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Why I love Nancy from Stranger Things (repost)

Would you believe it has something to do with gender dysphoria?


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 06 2021

19 min read


(I am taking several weeks off from the Monday newsletter. The Wednesday and Friday editions continue to run as normal for paying subscribers. Please enjoy this repeat from October 2020. Yes, it's less than a year old, but I really like it, and someone on Tumblr is always asking me to repost it, so here you go.)

I should have realized I had a problem somewhere in the second season of Homeland.

The second season of that show alternates wildly between episodes full of unbearable tension and intrigue and episodes where characters make decisions seemingly because the writers have had the network point a gun at their heads and insist Nicholas Brody (the rescued Marine-turned-potential-terrorist at the center of the show’s first three seasons) stay alive. It’s a messy season, one that somehow contains the show’s single best episode (“Q&A”) and some truly mystifying storytelling, especially in its last few episodes.

But we’re not here to talk about Homeland writ large. We’re here to talk about Dana Brody, played by Morgan Saylor.

In the first season of Homeland, Saylor had played a prestige drama type that was just then in the process of becoming a type: the teenage daughter of the conflicted protagonist, who acted as a kind of mirror image of said protagonist. Yes, Tony Soprano’s daughter, Meadow, had been hugely important to that series, but others that followed in its footsteps hadn’t put nearly as much emphasis on it. (Vic Mackey’s oldest daughter on The Shield, for instance, is a minor supporting character.)

From its second season on, however, Mad Men began putting more emphasis on Sally Draper, who would become a teen later in the series, and that seems to have started this basic trope on its way to becoming a prestige drama necessity. These stories need other characters to cut to, and seeing how the children of the protagonists are affected by those protagonists’ action is as good a story to cut to as anything.

It’s fascinating to watch people engage with the “teen daughter” trope, even when it’s done really well. Even on series where it’s handled the best — I think, for instance, the way The Americans told stories with Paige Jennings was pretty much perfect — there’s a vocal contingent of fans who are deeply upset at this constant reminder of The Human Cost wandering onto set.

I don’t want to say that Dana Brody’s storyline in season two was a good one, because it’s about as messy as the season that contains it. But it’s easy to forget that heading into season two, the show had every reason to think people were at least mildly interested in what would happen with Dana. Saylor had gotten a lot of great notices for her work in season one, and I vividly remember a chat with showrunner Alex Gansa after a handful of us TV critics had watched the season two premiere where we praised Saylor for how good she was in that episode (and she is, indeed, quite good).


The problem laid in the balancing of dramatic stakes. Mad Men could get away with cutting to Sally as often as it did, because the show could balance her coming of age against her father’s refusal to come of age. Similarly, The Americans boldly dragged Paige directly into its central espionage storyline. Dana’s stories simply couldn’t compete with the exciting stuff her father got up to, so her stories very pointedly felt like something to cut to.

Those were somewhat on theme for the season, which is at least a little bit about the weight of a human life. (Homeland never quite got enough credit, I think, for how it rather thoughtfully paralleled the United States’ growing disconnection from its own security state.) Thus, Dana’s main storyline for the season — she’s in the car as the son of the Vice President hits a pedestrian, who later dies — ends up feeling completely disconnected from everything else. You could come up with reasons to make it connect (those who are in power don’t have to pay for their actions!), but having to do this much busywork is never something an audience enjoys.

The storyline was savaged at the time, and it’s still held up as one of the show’s big missteps. But in 2012, writing about the show for The A.V. Club, I kept writing increasingly rapturous odes to Dana and how, while the story wasn’t really working plot-wise, it was incredibly necessary character-wise. I kept going out of my way to do this, and for a while, I thought maybe I was doing a bit, like I had somehow passed through a fog of irony so impenetrable that I couldn’t reach the other side.

But I really did like the Dana story. It belonged in a different show from Homeland, but it wasn’t nearly as soapy as its detractors would suggest. Had Sally Draper been in the car when a friend hit and killed a pedestrian and had the effects of that happening lingered with her, it would have made perfect sense, because Mad Men was a show built for stories like that, where Homeland just wasn’t. So I wasn’t completely off my rocker. There were plausible defenses for that storyline.

