Is 'Stranger Things' Guilty Of Queerbaiting?

Will Schnapp appears at a Netflix event for Stranger Things. He is wearing a dark plaid shirt and a leather jacket.
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Aug 3, 2022 2:58 PM ET

When season 4 of Stranger Things was released in May of 2022, critics and fans were predictably pleased. The first volume of the season consisted of seven episodes, and the season concluded on July 1 with two final episodes. Andrew Male, the critic for The Times, said of the season that "the stakes seem real again and the world genuinely terrifying, far more in keeping with the show’s Stephen King influences than any aimless feelgood Goonies vibe. Stranger Things is scary and strange again".

But when Noah Schnapp clarified in an interview that his character, Will Byers, was gay, a long-standing debate about the show's attitude toward LGBTQ+ characters was resurrected.

Keep reading for more on how queerbaiting accusations have swirled around the show, and how one particular scene between Schnapp and Finn Wolfhard both endeared and angered fans of the show.

The Success Of 'Stranger Things'

The cast of Stranger Things appears together at a premiere for the show. Millie Bobby Brown stands in the middle in a pink dress.
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From the time Stranger Things premiered in 2016, it established itself as a runaway success. The first season because one of the most watched shows ever on Netflix, outpacing every competitor except Fuller House and Orange is the New Black. Over the last six years, the show has bagged 39 Emmy nominations and won 7 of them. There have also been nominations for Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Tomas Einarsson of the Luxembourg Times noted that the show owes much of its success to its combination of traditional horror and cosmic horror, a genre pioneered by HP Lovecraft. The blend of nostalgia and nature at its most extreme has drawn viewers of varying ages, although the show is certainly popular with middle-aged millennials who grew up in the 1980s.

Scroll down for more on Will and Mike, queerbaiting, and what's next for Stranger Things.

A Brief History Of Will Byers And Mike Wheeler

The cast of Stranger Things poses together at a premiere for the show
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Schnapp's character, Byers, goes through unfathomable trauma in the first few seasons of Stranger Things, including a stint in the Upside Down and demonic possession by Mind Slayer. But season 4 brings new, more typical challenges for Byers, including integrating into high school and struggling with his identity. Mike Wheeler, played by Finn Wolfhard, is Byers' best friend, and their brotherly love for each other is rarely, if ever, in question. But fans have long held the theory that Byers is gay and is secretly in love with Wheeler. The evidence is certainly there: season 1 makes mention of Byers' father using gay slurs against him, and Wheeler points out in a later season that Byers' doesn't seem to like girls.

Until Schnapp's recent interview confirming Byers' status, the show declined to confirm or deny Byers' sexual preference. But during a scene in episode 8 (Papa), Byers uses Wheeler's relationship with Eleven to discuss his own feelings for Wheeler. He is, essentially, trying to confess his own love for Wheeler and the fear he felt about being different. The scene uses a popular trope here, that of a young gay person in love with his heterosexual best friend. It most likely resonated with LGBTQ+ viewers, but it also skirted the issue of Byers being gay and pushed back against any kind of obvious coming-out scene.

Keep reading for more about what queerbaiting is and where the show goes from here.

Queerbaiting on 'Stranger Things'

Noah Schnapp in a promotional photo for Stranger Things 4. He is standing on the observatory deck of the Empire State Building.
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In recent months, Stranger Things has drawn accusations of queerbaiting, which happens when a film or TV show hints at having gay characters but avoids actually representing their romantic relationships. Journalist Eleanor Noyce called the show's avoidance of an actual coming-out scene for Byers an instance of queerbaiting, and she was far from the only one who leveled this kind of criticism. While many were touched by the emotional scene between Byers and Wheeler, Noyce pointed out that it also deprives Byers of a happy ending, which is another problematic part of queerbaiting.

But as social media users were quick to point out, growing up in the 1980s meant facing homophobia and a stigma around coming out. Coming out could mean loss of jobs, family, friends, and even physical attacks. While coming out is still a fraught issue for many, societal attitudes have evolved beyond the 1980s. So, as some fans argued, avoiding a coming-out scene wasn't so much queerbaiting as it was an honest depiction of a 1980s teen struggling with his sexual identity.

While both views of Byers's scene with Wheeler make valid points, it has affected how some LGBTQ+ feel about the show. But this hasn't affected the show's ratings.

Keep reading to the final section to see what's next for Schnapp and Stranger Things.

The Road Ahead

The cast of Stranger Things poses together at a premiere for the show.
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In February of this year, Stranger Things was renewed for a fifth and final season. This leaves Schnapp and his costars free to pursue other projects. While Schnapp is likely to continue acting, he is also off to college. The 17-year-old announced his acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania back in December of 2021. He has three films under his belt now as well, and fans of Stranger Things are sure to follow this talented actor anywhere.

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