Before I get on to the roast of Jonathan Byers, I’d like to thank everyone for the amazing response to my last post on the sexism in Stranger Things. I am equal parts overwhelmed and chuffed to think my rambles are worthy of being shared across so many platforms and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it.
One of the most overwhelming comments from people I received after my essay on the women of Stranger Things was to write about my beef with Jonathan Byers. So, let’s get down to it.
In short, Jonathan Byers is the living, breathing embodiment of (in my opinion) male writers’ most insidious trope; a trope that in one foul swoop excuses toxic masculine behavior, micro-aggressive misogyny, homophobia and a healthy disrespect for women that doesn’t adhere to a chauvinistic popularised vision of manhood WHILE simultaneously allowing these actions under the guise of victimization. I am talking, of course, about the Geeky Misogynist trope.
The Geeky Misogynist has a long and appalling history in pop-culture. I am going to summarize it in the next couple of paragraphs, but the trope is defined and broken down extraordinarily well in this video essay by Pop Culture Detective on Youtube (who is a massive inspiration to my own ramblings). Feel free to watch it and come back, or skip on down to the next paragraph for my paraphrased version.
The Geeky Misogynist archetype was popularized in the 80s with films like 16 Candles and Revenge Of The Nerds, 1985’s Back To The Future and the 1989 series Saved By The Bell. It also continued on in the 90s with films like 10 Things I Hate About You and many others.
The geeky protagonists in the aforementioned films are established as non-macho (and therefore less “manly” men) via their interests in (supposedly) non-masculine pursuits and their smaller, weedier physiques. These traits are contrasted with the “Jock” archetype who bullies the “geek” for the above reasons. Supposedly, because the audience sees the “geek” as a victim, our sympathy for them moves the audience to forgive any less than respectable behavior because “hey, they can’t be The Worst because they aren’t the bully!” or something to that effect. The Geeky Misogynist not only successfully gets away with harmful misogynistic behaviors, but is heralded as a hero for rebuking these behaviors in others. Don’t believe me?
Hypocrisy plays a major role in spotting and defining the Geek Misogynist and is almost always at the core of the character, regardless of the era in which they are written. In Back To The Future (1983), George McFly (Marty’s father) spies on Lorraine (Marty’s mother) via the tree across from her bedroom window, an act that’s a clear violation of privacy (sound like someone else we know?). Yet, this violation isn’t framed in a way that it taints the audience’s impression of George as the previous scene saw George being intimidated by the very masculine Biff and fellow goons. Even when Marty observes that his father is a pervert, George is positioned as a ‘better’ guy than Biff because…well, he isn’t Biff. This is reinforced at the prom in the final act of the film where Biff attempts to sexually assault Lorraine, but George intervenes and punches him. In this scene, the audience is positioned, once again, to see George as the man with the most honor and moral integrity, despite engaging in similar misogynistic behaviors of male entitlement when we first meet him.
The 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You features Cameron, a lovably invasive non-masculine type who is bespoke with Bianca. Framed as the sympathetic alternative to the vein and masculine Joey, Cameron’s obsession with Bianca is one fueled by a flavor of entitlement that is so potent he pays Patrick Verona, the scariest bloke in school, to take her sister out on a date JUST so Cameron gets to go on a date with Bianca. Patrick and Joey serve as both visual and moral contrasts to Cameron’s supposed lack of malicious masculinity i.e. where Joey is sexy, macho, a model, etc, Cameron is unassuming, humble (supposedly), ordinary, and where Patrick is intimidating, confident, a bit of an asshole and an all-around charming bad ass, Cameron is timid, average looking, with little to no charisma. Cameron constantly lies to Bianca, yet the audience is set up to see him as the better guy than Joey (who constantly pursues Bianca, despite her disinterest). In truth, neither of these men holds respect for Bianca’s agency or boundaries as they decide what’s best for her in terms of her dating life.
So, there are two important ingredients in making the Geeky Misogynist. The first is making them a victim of toxic masculinity via bullying. The second is to allow the first to excuse them from these same abusive masculine behaviors i.e. objectifying the female body, entitlement to the female body and no respect for anything women say or do, etc. simply because they appear divorced from the typical ideal of manhood we associate these behaviors with. In other words, they’re toxic jocks in timid geek clothing.
