Wheeler’s best friend and a budding fashion icon. She’s only in a handful of scenes in the first three episodes before the gross, tulip-faced monster drags her into the Upside Down dimension, devours her, and leaves her desiccated corpse in a pile of green goop for her friends to discover somewhere around episode eight.  

And yet, despite the fact that she’s forgotten so quickly, Barb makes an impression every time she’s onscreen. We first see her sauntering down the halls of her high school alongside Nancy, wearing a plaid shirt with a high collar and a ruffle down the front, and a pair of mom jeans that are so maternal they came with their own stroller and yoga mat. She is obviously the first person to put the words “norm” and “core” together. Her most distinctive features are a swoop of red hair that would make Tilda Swinton jealous and a pair of Sally Jesse Raphael glasses that got left out in the sun too long.

Her most distinctive outfit, however, is the bulky cerulean winter coat she wears to the small party at Steve’s house. We will always remember Barb in that jacket, her eyes hoisted up the stairs at Nancy, who dismisses Barb and tells her to go home so she can go to Steve’s room for some heavy petting.

But apart from the way she looks, Barb inspires feelings of devotion because of who she is. Even in that first scene, she begs Nancy to still hang out with her even after she becomes attached to the popular and bro-tastic Steve. We are all Barb: Who wasn’t that awkward teenager, worried about her station in the scholastic pecking order and trying to maintain the few friends she has even as they use her for rides in her VW and as a convenient excuse so they can sneak out for dates with boys? None of us wanted to shotgun a beer at a stupid Tuesday night party and sat cross-armed while a bunch of losers tried to steal our best friend.

Let’s face it: We all wanted to be Nancy, the pretty one with the good grades, stable family, and easy fashion sense, who had boys falling at her feet when she didn’t even try. But know what? Nancy is a myth. Nancy does not exist in the real world, and if you think she does, you have spent too much time reading Teen Vogue and watching Gossip Girl on Netflix. Nancy is an archetype created through an evil conspiracy launched by Wes Craven, John Hughes, and Molly Ringwald sometime during the Reagan administration. It’s a conspiracy more dangerous than nuclear proliferation, because everyone is still trying to be Nancy and hating who they really are: Barb.

We’ve been waiting for a girl like Barb to come along, and it seems the show finds her completely disposable. Nancy gets involved in the search for the monster to help find her friend while everyone around her says, “We have to save Will!” Nancy is like “What about Barb?” and they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I guess her too.” But no one really cares about Barb. The shadowy government agents take her car to a bus terminal and tell everyone she just ran away and everyone is like, “Oh, that explains that.”

Seriously? The Barbs of this world (all of us) don’t run away. We store up our resentment of the mainstream and then we go to college and move to a big city where we turn that resentment into creative magic in the fields of art, design, advertising, event planning, media, and possibly public relations if we’re not lucky.

Thankfully, the fans have not forgotten about Barb. They’ve created GIFs, murals, and T-shirts in her remembrance. New York cabaret genius Cole Escola (who bears a striking resemblance to Eleven from Stranger Things) even made a funny YouTube video of how Barb’s mother finds out what happened to her.

Nancy, well, she finds out what happens to Barb too, but without that grounding force in her life, she ends up with dirtbag Steve at the end instead of her true love, Jonathan Byers. She and the world are worse off without Barb, and it’s time she finally got her due. Because most of us at home are still rooting for her, and her inevitable spinoff.