It’s an ironic coincidence that as we head into peak Stranger Things season 2 anticipation frenzy, we appear to have entered our own version of the Upside Down. Over the past two weeks, women in Hollywood and all over the world have stepped forward with stories of abuse, harassment, and assault by men. They are the Demogorgons — hidden, stealthy, and dangerous, preying on those who happen to be close at hand. And like monsters, they come in many forms.: powerful, because they benefit from a system that enables them to go on unchecked, but also average, “harmless” — the man next door, if you will.
In this context, I think we need to have a little chat about Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton).
I get it — interactions between men and women, especially in high school, can be complicated and confusing. Hormones are raging, you’re inexperienced and shy, and things that seem insane in hindsight make perfect sense in the moment. But there are things that go beyond innocent teenage shenanigans. Peeping in the bushes to take pictures of the girl you like as she hooks up with another guy is one of them.
It would be easy to dismiss Jonathan’s actions as puppy love, a harmless act of misplaced devotion. After all, he is harmless. He would never hurt Nancy (Natalia Dyer). Right? But I ask you, how many times have we heard that word used to describe actions by a man that made us uncomfortable? How harmless was the guy who kept calling after you turned him down? Or, who kept texting after you made it clear that you weren’t interested?
Too often, movies and TV often serve up the trope of the shy nerdy loner who, in a clumsy attempt to win over the girl of his dreams, ends up harassing her. The Big Bang Theory, essentially the most popular show in America, is a prime example of this concealed misogyny. Just try to count how many times Penny tells Leonard she’s not into him before she finally gives in. In the context of the rom-com, this “don’t take no for an answer” attitude is framed in a positive way. At the end, the hero is rewarded for his persistence with a woman’s love. But in reality, it’s a dangerous idea that suggests that women who say no are really just playing hard to get — run after them long enough and you’ll get what you want.
Stranger Things doesn’t exactly shy away from Jonathan’s stalker-like tendencies — Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) eventually finds the pictures, and calls him out for it— but we are meant to feel sorry for Jonathan. As Nancy and he get close over their discovery of the Upside Down, we even get a hint of a possible relationship down the line. We’re meant to root for poor Jonathan; he’s lost his brother, the girl he loves is dating someone else, and his mom is hanging Christmas lights like she’s been put in charge of the Rockefeller Center tree. With all that on his shoulders, what’s a little light harassment?
Season 1 ended with Nancy happily ensconced in Steve Harrington’s pompadour. With Jonathan out in the cold once more, it might be too much to hope for him to abandon his Peeping Tom ways (he even has his camera back, courtesy of Steve). But hopefully, season 2 will take the character to task for his actions. He’s defeated one Demogorgon — now, it’s time to tackle his own inner demons.