Yet I maybe should have paid attention to how wounded I felt when people said shitty things about Dana, when her stories were held up as evidence of, say, Saylor’s inability to act. And given the trajectory of her career since she left Homeland after its third season, in which she’s given some widely acclaimed performances in indie films without ever having anything quite as big as Homeland, it’s not hard to think that the stink from the uproar over this storyline has colored her career a bit.

And that becomes especially true when you consider that the actor playing the other kid in the car, the one actually driving, the one who actually hit that pedestrian, was future Oscar nominee and online heartthrob Timothée Chalamet.

My favorite character on Stranger Things, a show I’ve been rewatching with some friends for this spooooooky season, is Nancy Wheeler, the teenage would-be detective/journalist played by Natalia Dyer. She is not the show’s best character, not by a long shot. That title so firmly belongs to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven/Jane that the show has more or less completely warped itself out of shape to make her the protagonist. (This is not a complaint; TV shows responding to which characters are working and adjusting accordingly is one of my favorite things about the medium.) But she is my favorite. To put it in modern internet parlance, I would die for Nancy Wheeler.

I noticed my love of the character growing in vaguely similar fashion to my defense of Dana Brody. In season one, when everyone was singing the praises of Eleven (yes!) and Chief Hopper (got it!) and the other kids (why not!) and Joyce (I didn’t get it, but now I kinda do!), I was, like, “Nancy! She’s great!” and was met with resounding silence. Finding myself so far off the critical map, I quickly became convinced I was doing a bit. Surely I didn’t hold this opinion sincerely.

The chief mark against Nancy has always been that she abandoned her friend Barb (remember Barb!) to die. And I guess in a strictly “that’s the plot of the show” sense, she did. But also, c’mon. Nancy ditched Barb at a party so Nancy could go make out with her himbo boyfriend, Steve. She could not have possibly anticipated that Barb would be sucked into a hell dimension, because that’s not the sort of thing that typically happens when you’re a teenager in 1983 Indiana. Nancy then spends two entire seasons of television trying to figure out what happened to her friend, then trying to avenge her death. Nobody else in the show has this level of commitment to a cause!

The TV character Nancy has the most in common with is probably Lindsay Weir, the protagonist of Freaks and Geeks. Both girls are very much “the smart, pretty girl I was intimidated by” as reimagined by men who write for television, and both girls are defined in a kind of crude arithmetic in which they attempt to balance the brightness of their futures against the possibility of doing something dangerous or naughty in the present.

Lindsay is a much better character than Nancy, but because Stranger Things is a hit, we get to spend several more seasons with Nancy and watch as she becomes an intrepid teen crime solver and, eventually, a budding journalist. She has an arc in which the brightness of her future and her interest in pursuing self-definition at all costs end up being kind of the same thing, in the same way you know Lindsay used her experiences from Freaks and Geeks to write an amazing college application essay.

(Sidebar: As far as I’m concerned, the biggest problem with Nancy is that she forgives Jonathan Byers, a boy who is stalking her to take creepy photos of her, much too quickly, then apparently decides to just go along with the show’s insistence that she should be with him. Dyer and Charlie Heaton, who plays Jonathan, have an interesting, jagged chemistry, but the show never remotely earns their pairing.)


But I can already hear the people who are incredibly upset I compared Nancy to Lindsay even slightly, even as a point of structural comparison. And, yes, there are more forthrightly interesting characters on Stranger Things, even more forthrightly interesting characters in her rough demographic (like season three addition Robin). But it’s not like Nancy is as boring or arc-less as her detractors would suggest. Again: She’s a teen detective who discovers a hell dimension, then sets up an elaborate Home Alone situation to hurt a monster. Also she learns how to fire a gun. She does a lot of cool stuff!

Stranger Things is a series obsessed with iconography, and I would wager that Nancy, for many of the show’s viewers, got trapped in the initial moment of her introduction, when we saw her as the older sister of the first season’s protagonist, Mike. Naturally, since she’s the pretty older sister of a young boy, one of his friends (in this case Dustin) has a crush on her. And more pointedly, she is set up as someone who used to hang out with the boys and now doesn’t anymore. Thus, we think we know her basic character type, which is kind of a blend of the older brother from E.T. and a riff on the prestige TV teen daughter. Or maybe she just got frozen as “the pretty older sister.”