What makes matters worse is The Geeky Misogynist makes almost everyone in their vicinity just as shallow, entitled and transparent as themselves, and they have to by default, otherwise their behavior would be reprimanded. Notice that, in the films above, the women subjected to the gaze of these men have next to no personality of their own beyond their desire to be with men. Bianca Stratford and Lorraine McFly have no spoken aspirations of their own beyond attaining the affections of their nerdy sexist non-manly men. Meanwhile, the men themselves are only defined by an apparent lack of masculinity and the subsequent victimization that comes with that at the hands of other men, don’t have much going for them either. I really couldn’t tell you a single fact that makes these men different from each other, other than the way they look.
In these narratives, we tend to just be watching stereotypes fall in love with stereotypes, not really characters that could be considered people. But rest assured when the Geeky Misogynist is given interests outside the realm of objectifying women, he often acts superior because of those interests. As if liking Superman comics and acting high and mighty about it somehow makes you a better person than the person who bullies you for liking them. As if idealizing masculinity makes you better than the person that uses it to harm you. In reality, in both instances, men are admiring a harmful set of values pertaining to how women are valued. Thus, these characters rarely have any concrete beliefs or desires that set them apart from those that bully them, or even the women they’re trying to be with, other than their status as victims. The only reason we care for the Geek Misogynist at all is that we are conditioned to see them as a victim of a mentality that they themselves perpetuate, albeit in less obviously aggressive ways.
This brings me to Jonathon Byers.
Jonathan has SOME notable personality traits i.e. caring for Will, inane curiosity, that at best make him a Geeky Misogynist with a vague personality. Jonathan’s bond with his little brother is the only reason I can tolerate him some of the time. Of course, it’s generally not Jonathan’s relationships with other male characters that make me want to smash the fourth wall and slap him, it’s his interactions with women. But before we get there, let’s cross-reference Jonathan with our Geeky Misogynist profile.
Over the course of two seasons of Stranger Things we learn very little about Jonathan as an individual, other than the fact he likes photography, listening to “real” music (*eye roll*), reading, not speaking (?), possibly also has some kind of job (?) and considers himself to be the main male figure in both his mother’s and brother’s lives. Of course, the last element of his personality is all that matters because the Geek Misogynist doesn’t need frivolous things like morals, ethics or desires to be considered human. He only ever needs to establish false superiority that makes his ego solid enough to beat people over the head with when they say things that don’t fit into his version of reality.
The ONLY two women we see him regularly interact with are Nancy Wheeler and his mother, Joyce Byers, and SPOILER ALERT these interactions don’t exactly place Jonathan in the running for “Not Sh*T Person Of The Year”
Jonathan and Joyce
Jonathan’s relationship with his mother can be summed up in one phrase: “No. You’re wrong.”
Regardless of Joyce’s proposal whether it is something reasonable like letting Bob drop Will off at school, or something a little less so like Will being abducted by a monster, Jonathan almost always seeks to deny and undermine his mother’s decisions until he can verify them himself. At no point does Jonathan ever give his own mother the benefit of the doubt. Even when Will initially disappears and Joyce KNOWS something bad has happened, Jonathan insists Joyce’s worry is unfounded and that Will is probably at Mike’s or has gone to school early. He criticizes his mother’s actions and denies her feelings when Will is missing to the point where he writes off her feelings as her “shutting down” (ableism at its finest), rather than, oh I don’t know, hearing her out, perhaps? He even mocks her for the way she attempts to communicate with Will when he’s trapped in the Upside Down, refuses to believe her when she says she heard Will on the phone and uses Will’s funeral as a way to make his grief seem more superior and valid i.e. “while you’re talking to the lights, the rest of us are having a funeral for Will.”
It is also worth mentioning Jonathan’s interactions with his father. In series one, Joyce tells Jonathan that Lonnie, could not possibly be involved with Will’s disappearance. This, of course, isn’t good enough for Jonathan who gets in the car and rocks up at his dad’s house. Lonnie is no diamond of a dad and I don’t like him much either. But when Jonathan barges into his dad’s home unannounced and his dad tries to greet him, Jonathan gets physical and shoves his father away. Again, not saying Lonnie deserves anything other than contempt, but in this scene, he hasn’t done anything to provoke Jonathan. Lonnie insists he has not seen Will, which is the truth, and that seems good enough for Jonathan. You know, like, the exact prediction Joyce made when Lonnie was brought up? Because Joyce actually knows Lonnie well enough to make that call, but, of course, our geeky misogynist has a much easier time believing his father’s opinions on Will’s whereabouts than his mother who has known him the longest. I’d also like to point out that Lonnie’s absence as a father figure in Will’s life, and as a partner to Joyce, is something Jonathan constantly reprimands his father for. Which is a bit rich coming from Jonathan who spends the majority of both series one and two… away from his mother and little brother and/or disbelieving their claims.
