Considering the thoroughness with which Stranger Things strives to appear as a show directly out of the 80s, it’s not remarkable that the inspiration for Barb in season one might very well stem from another quintessential “gawky, hyper-reactive” archetype from a classic of 80s cinema: Chris Columbus’ directorial debut, Adventures in Babysitting. Focused on the unforeseen antics of Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue) after her anniversary dinner date with a standard-issue 80s sleazoid named Mike Todwell (Bradley Whitford) falls through, her best friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller a.k.a. egg salad sandwich maker Winnie Johnson in Big Top Pee-Wee), comes over to presumably comfort her. Of course, when you’re a character of this nature–designed to be the nagging sidekick to the prettier, more beloved main event–your true role is not to comfort so much as to aggravate further. As is the case with Brenda, whilst she complains about wanting to spike her stepmother’s TaB with Drano (if you don’t understand what these words mean, I don’t want to know you), a desire that’s only going to worsen if she doesn’t flee the suburb of Oak Park (most 80s movies had to be set in Chicago, you see) very, very soon. Barb (Shannon Purser), likewise, seems to have taken a page from Brenda’s very distinct rulebook for creating drama that seeps into the way she “permits” others–specifically a friend she’s not so secretly jealous of–to live their lives.
A case in point comes in one of the first scenes of Adventures in Babysitting. Lamenting to Chris, the Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) of the situation, “This place is like a Dairy Queen. You only get one flavor,” Brenda hints at her intent to take rash action out of her brand-appropriate, overly dramatic frustration. Much the way Barb makes none too thinly veiled threats toward Nancy about abrupt departure from accompanying her to Steve Harrington’s (Joe Keery), Brenda, too, has the same modus operandi. While many Stranger Things nerds (the kind who compare Billy Hargrove to Steff McKee and Leo Johnson) like to place the blame on Nancy for causing Barb’s death in “forcing” her to drink a beer via opening it with a knife that she’s too bumbling to achieve without cutting herself, the truth is, only Barb can be blamed for Barb’s actions. Yet this is the entire crux of what composes a Brenda/Barb composite of a “friend”: victimization.
Other facets of personality Brenda has clearly influenced in Barb is her contempt for her more conventionally attractive friend being able to have the opportunity of steady dick. And yes, the parallel of Chris and Nancy both being smitten with blatantly and objectively douchebag guys also adds to the Brenda/Barb connection. As Chris pines away for Mike while he secretly prepares to go on the date they were supposed to have with another (much less visually appealing) girl, she plays the part of the dumb bitch all too well by remarking to Brenda, “He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Brenda, who has already touted that Mike is lying about his sister being sick and needing to take care of her, brings Chris back down to reality real abruptly by snapping back, “He’s the only thing that’s ever happened to you. That’s why we have to get out of this place.”
As fiending for bigger things outside of Oak Park as Barb is for the world outside of Hawkins, Indiana, her lame-o bestie is only concerned with securing the affections of subpar meatheads. Which is precisely why it is the unwanted but necessary responsibility of these two intertwined adolescents to ensure the higher enlightenment of their unlikely, yin to their yang friends (or so they desperately believe). Accordingly, Barb can’t help but make “barbs” about Nancy’s sudden preoccupation with Steve, mocking her with such sarcastic comments as, “Nance, seriously, you’re gonna be so cool now. It’s ridiculous” and “You better still hang out with me, that’s all I’m saying.”
Her “light-hearted” attempt at commentary quickly shifts to full-fledged judgment when Nancy agrees to go over to Steve’s house while his parents aren’t there. Driving her to his house, she critiques, “Is that a new bra?,” in addition to, “This is so stupid, I’m just gonna drop you off. He just wants to get in your pants.”
Though Brenda may not be as harsh toward Chris about her choice of boyfriend, it’s only because she’s a hair more self-involved and preoccupied with her own escape, which she does end up attempting to execute only to interrupt Chris’ babysitting session with her usual histrionics. Trapped in the bus station after a failed attempt at running away, Brenda removes her Barb-like glasses only to have them stolen by a homeless woman next to her, after which she screams, “Oh Chris, please hurry and pick me up!” And again, it is exclamations like these that adhere to the notion that these fan favorite best friends aren’t as angelic and cult-worthy as they seem, so much as time and energy sucks on more emotionally adept people (suppression counts as emotional adeptness).
The lackeys of Stranger Things also like to point out the tragedy of Barb’s last word being a cry for Nancy to help her as she finds herself trapped in the Upside Down. Somewhat ironically, as Chris exists in her private babysitting hell thinking about how long she’s kept her own friend in the Upside Down that is the bus station, she rues, “Brenda, if you’re dead, I wish I was with you.” Had Nancy known that Barb was being devoured by a Demogorgon while losing her V-card to Steve, maybe she might have wished the same in retrospect for experiencing vague pleasure to Barb’s immense pain. Because the Nancys and Chrises of the world are actually not the assholes in these scenarios. It’s merely that audiences seek so desperately to laud an underdog that might not necessarily be worth rooting for when and where they can.
Take a closer look and you’ll see that Saint Barb, who directly copped Brenda’s style and beyond, isn’t so worth canonization. To put an accent on it, at the end of Chris’ debacle–which Brenda directly caused in asking her to fetch her at the bus station that she couldn’t even run away properly to–she finally completes the task of fetching her “best friend.” All Brenda can say is: “What took you guys so long? You’ll never believe what I’ve been through tonight!” These “martyrs” revered so much are merely selfish ordinaries that prove we’re ever closer to the meek inheriting the earth.