And, look, she’s very pretty! Dyer has an ovular face with wide eyes that make her look a little like a chestnut somebody saw the face of the Virgin Mary in, something that gives her a slightly detached beauty that cuts against the more down-to-Earth qualities from the other women in the cast. (Even Winona Ryder, one of the great screen beauties of her generation, is styled as a mom from a Wal-mart commercial.)

Yet it’s telling that on a show obsessed with iconography, it very quickly begins breaking apart what we think is the case with Nancy, right down to the clothes she wears, which are chosen not to highlight her beauty but to highlight her social standing. The show styles Nancy as a girl caught between the predictable pleasures of her childhood and the freight train of adulthood, and by the third season, she’s basically just dressing like she has her own TV show where she uses her press pass to bring down a corrupt mayor or something. I tend to be drawn to TV characters who feel like they’re the protagonists of incredibly different shows, and Nancy very quickly gets to that place.

One reason Stranger Things caught on is because it gives many different viewers many different character entry points. If you don’t terribly connect to the power fantasy of Eleven, you might connect to the white suburban boy fantasy of Mike. If you don’t connect to the dadbod glories of Chief Hopper, you might find yourself in the nerdy joyfulness of the teacher Mr. Clarke. And so on. I am not saying that if Nancy isn’t your thing, you should start wearing a T-shirt featuring her face.

What I’m saying is that de facto writing the character off as boring rather ignores basically everything the show does with her (much less what an interesting and spiky performer Dyer is) and devalues the idea that a story about a teenage girl growing up alongside a hell dimension can be as complicated and thorny as a teenage boy growing up alongside a hell dimension, because the show roots her story in more traditionally feminine storytelling tropes. (Broadly speaking, Nancy exists in, uh, a Nancy Drew novel, and I can’t believe I just realized this writing this sentence.)

But none of what I’ve written so far is really about Nancy Wheeler or Dana Brody or Paige Jennings or Sally Draper or anyone. It’s about me, and the windows through which we allow ourselves to watch TV.

If you’re wondering why I love Nancy so much, consider that she’s a blandly pretty white Midwestern teen girl in the latter days of the 20th century. She finds herself trapped between her own ambitions and the idea that she might be a popular boy’s girlfriend. She teaches herself to fire a gun. She ends up working at the local newspaper. To a remarkable degree, she’s the kind of girl I probably would have been, had I had a cis girl’s adolescence.

When I realized how much I liked Nancy as season one aired, I was still around 18 months from self-accepting my trans womanhood. I didn’t have a critical language for why I enjoyed her story so much, so I assumed I was just playing a trick on everybody, most of all myself. But God, I loved watching her do her thing. I wanted so much more of her storyline, for reasons I didn’t dare explore. It was easier to believe I was lying to myself than telling the truth about who I was. I wasn’t me. Therefore, I couldn’t actually like the character of Nancy.

The only season of Stranger Things I’ve watched as an out trans woman (even just out to myself) is the third season, and I found so much of that season incredibly hard to watch for the same reasons I find something like HBO’s My Brilliant Friend (a wildly different show from Stranger Things) so difficult to watch: I didn’t get to be a teenager.

My friends when I was a teenager, at least in my hometown, were primarily the guys I grew up with. Most of them had been my classmates from the first day of kindergarten, with one joining us in third grade and another in sixth. But by and large, the same core group of nine boys were the people I hung out with. The population of my town was 750. My graduating class was 16. Everybody knew everybody.

If you asked me to tell you some fun stories about hanging out with my friends in high school, I probably could, but they would feel a little distant and disconnected, like I was reciting the plot of a book I read in high school. Except for this one night.

Late in my freshman year, I became convinced, out of nowhere, that I wanted to hang out with the girls in my class that weekend, rather than the boys. Somehow, I figured out a way to make that happen, and soon, I was hanging out in the backseat of one of their cars. I can tell you nearly everything that happened that night, from the bottle of alcohol rolling around the backseat that we kept talking about almost taking a drink of, then talking ourselves out of sampling, to the girl I was closest to (let’s call her Kat) talking with great and existential longing about the boy in our class she had a crush on. It felt right to be there, in a way I don’t think I grasped at the time.