In season 2, Joyce is dating Bob. Bob is (arguably) the show’s most sincere and kindest character to date and has nothing but love and respect for Joyce and her sons. However, Jonathan takes issue with his mother’s partner, going so far as to criticize Joyce, a grown woman in her 40s, for allowing Bob to stay the night. Jonathan also mocks Bob on multiple occasions, despite Bob doing nothing to provoke such backlash (unless you count buying sweets, renting movies and lending video cameras to them as a reason for Jonathan to mock the man). Jonathan’s opposition to Bob boils down to Jonathan being decentralized from Joyce’s life. While this is somewhat understandable, given that Joyce was Jonathan’s single parent for the majority of his life and recent traumatic events., Jonathan’s disdain towards Bob still boils down to the entitlement he believes he has in presiding over his mother’s and Will’s life, even when he spends the majority of his time away from them with Nancy. Hell, he is literally tasked with accompanying Will trick or treating but allows him to go alone so he, Jonathan, can go to a party. Later, when Joyce is reviewing the footage on Will’s camera (which Jonathan is obviously absent from), Jonathan’s absence isn’t even acknowledged, one of the many reckless, careless actions Jonathan isn’t reprimanded for because “But he was at the party making sure Nancy was okay!! Awwwww!”
Male writers love to write men’s entitlement to women as “protectiveness” and have done so for a very long time, stemming from sexist mentalities such as a) women are weaker than men and b) so, therefore, are under the protection of men which c) essentially makes women the property of men. This so-called ‘protectiveness’ also exempts them from the consequences of their behavior, even when that behavior places great risks on others.
Of course, I am not saying that Jonathan is a twisted man who believes Joyce is his property, but his hatred of Bob and distance from Jim Hopper at times, suggests he believes he and Will are entitled to be at the center of Joyce’s attention because that is how it has always been. In a way, he refuses to see his mother as a fully formed human, but rather as just a figure in his life to be rejected or accepted on a needs basis. This entitlement to her is further highlighted by Jonathan’s aggressive opposition towards his mother’s decisions as if he doesn’t believe her capable enough to make them. He even moves to stop Will’s heat-induced exorcism because he believes Joyce is going to kill him, despite Joyce’s entire character being defined by her desire to keep Will safe from harm.
Despite being the clear opposition in these scenarios, however, Jonathan is always framed as the victim. Always. In framing Joyce as mad, the audience is supposed to sympathize with Jonathan as the only person really dealing with Will’s disappearance. Similarly, when he is avoided at school for being a weirdo, the audience is positioned to feel sympathy instead of questioning what Jonathan could have done in order for so many people to suspect him of harming his brother. Even when Bob comes into the picture, we are positioned to see Jonathan as the brother getting the least amount of attention and the person really sticking up for Will, rather than the boy being rude to his mother and her partner. When Steve Harrington smashes Jonathan’s camera after Jonathan used it to take photos of Nancy without her consent, the scene contextualizes Jonathan as a victim of bullying, rather than a guy who violated the privacy of a young woman and receiving the consequences for his actions. When Jonathan goes to his father’s house to physically confront him over Will’s disappearance, we are conditioned to see Jonathan as the misfortunate young man with no hope, rather than someone who just abandoned his distraught mother to have a go at his dad.
Check that hypocrisy box!
