[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]
I assume that like most streaming TV fiends, you’ve devoured the entire season of Stranger Things, Netflix’s addictive new Winona Ryder-starring thriller that craftily references the big sci-fi, horror, teen romance, and paranormal movies of the ‘80s.
I’m also going to assume that, like most of Twitter and all of my heart, you hate the Steve Harrington character. Because we’ve always hated ‘80s Steve-holes.
As the souffle-haired, BMW 733i-driving, Nancy-charming asshole who possesses a Trump-sized empathy streak for sensitive weirdos, Steve was supposed to follow the ‘80s arc of dying a miserable death — or at least not getting the girl in the end while cuddled up next to her in a f*cking reindeer sweater at Christmastime. Earning the heart of the smart female protagonist is a resolution that for years has been reserved for the sensitive guy bullied by the high school elite, not the smug preppy dude with a backyard pool. (Not to mention a guy who, as one astute Twitter commenter noted, is coiffed to look like “all of Crowded House combined in one face.”)
We wanted the phlegm-flower monster to serve Steve a bloody eel sandwich so Nancy could cuddle with Jonathan. Steve’s demise is our expected reward after watching him heartily pressure Nancy to appease so many early-in-the-Stranger Things-season boners and then go on to break Jonathan’s camera.
So why does Steve escape death while the internet-beloved Barb gets stuffed into an Upside Down coffin? The simple answer is the actor who plays Steve helped the character get a pass.
In an interview with Variety, Stranger Things showrunners the Duffer Brothers said Steve, who in the original pilot is “the biggest douchebag on the planet,” wasn’t supposed to be Nancy’s snuggle buddy in the end.
“A lot of credit goes to Joe Keery [who plays Steve], because he was much more likable and charming than we originally had envisioned,” said Ross Duffer. “Joe was so good we started to fall in love with the idea that he has an arc himself.” Nancy helped make Steve a slightly better person by the end. Dammit.
Matt Duffer added that in the typical movie world trajectory, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) would end up with the “nicer kinder gentler” guy Jonathan (Charlie Heaton). “But it felt almost more real to us that she would wind up back with Steve,” he said, “this heartthrob who she’s had a crush on for a long time. It’s surprising, but it felt more honest.”
If you run the Stranger Things tape backwards you can — almost — see how Steve could come out on top. After all, he erases the Nancy slut-shaming graffiti (that he helped write!) and he fights the bad monster. He worked hard to change, and Jonathan was being a creeper by taking those photos of Nancy stripping in the first place, so maybe Jonathan deserved to lose those photo privileges. But ‘80s movie history has hardwired Stranger Things fans to loathe Steve nonetheless.
Why can’t we forgive Steve just because he hit the monster with a nail bat? Because there’ve been too many Steve-holes before him. Our movie history —and an election cycle with another bratty, souffle-haired bully — has taught us that elitist dickwads rarely become good guys by the end.
As proof of this bias, I hereby give you a brief history of the ‘80s high school jerks who paved the way for our hatred of Stranger Things’ Steve.
Steff in Pretty in Pink
In the ‘80s, James Spader was the classic affluent douchebag fans loved to hate (and perhaps secretly crush out on). It all started with his breakout role as Steff in Pretty in Pink — a movie where he calls Molly Ringwald’s artsy Andie a bitch, a mutant, trash, and “low-grade ass.” Steff is the perfect foil to blinky-eyed Blane (Andrew McCarthy), whose dick is caught in the typical ‘80s class divide (see also: Spader in Tuff Turf) between what’s expected of him and what he really wants. Unlike Steve in Stranger Things, Steff never redeems himself — he gets tackled by Andie’s BFF Duckie in the end.
Steff paved the way for Spader to graduate from high school prick to college-aged (but definitely not in college) drug dealer prick, Rip, in Less Than Zero. Side note: Is it just me or did Spader seem to spend the ‘80s only acting in movies with either McCarthy or with Robert Downey Jr.?)
