September 29, 2022

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Is Stranger Things’ Will gay? It’s complicated

7 min read

Stranger Things season 4 part 1 spoilers follow.

The very first episode of Stranger Things was called ‘The Vanishing of Will Byers’, but in the four seasons that have followed, Will himself has gradually come to the fore with some agency of his own.

Although he’s still quiet and shy compared to the other kids, season four’s Will no longer fades into the background. In fact, this latest season sets up something huge for Noah Schnapp’s character that could impact Hawkins forever. And no, we’re not talking about those old fan theories which make out Will actually created the Upside Down back in season one.

It’s long been suggested by fans that Will could secretly be queer. Much of that discourse has been down to some vague stereotypes around shy, sensitive boys who grow up to love men, but season four does lean into this idea with more drive than previous years.

Netflix

When an early trailer for season four dropped, eagle-eyed fans noticed that Will was doing a school project on Alan Turing, the English mathematician who was chemically castrated for being gay in the 1950s. So far, so gay, and now that season four is actually here, there are plenty more hints that fans were right when they dubbed him Will Bi-ers. (It was us. We’re “fans”.)

In the season-four premiere, there’s a scene where some random girl tries to play footsie with Will at school, but he moves his leg away. A classic gay move, we’re sure you’ll agree, but there are also hints that Will might have done this because his heart actually belongs to another girl — Eleven.

Episode two further suggests that this could be a thing when it turns out that Will isn’t too happy about Mike popping back into their lives. So is Will jealous that his friend is with Eleven? Perhaps.

Or maybe, Will is actually just jealous of Eleven being with Mike, his bestie slash the one true object of his desires. Or maybe maybe, Will’s into both of them a bit, living up to the bi in Byers.

Episode five adds to this confusion when Will tells Mike how hard it can be to speak your truth. “Sometimes I think it’s scary to just open up like that. To say how you really feel. Especially to people you care about the most. Because what if… what if they don’t like the truth?”

Will, being the messy gay he is might be, makes Mike’s drama all about himself, and what we presume are his feelings for Mike. But once again, this scene could also be read as an affirmation of his love for Eleven. After all, Mike sure wouldn’t want to hear that his best friend secretly loves his girlfriend, right?

So which one is it? Well, during a recent interview with Finn Wolfhard, Digital Spy asked if Will’s feelings for Mike are indeed “shifting towards a more endearing, kind of heartfelt, romantic affection”. To which Finn replied: “Yeah. I think you find out slowly through the season, Will’s kind of love towards Mike and I think it’s a really beautiful thing.”

millie bobby brown, noah schnapp, finn wolfhard, stranger things season 4

Netflix

Sounds sort of gay to us, even if it is a teensy bit vague still. Platonic love between men is a thing, after all. But Finn also goes on to say that “there’s probably a mutual understanding and an acceptance” from Mike’s side of the friendship.

That mention of “acceptance” in particular certainly suggests that Will might go on to share his romantic feelings for Mike in season four, even if that hasn’t happened yet in part one.

Overall though, the way that this storyline is presented in the show itself remains a bit vague still, even if David Harbour would disagree with that assessment. In a new Netflix interview, he says: “If you’ve been watching the show, then you should know that Will is not interested in El. He’s interested in someone else in the group…”

There’s a very strong implication throughout this video that Will is indeed into Mike, and that we will see this story play out on screen in full very soon. And that’s great, but the show has done little to establish this beyond the usual kind of LGBTQ+ subtext that queer people learn to read early on, and which is then so often dismissed.

So this “oh how obvious” tone in the interview is a bit frustrating given how often this kind of subtext usually remains as subtext.

Now that’s not to say Will’s storyline should be rushed, assuming that he even is queer. Finding yourself can take time, and that’s reflective of real life too. But this ambiguity around the direction of Will’s arc feels more like a reluctance to depict young queerness than just telling a slow-burn coming-out story.

Looking back on his journey up until this point, the scene that cemented Will’s sexuality for most fans came in season three when Mike, in a fit of rage, said to Will: “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls”. But in interviews that discussed this scene, both Finn Wolfhard and Noah Schnapp suggested that this line might have nothing to do with Will being queer.

eduardo franco as argyle, noah schnapp as will byers, finn wolfhard as mike wheeler and charlie heaton as jonathan, stranger things, season 4

Courtesy of Netflix

“There were a lot of different versions of that scene,” Finn told The Hollywood Reporter. “We tried, ‘It’s not my fault you don’t like girls yet.’ So, we did a bunch of different things to it, and it was up to the Duffers.”

“I don’t even know if it had to do with Will’s sexuality,” Finn continued. “I think Mike was just mad and listing off a genuine fact that he’s not interested. So, I guess we’ll see what it really meant, but it’s all up to the Duffers and what they want to do.”

In a similar vein, Noah Schnapp told The Wrap that he “kind of just interprets it like he’s not ready to grow up and he doesn’t really want to move on to dating and relationships yet. He still wants to be a kid and play in the basement like he did in old times”.

If that’s true, then the “love” that Will holds for Finn in season four could just be an extension of that platonic, bestie love from seasons gone by.

But regardless, this coyness around Will’s identity is frustrating. Because yes, you could argue that he’s too young to explore these feelings in any kind of meaningful way, yet the show doesn’t balk at centring Mike’s heterosexual romance with Eleven. And they’re pretty much the same age.

So in that case, why does Stranger Things only tiptoe around Will’s potentially romantic feelings for Mike, both in the show itself and also the interviews that surround it?

noah schnapp as will, stranger things, season 4, poster

Netflix

It’s hard not to wonder whether there’s something more at play here. After all, queer teenagers are still rarely portrayed on screen, with Heartstopper being a notable exception. And this stems in part from an uneasiness around the notion that young people can be queer.

Children are all too often coded as straight from birth, but as soon as it’s suggested that kids could be queer instead, harmful assumptions around the nature of queerness suggest that these young people are being sexualised, and therefore shouldn’t be labelled as LGBTQ+.

It’s telling that the only character who’s openly defined as queer in this show is the much older Robin. While her coming-out story admirably defied genre conventions in season three, Will’s version risks being far more harmful in the long run.

Not only does Stranger Things – and the cast – like to dance around the specifics of his identity, it also seems as though Will’s potential love for Mike won’t end on a happy note.

While it’s extremely relatable for teen gays to fall in love with their best friend, Will’s love for Mike, if it is romantic, will go nowhere fast. And although that is true to life, we don’t trust the show to handle this with the same dexterity as Robin’s coming out to Steve.

Not only has Stranger Things been pretty vague with Mike’s story in general up until now, but the new episodes are also juggling vast amounts of plot and characterisation all at once, which is no easy feat, despite this season’s extended running time.

We’re not looking for the new Heartstopper per se. Vecna is too busy stopping actual hearts for the kids to enjoy a full-on love story. But even so, the queer themes in this show deserve more than just the occasional hint or mention.

Will was originally introduced as the first kid to vanish in Hawkins. Let’s just hope that his (potentially) queer storyline doesn’t go down that same route and fade into the background for good.

Stranger Things season 4 part two will premiere on July 1 – streaming on Netflix.

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