Re-Creating Stranger Things’ Barb Isn’t a “Fruitless Exercise,” She’s a Sorely Needed Character
In a chat with Screen Rant, Stranger Things producer/director Shawn Levy spoke about the upcoming season, specifically honing in on Sean Astin’s role in the grand scheme of things. When asked if the show’s forthcoming second season had any “Barb-esque” characters, Levy said:
“Yes. It’s Sean Astin. Yeah. Sean Astin as Bob is going to be, I’m saying it, but he’s kind of going to be the Barb of Season 2. His part is substantially bigger. He’s in a lot of episodes. He is magnificent. And one thing the Duffers do really well is when they see what an actor is capable of, they write to that. They don’t make the actor play what’s on the page. They often change what’s on the page to exploit everything that’s unique about that actor. They did it with Steve Harrington last season and this season again and they did it big time with Sean Astin who as Bob I think is going to be a Barb level fan favorite.”
Uh … huh. Okay. Of course, whether that’s true or not is really up to the Duffer Brothers, both of whom created and wrote the show’s story. They said:
“It’s hard to know. I mean, we weren’t expecting the Barb phenomenon. But I will say he has more lines than Barb. And Sean Astin is, he’s one of those guys that he wasn’t initially how we were envisioning the role but, once he came on board and once we started seeing what he was doing with his character, he just changed the entire trajectory, really of some of the plot of the show and certainly of that character. He’s an incredibly likable guy in real life and then also hopefully in the show. I love Bob. I think other people will too.
“But Barb may have been lightning in the bottle. I don’t know. We are not with any character trying to create a new Barb. It’s a fruitless exercise.”
So, okay. Let’s unpack this. For starters, yeah, Astin is a wonderful actor to bring into Stranger Things‘ unabashedly 80s-loving universe. His role in The Goonies helped breathe some good life into that quintessential 80s classic. As well, his addition would be a continuance of the show’s apparent tradition of hiring stars from the 80s and 90s.
That being said, I have a hard time imagining that anybody could quite live up to the “Barb phenomenon.” For starters, the “Barb phenomenon” was, at times, inexplicable. As the Duffer Brothers allude to, the fandom specifically surrounding her character felt, at times, meme-like. She can certainly feel like lightning in a bottle, for sure, but to write her off as a phenomenon, as something almost like a fluke, is to deny the very essence of why people rallied around Barb as a character.
I can really only speak for myself (and I’m sure that many of our TMS staffers would agree), but Barb was such a lightning rod of a character because she stood as a poignant example of how many people saw themselves when they were in high school. Barb was, to put not too fine a point on it, a loser. But she was a loser in a way that made me not only sympathize but empathize with her. I’ve been there. I’ve seen that. I’ve been that friend who was totally left behind at a party because someone more interesting showed up. I’ve been that person whose friend asked her to look out for her only to be told later to chill out about it. I’ve been that party-goer who totally botches shotgunning a beer, cutting my hand, and thus attracting a monster grown out of our collective subconscious to come and eat me. (Okay, less so those last details, but still.)
Barb was somebody in whom many people saw themselves, and despite her relatively short screen time and her grisly fate in the Upside Down, she was easy to latch on to because one couldn’t help but think, ‘Holy shit, that’s me.‘ In a world where we create self-deprecating bingo memes for “gifted kids,” joke “starter kits” for depressed people and fangirls, and constant jokes about existential dread (hi, sorry, it me), Barb felt like an earnest, non-ironic, non-self-effacing take on a person we’ve all been in our lives.
This was what made Barb so relatable. This was what made her such a breakout hit character. Again, to call her a phenomenon is to remain blind to the fact that she was, even in her limited exposure, written and shown in such a way that made her such a memorable character. It’s not that she was a fluke or lightning in a bottle; she was Barb, and the world could use more Barbs, both on and off TV.
I mean this in the nicest way possible because I’m still a fan, but I think it’s a bit lazy and disingenuous to think of Barb as a fluke or phenomenon that might not happen again. Barb can happen again. Barb must happen again. She and characters like her are what people desperately look for in television, and her quick, almost meteoric rise to fan favorite should tell you just how starved people are for relatable female characters on television.
Whether Astin’s Bob character will do the same remains yet to be seen. After all, we’re months away from the show’s premiere, and there are little to no details out about his character. But judging by this interview, it’s clear that neither Levy nor the Duffer Brothers quite get what made Barb so great, and saying that another male character can or might fill that role really drives that point home.
It’s reductive—nigh insulting—to write Barb off as an anomaly. And as long as they keep treating her as such, they’re going to keep missing out on a very real, very ready fanbase who are just dying to see themselves on screen. That’s the wonder of Barb; she is, was, and always will be all of us.
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