As a queer person, I’ve always felt an affinity with LGBT+ characters onscreen. I have loved fantasising about and shipping my favourite queer pairings. Representation is everything, so when so much tangible evidence about a character’s sexuality arises after so much suspicion that their reality couldn’t possibly be anything else, it’s simply joyous.
The final instalment of season four of cult Netflix show Stranger Things premiered on 1 July, and fans were convinced that long-standing character Will Byers was about to get his happy ending. Except, he didn’t. And we were so nearly there. I couldn’t help but feel queerbaited.
Queerbaiting is a “marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not actually depict, same-sex romance or other LGBT representation”. Shows from Killing Eve to Riverdale to Game of Thrones have been accused of it, but the harm it causes is so often downplayed or not understood.
Implicit hints regarding a character’s identity aren’t just disappointing, they’re cowardly. Of course, coming out scenes aren’t the only way to signal this – the same impact of being out can be achieved through casual remarks or comments inserted, naturally, into conversation. Queerbaiting isn’t a fun way to stir up the fangirls; it plays with peoples’ lives, with both their true identities and how LGBT+ characters are represented on screen, and it’s lazy writing, too.
Of course, Will’s sexuality isn’t central to the storyline, but it is potential representation, nonetheless. The Duffer Brothers have hinted at his potential queerness since season one, with his mother Joyce remarking to Hopper upon his disappearance that, being a “sensitive kid”, his father used to “call him a f**”. In season four, Will and best friend Mike fall out over his relationship with El and Mike’s response is: “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!”
Fans had long picked up on the hints about Will’s sexuality, but the show’s failure to address it has never been interpreted as harmful. Until now, Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas were just kids. It would’ve been unfair to expect the same representation of them as fully formed, adult characters.
Now, the gang take on a much more meaningful evil and the franchise embraces a darker trajectory; lending itself more to horror than sci-fi at points. These kids are now teenagers. They’re capable of battling a greater evil; their childhoods are over.
So, if Will is fighting a dark overlord that plans on bringing Hawkins to a grisly, all-encompassing demise, why is he unworthy of a proper coming out story? In season three, Robin Buckley – played by Maya Hawke, who has since become the subject of TikTok fan obsession – was gifted with a beautiful character trajectory. Explaining that she couldn’t stop staring at her female classmate – who incidentally wouldn’t stop staring at Steve – in school, Robin remarks that this is the reason they were never friends before now.
Understanding what she was saying, Steve instantly backed off, joking that Robin had terrible taste in women. Ever since, he’s been a steadfast ally and the ultimate friend, egging her on in her crush over bandmate, Vickie. “I’m telling you; she likes boobies!”, he jokes.
I feared that Robin would be destined for misery. It’s a classic trope in TV; the lesbian that falls for a completely unattainable straight girl with a boyfriend and is forever unhappy, perpetuating the narrative that queer women aren’t capable of or deserving of real love. That couldn’t have been further from the truth, with Robin and Vickie enjoying the nervous looks and fleeting glances that only the beginning of a crush can evoke by the season four finale.
Why isn’t Will deemed worthy of such a storyline? If the Duffer Brothers can achieve it with Robin, then they can achieve it with Will. Whilst coming out scenes aren’t everything and they’re arguably overdone, these stories provide crucial, life-saving representation. LGBT+ people really want to be working towards a world where no one needs to come out – but we’re not there yet.
Will had so many opportunities this season to experience a similar joy to Robin, and I’m disappointed that he wasn’t given this moment. It would’ve held so much meaning, not just for Will but for the swathes of LGBT+ fans who watch the show with adoration. Elsewhere, the reaction to Robin’s storyline is proof of the power it wields to give hope where it’s been lost.
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The finale saw Will embark on a heart-warming conversation with older brother Jonathan, who remarks that Will “never tells” him “anything anymore”. He assures his younger brother “you can always talk to me”, and the pair enjoy a tearful embrace. Again, as Will reveals to Mike in the penultimate episode that he painted a picture for him, the atmosphere was filled with so much tension.
“When you’re different, sometimes you feel like a mistake”, he tells Mike. My heart broke a little bit watching him turn away towards the window, crying. Will had, once again, been robbed. Of course, perhaps it was intended that Will simply wasn’t ready, but why cause a character so much unnecessary pain when the show has proven, time and time again, that it can get it right?
I’m not alone. Carrie is a queer fan and has felt both emboldened and disappointed by the show. “It’s been powerful to see Will on a journey, questioning and exploring his sexuality. These are the kinds of storylines I longed for when I was a teenager, but we’re past the point of lingering looks and painful longing. I hope Stranger Things will really do Will and his journey justice in the next season”, they remark.
All in all, it’s not fair to hint so heavily, to fill fans with so much excitement and then snatch that away in an instant, particularly when Lucas, Dustin and Mike have had so much airtime given to their respective relationships. If the crew is old enough to be snogging and fighting off demonic beings, then why is Will’s storyline being treated with such carelessness, as though he’s too young to know what he wants? After all he’s been through, he deserves love.
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