A week later, my family was going to Sioux Falls, the biggest city in the state, for our monthly shopping trip. I convinced Kat she should come along as my friend, and the two of us had a pretty nice time. We told each other deep, dark secrets we hadn’t told other people. I told her which outfits she tried on looked good. I forced her to go to a computer game store.

Kat and I didn’t do that again. On the way home, I realized, with at least some horror, that my parents assumed Kat and I were dating. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to date Kat — she was very pretty. It was that dating her felt like it would break something precious that was just starting to grow up between the cracks in the pavement. But I grew up never understanding why I wanted what I wanted, so when my parents assumed Kat and I were dating, I assumed that I wanted to date her, too, and I stomped on whatever had been flowering between us.

I had a lot of moments like this in high school, when I would get impossibly close to another girl, then find myself fucking it up because I assumed romance would have to get involved, because that was how it worked, right? These weren’t friendships; they were connections to be defined later, like 20 years later, when I realized that Kat was someone I dearly hoped would be my best friend, not my girlfriend. Oh well.

I do not think it is particularly unusual to, as an adult, regret certain aspects of your coming of age, wishing you had handled them better, but this is different. I don’t regret my adolescence; I’m haunted by my adolescence. There is a different one, one that could have and maybe should have happened, but it’s trapped just beneath me, in a world where everything is upside down but also as it should have been.

Trans people who decide to undertake hormone replacement therapy (as I have) often speak about our HRT regimen as being a “second puberty,” which is an acknowledgement that to suddenly flood your body with hormones a second time is a pretty dumb thing to do when you know the combination of anxiety, boredom, and horniness that marked the first time around all too well. And this is true, so far as it goes. A lot of the emotional waves that have greeted my post-HRT brain have been roughly analogous to another spin through puberty.

But HRT has made me realize just how close to the surface this other version of myself was. She was there, observing what was happening, unable to say anything, trapped in that weird world below me, in the Upside Down, if you will. She would scream and scream and scream, and I would keep snuffing out the oxygen she needed to live, and then she would scream some more. When I started taking hormones, I gradually gained access to the complete emotional context of my childhood memories, and suddenly, it was like all of them were haunted by a ghost hovering just off to my side.

So for years and years and years, I would see a Dana Brody or a Nancy Wheeler (who, after all, is a teenage girl who stomps all over her one girl friend, then spends the rest of the show hanging out with boys), and that part of my brain would scream, “YES, HEY, YES, LIKE THAT, YES, OKAY, YES,” and then I would become convinced I was playing a trick on myself, and I would snuff out that oxygen until she latched on to another fictional girl, in lieu of all the very real ones I had cut her off from over the years.

I’m trying to be kinder to her now. I’m trying to listen. But she also really wants to buy a Nancy Funko Pop figurine, and I think those figurines are kinda junky, so I’m not listening to her that closely.

The agency that handled my adoption had this baffling policy, rooted in a sexist paternalism that infected every aspect of the Christianity I grew up in. The idea was that every family should have two kids, an older boy and a younger girl. Thus, the mistaken belief I was a boy that everybody had at my birth sent me to the life I had. The people I know, from my parents to my friends to my wife, are people I probably only know because I am a trans woman and not a cis woman.

Had I been born a tiny cis girl, I would have gone to a different place. (I always imagine Florida, for some reason.) I would have had a different best friend. We would have drifted in and out of friendship, and had cataclysmic fights, and probably kissed at least once, and always, always been there for each other. I feel her so keenly, even though I don’t know her name or what she looks like. I know she’s out there, a phantom limb, and I wonder if she feels me keenly too. Probably not. She doesn’t know her house is haunted.

Sometimes, though, I catch a glimpse of her onscreen, and sometimes, I catch a glimpse of who I might have been, too. I like to imagine her out there, on the shores of a different ocean, watching Stranger Things, and seeing Nancy, and feeling a tickle at the back of her brain where a memory should be.

Public Service Announcement: If you think you are my best friend from another universe, please let me know. It would be swell to hang.

Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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