Furthermore, Jonathan receives no real consequences for his abusive behavior because he himself is framed as a victim of abusive or unfortunate circumstances. He never apologizes for his behavior toward Bob, or his mother after Bob dies. Even the biggest personal consequence (Steve smashing his camera) is reversed when Nancy buys him a new one. Let me repeat that: Nancy buys Jonathan, the boy who stalked her, a camera because her boyfriend who was defending her right to privacy, broke it. Jonathan’s behavior that leads so many of his peers to believe he might have killed his brother is never addressed or changed. Instead, he gives Will a “freaks change the world” speech that sounds like something you’d find on a pre-pubescent grunge kid’s myspace page in ’06, rather than something constructive, or helpful. He doesn’t even ask Will what is making him feel like a freak, opting instead to validate his own feelings via glorifying a standoffish demeanor that has left Jonathan with zero friends his whole school life and pretending it applies to Will’s own circumstance which he hasn’t even bothered to fully comprehend.
Nancy & Jonathan
Let’s just get this out of the way first, I really do not care for the whole love triangle bullsh*t between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. In fact, involvement in love triangles is the surest way to turn me off any group of characters. Love triangles are overused, poorly executed narrative tools used by men to loudly proclaim why they are better than one another and give them personalities where they barely have them. I mean, really, if a woman is stuck deciding between two guys, the reality is that neither of them must be…that great, and unfortunately, Stranger Things demonstrates this all too well.
Enter Jonathan, our Geeky Misogynist, and his nemesis, the Jock Type, Steve Harington. Two potatoes vying for the affections of an underdeveloped female character who apparently has been lead to believe that these are the only two boys on the planet who will ever be into her and so she MUST CHOOSE ONE in order to be an interesting character involved in the main narrative of the series. There is a scene where Jonathan and Steve actually have it out with one another in a physical fight and surprise! Jonathan is once again the victim in this situation, despite both boys hurting one another, being dickheads with no tangible respect for the people they claim to care for and harming my eyes from having to watch men fight over a woman like we’re in the goddamned stone age.
Nancy’s need to be part of the main narrative is the only reason I can figure she chose to go running around with Jonathan in both series one and two. If not, this would mean that Nancy genuinely wants to be around a guy who looks down on her as “just another suburban girl”, has also spied on her, thinks he’s better than everyone because likes “real” music and feels so entitled to her friendship because they shared a couple of traumatic events that he reprimands her for not staying in contact with him, as if that was her social obligation to someone she barely knew before Will’s disappearance. As if it was on her to communicate because he figured he was such a shoe-in for her affections he didn’t need to actually communicate his interest. Which, apparently, neither did Nancy…?
In these situations, Nancy is often the one positioned as “the Bitch” for rejecting Jonathan’s romantic interest, or just interest. To be honest, I am surprised she even knows he has feelings for her when his facial expressions are as differentiated as the minute setting on a 10 dollar Target toaster. Not to mention, much like the way he treats his mother, Jonathan is a big fan of undermining Nancy’s feelings, bordering on Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where the abuser deliberately sows seeds of doubt in an individual in order to shift and alter a specific person’s memory or perception. Jonathan gaslights his mother by constantly implying she’s insane and refusing to believe her. During the scene in series one, episode 5 where he and Nancy are searching for the demigorgan, Nancy asks Jonathan why he took the photos of her in the first place. Jonathan replies, “My guess I saw this girl, you know, trying to be someone else. But for that moment it was like you were alone, or you thought you were. And, you know, you could just be yourself.” Nancy calls bullshit on this and calls out Jonathan’s judgment of her relationship with Steve. But Jonathan dismisses this with a reply of “I just thought it was a good picture.” Completely, disregarding her hurt feelings by framing his action as something divorced from the context of what actually happened. By saying he just thought he was taking a nice picture after using it to belittle Nancy is the equivalent of me saying “I just thought this was a nice a car” after using it to run-over your cat. Jonathan then goes on to claim his dislike of Steve is nothing personal because he hates everyone (what a catch, right?) before personally attacking Nancy by saying she’ll amount to someone “Exactly like their parents, who [she] thought were so depressing…”
While Jonathan’s insult was a response to Nancy’s comment that Jonathan is a pretentious creep, it is a far more vicious verbal assault by comparison. Jonathan uses Nancy’s own fear and insecurities over her parent’s marriage to hurt her, information she shared with Jonathan privately in the previous scene. Here, he uses it against her to defend his own problematic behavior. Even though Nancy calling Jonathan a creep for taking a photo of her without her permission and using the photo to be condescending is in no way comparable Jonathan using Nancy’s private fears to hurt her for calling him out. What makes this scene even more insanely misogynistic is that Jonathan is given the last word. He is positioned as justified in his claims, as someone whose romantic feelings are misunderstood, even though he was clearly in the wrong. Once again, of course, we see no follow-up-apology. No scene exists whereby Jonathan apologizes for those vicious comments or violating Nancy’s privacy. Nancy buys a replacement camera for him as a Christmas present and eventually ends up in a relationship with him.
