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Are you a Nancy or a Barb? Could one exist on a diet of only Eggo waffles? And where is the tear? These questions have been of pressing urgency of late, as delirious distraction from the tedium of a desk-bound summer has been gifted to us in the form of the eight-part, sci-fi horror drama Stranger Things.
A creation of the Duffer brothers, American film auteurs and identical twins, the series is set in 1983, in the fictional backwater of Hawkins, Indiana, and follows the fate of its residents, who are being terrorised by an underworldly monster and the darker manipulations of experimental scientist Dr Martin Brenner. In short, it’s marvellous: gripping, addictive and utterly mesmerising. Never one to delay gratification, I binge-watched the entire series the moment it came out, and am now revisiting it for a more leisurely viewing. (Spoiler alert: those yet unfamiliar with the programme may want to look away now.)
For children of the 1980s, Stranger Things is a delicious syrupy bath of nostalgia, where the cinematic tropes and close encounters are as comforting as they are thrilling. Each frame seems to pay homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg, while the plotline echoes the creepiest and kitschiest Stephen King novel. Even better, for those of us who get weepy with longing for overwrought 1980s dramas starring brooding adolescents, the show has provided the perfect vehicle for Winona Ryder’s mid-career comeback. Seeing the still elfin-faced actress, who made her screen debut in 1986, playing one of the leads has been the happiest of reunions: her husky intonation flashes me back to that teenage nirvana where nothing other than being miserable mattered, and any colour was good so long it was black.
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing, though, and it’s just as well Stranger Things works as a millennial experience (although I pity those who can watch shots of kids adventuring along railroad tracks without getting misty-eyed for Stand by Me, which celebrates its 30th birthday this month).
Unlike some of its counterparts, the beauty of Stranger Things is in the subtlety of its references. Moreover, for those enjoying the current 1980s trend in fashion, the series offers an excellent forum for catwalk-to-culture reappraisal. Many key looks of the new season are here; the ethereal lead character, Eleven, wears a baby-doll dress and denim jacket that totally recalls the Saint Laurent grungy pre-fall collection; Ryder’s choppy mullet is a great match for the industry’s leading models; and the core of 11-year-old boys at the drama’s centre wear slogan T-shirts, stripy webbed sports tops and zipper jackets that wouldn’t look amiss on the men’s AW16 catwalks.
Perhaps the most surprising sartorial — and cultural — heroine, however, has been found in the figure of Barb, the stolidly dependable best friend who makes a premature exit from the show in episode two and is now the subject of a growing online fan base dedicated to enshrining her legacy.
Barb is the perfect expression of geek chic: a strawberry-blonde valedictorian who wears red-rimmed spectacles and mom jeans, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Scooby-Doo’s Velma, and accessorises her look with a bubble-gum pink ring-folder and floral bound diary. With her caramel-coloured sweaters and winceyette pie-crust collar blouses she could easily be an extra from the latest Gucci campaign (if Gucci cast girls who look “normal”-sized).
Barb, you see, is not Nancy. Where Nancy, her best friend, is rail thin and neat, with alluring Bambi eyes that her male peers find irresistible, Barb is ungainly and gawky. While Nancy can seduce the school jock, Barb can only attract the attentions of the drama’s mythic “Demogorgon”. She’s strident, but slightly sad. And the audience adores her. In the few weeks since Stranger Things was released, Barb, who is played by the 19-year-old newcomer Shannon Purser, has come to embody the kind of awkward Everywoman that all teenagers fear they might be, and most of us try to disguise.
Perhaps that’s why Barb’s untimely departure from the show has been met with such an outpouring of fondness. Fan art and gifs dedicated to her idiosyncratic style have quickly gone viral. The hashtag #WeAreAllBarb has been dedicated to champion one of television’s briefest-known characters. In LA, a graffiti mural of her face, “In Loving memory of Barb”, has appeared with the side note: “No tags please, respect the missing”. Barb Holland has also inspired a theme song, “RIP Barb”, a “sensitive rap tribute” you can find on YouTube.
We barely got to know Barb before she was snatched away from us. And that seems an injustice. An increasingly powerful lobby now exists to persuade the Duffer brothers that she should be returned for the now-confirmed second series. In the meantime, she should enjoy her spell as the season’s most unlikely style icon: adorable, kind and tragically uncool.
Photographs: Curtis Baker/Netflix