All of William Zabka’s characters in the ‘80s asshole trilogy
Along with James Spader, William Zabka was the other recognizable blonde ‘80s asshole. He’s perhaps best remembered for playing Johnny in the Karate Kid series (Karate Kid II was brilliantly parodied, starring Zabka and most of the original cast, in this music video by the band No More Kings). But Zabka was a dick in Just One of the Guys too. He was righteously ridiculed in that one for being a table-tipper with a “small weenie,” among other things, before he aged into playing a college frat boy in Back to School. In real life? Good dude! Last year he came out against being an actual high school jerk during a talk he gave for Anti-Bullying Day, in which he pointed to the fact that mean kids often come from broken homes.
Chet in Weird Science
As the real “buttwad” in Weird Science, older brother Chet (Bill Paxton) acted like the ultimate bro towards his younger brother Wyatt (IIan Michael-Smith) and his nerd pal Gary (Anthony Michael Hall). So it was very rewarding to watch the boys’ covergirl science experiment Lisa (Kelly LeBrock) turn Chet into a farting turd monster and hear Chet beg to get his human form (and dignity) back. (In comparison, Stranger Things' Steve never had to beg for anything in his life — except sex!)
Roy Stalin in Better Off Dead
Given the choice between the captain of the high school ski team and a regular dude who sticks Q-tips up his nose, who’s gonna be the ‘80s villain? The leader of a rich person’s sport, of course — a dichotomy that played out in real life for the director of this movie. Better Off Dead writer and director Savage Steve Holland said his film, which starred John Cusack, was based on his own heartbreak. Holland’s old girlfriend apparently also left him for the ski team captain. Holland recreated his romantic rival in Roy Stalin, a classic prick who, it turns out, was also a classic prick in real life during the casting process! Mental Floss reported that actor Aaron Dozier insulted Holland on the set, sealing the deal that he’d be the perfect asshole for the part.
Biff in Back to the Future
Eighties antagonists often got monosyllabic names that you could spit out in a single breath: Steff. Chet. Roy. (Steve!). Add to this list Biff, a name that sounds like something a jock would grunt out while lifting weights. Biff is the beefy bro from the Back to the Future series who makes Marty McFly feel like a “butthead” no matter which decade the two are contained within. If Thomas F. Wilson’s character seemed constructed after a certain Republican presidential candidate by Back to the Future II, well, the man who wrote the movie, Bob Gale, told the Daily Beast last fall that Biff was indeed modeled after Donald Trump.
Archie in The Chocolate War
Boxes of chocolates may seem like a silly instigator for a class war, but in this great 1988 drama, they’re the symbol of the intense pressure a small group of assholes can put on teen introverts to toe the status quo. Archie leads the secret society dick clique at a Catholic school where hawking chocolate boxes for a fundraiser is serious business. New kid Jerry’s disinterest in showing school spirit lands him in a world of hurt. Side note: Like Stranger Things, The Chocolate War gets bonus points for a killer ‘80s soundtrack, one that here includes Yaz, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel.
Hardy Jenns in Some Kind of Wonderful
Although Keith Nelson (Eric Stoltz) and Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer) share a Steve-hole ‘do in Some Kind of Wonderful, don’t be fooled by the feathering when discerning who’s the good guy here. Hardy is the rich one, so he’s obviously also gonna be the jerk. When Keith falls for Hardy’s ex Amanda, Hardy’s revenge plot involves kicking Keith’s butt at a house party — until some cool punk dudes help put a stop to that one. This love triangle starring Lea Thompson as Amanda and Mary Stuart Masterson as the teenage rocker Watts was less about overcoming bullies, though, and more about loving the drummer girl over the fluff chick.
Some Kind of Wonderful was one of many ‘80s movies setting the tone that the coveted guy/girl would fall for the underdog girl/guy in the end — which is why we totally expected Stranger Things’ Nancy to get with Jonathan at the end. But then, Stranger Things is about both cleverly riffing on ‘80s cliches and subverting them at unexpected moments. We’ll also hopefully have a whole new season of the show ahead of us -- during which time we can all root for Steve to finally meet the dismal fate the earlier Spader-Zapka generation of golden assholes would have him deserve.