How a Side Character in Stranger Things Became a Phenomenon
Spoiler Alert – don’t read unless you’ve watched Stranger Things seasons 1 and 2
Barb Holland of Stranger Things may not go down in series history with the likes of Buffy Summers, Walter White, Olivia Pope, or even Eleven from Barb’s own series universe. But she has made a big impact on fans of the show. She’s actually become a fan favorite.
A Misfit Among Misfits
The majority of Stranger Things characters are misfits – from the kids to the adults. Even Will’s mom, Joyce, and Chief of Police Hopper are outside the norm. On the other hand, Steve and his (unmemorable) friends are the “cool kids.” By going out with him, Nancy is on the cusp of cool, too. But “cool” is not the goal in this 1980s world. Solving the mystery of “Where’s Will?” is. As a matter of fact, the nerdy interests of the misfits (Dungeon & Dragons, anyone?) help the kids in their search.
So in a world where the oddballs are the ones who have the power, it’s a shame that one of them meets an early demise. Her name is Barbara Holland, and after “only appear[ing] briefly in four episodes,” she became a cult phenomenon.
The Essence of Barb
But what is it about Barb (Shannon Purser) that has resonated with fans? She’s Nancy’s (Natalia Dyer) best friend – the voice of reason when Nancy gets starry-eyed over Steve (Joe Keery). In spite of the fact that she’s the obligatory sidekick of a more prominent character, Barb wasn’t the usual, one-dimensional, “throw-away … nerdy best friend.” She was written well by the Duffer brothers and played well by Purser. Beyond that, Barb is relatable to a lot of people.
“You can’t understand the essence of Barb unless you were or still ARE a Barb,” says Sarah Parsons, TheOdysseyOnline.com. “Barb was a delightfully full-figured gal with a messy (though stylish) red hair and an ‘I’m-on-to-you’ attitude. … She was there to be a true friend … (she) stood by and tried to be cautiously optimistic for Nancy’s evolving popularity.”
Let’s face it, there are far more Barbs out there than Nancys. The Nancys are the ones who get the guy (in her case, two guys), and the Barbs are there to support them.
Barb represents all the girls back in the ’80s whose fashion sense was questionable and who lived on the fringe of the popular kids. The kids who didn’t quite fit in and honestly didn’t want to. That’s not to say it didn’t sting when they were teased by the likes of Steve’s jerk friends.
Hugh Montgomery of inews.co.uk says that “Barb has gained a devoted cult following unlike any other small-screen character in recent memory. … An American company has launched a ‘What Would Barb Do?’ clothing range [and] a Barb mural has sprung up in Melbourne.”
The hashtags #WeAreAllBarb, #JusticeForBarb, and #WhatAboutBarb were all over Twitter after people binge-watched the first season of the show. What had really happened to her? Would she come back? Could she? And why didn’t anyone in the town react to her going missing like they did Will?
“What to take away from the Barb phenomenon?” Montgomery asks. “Evidently, that TV audiences are crying out for more Barbs in their lives – and what’s more, for shows that give those Barbs due respect, allowing them to breathe in lead roles, not just relegating them to supporting ones.”
Daniel Jones, a Stranger Things fan in Kent, England, says, “Barb is the everyman.” He thinks the audience relates to her common sense and intelligence – especially when compared with Steve-crazy Nancy. “When she gets eaten (or whatever), the audience thinks an injustice has taken place. #JusticeForBarb is the audience’s cry against a cold and indifferent universe. Or maybe they just like her cool glasses.”
While overly dramatic (and a tad snarky), Jones has a point.
Artist LO (Quad Cities, Illinois/Iowa) says “Barb inspires me because I truly fell in love with the character. I admire her honesty and love for her friend. I want to be more like Barb! There are tons of Barb fans who want to know more about the character.”
A Meaningful Sidekick
Barb might not have been able to steer Nancy in the right direction when it came to Steve. But she did influence her best friend in the end.
Scott Beggs of Nerdist.com says, “Barb was the first person we cared about who is sacrificed to prove the show wasn’t playing around and that our investment was going to be meaningful.” Yet, he notes, Barb’s death also changed Nancy. It “kicked Nancy into a new existential crisis (is her new social crew really worth it?) and into the main story.”
For a character with less than an hour’s screen time, she’s made an impact both on screen and off.
“We saw this same phenomenon with Star Wars,” says LO. “A ton of people became huge fans of Boba Fett. George Lucas never imagined that people would become so attached to a secondary character like that.”
Aside from The Barb Effect, it’s equally important to consider the surprising popularity of Stranger Things on the whole. Between the relatively new show creators, the Duffer brothers (Matt and Ross), and the mostly unknown cast, Stranger Things could have easily fallen through the cracks. Winona Ryder signed on as the biggest name attached to the show, and she hadn’t had a high-profile role for a while. Yet it became “Netflix’s biggest hit to date.”
Ultimately, while Barb didn’t get the justice she deserved, Shannon Purser did. She received an Emmy nomination for guest actress in a drama series.