Jonathan does nothing to earn the respect, or adoration of the people around him, but receives it regardless of his actions and these actions almost always seem to be motivated by a pettiness, vendetta, or the desire to have sympathy. None of the actions he takes – helping Nancy find Barb, helping Nancy break into the labs, helping his mother with Will – come from a genuine desire to help. Where characters like Jim Hopper, Joyce Byers, Nancy, Steve, and even Eleven agree to assist in situations that don’t benefit them directly, Jonathan’s continued involvement in Nancy’s plans are underpinned by a poignant smugness that she is with him and not Steve, rather than authentic concern for her. This is reinforced by the timing of his interactions with her, always choosing to be around her when her and Steve’s relationship is at its weakest, or Steve just isn’t there, allowing him to maintain a status as Steve’s victim (a classic Geek Misogynist VS. Jock Type trope). He even admits to deliberately not contacting her at all in episode 6 of season 2 (“you only waited a month”) because she and Steve reconciled at the end of season one, making it clear he isn’t interested in Nancy as a human being, but more as a prize he deserves to win. If Nancy isn’t entirely devoted to him, then she isn’t worth his time. Of course, I totally understand being a third wheel is not the spot anyone wishes to be in, but if Jonathan really cared for Nancy as a person, then Steve wouldn’t be the excuse he uses to not check up on her. By assuming his presence in Nancy’s life is in contest with, or opposition to, Steve, Jonathan implies there is no space for a simple friendship (despite their dismal lack of romantic chemistry) between he and Nancy. The assumption that men and women cannot be friends is rooted in heteronormativity and a mentality that the only way in which men should value women is as their lovers, a status that has kept women unequal to men for much of history. Many men devalue friendships with women even today. Terms like ‘friend-zone’ are used with negative connotations, rom-coms are rife with plot lines in which men who are friends with women only as a stepping stone on their way to their entitled romantic entanglements and you’d be hard-pressed to find mainstream Y.A. novels in which a female and male remain only friends for the whole of a narrative. The men in these situations only care about women’s feelings as they apply to them. Jonathan only cares about Nancy’s feelings pertaining to him and when they are not desirable, he suddenly finds a reason not to be around her. That reason? Is usually Will.
As I said, Jonathan’s love for his little brother forces me to tolerate him SOME of the time. SOME. This is because Jonathan only genuinely has time for Will when his stalking Nancy schedule allows. He is so busy running around after Nancy that he is absent for the majority of Will’s “episodes” and only shows up to help his family after he and Nancy have *ahem* done what they needed to do. Now, I could be really nasty here and point out that the Nancy/Jonathan Expose The Conspiracy Subplot is rendered unnecessary because after the demo-dogs massacre a government-funded research facility built on a volatile landscape, it is highly unlikely the US government would have said, “meh! we can still be a Secret Lab No One Knows About after this!” BUT, that would be nasty. Not to mention it would mean that the Duffer Bros wasted valuable money, screen-time and production resources to concoct an unnecessary convoluted 60 minute subplot whose only purpose was to get Jonathan laid, instead of getting him and Nancy, whom both have siblings in mortal danger for the second time in 12 months, to oh I don’t know, help out with that?
Jonathan and Nancy show up and their contributions amount to giving Hopper, Joyce and the kids a lift back to the Byers’ house from the labs, and from the Byers’ house to the cabin. There isn’t even a scene where they explain where they have been, or where Jonathan comforts his very clearly traumatized and grieving mother. The most Jonathan does in between being a glorified chauffeur is telling a story or two to Will about some brotherly times they had to allow him to fight the Mindflayer enough to get a message to characters with actual significance to take some action.
I am not saying that all men need to be useful, or behave a certain way in order to be significant. When it comes to Jonathan Byers I am merely pointing out why a character, regardless of how appealing they are, should have a purpose in a narrative. It shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but if you can remove a character from your story and the plot either a) remains the same, or b) improves in efficiency than you need to ask yourself why your character is there at all and it honestly baffles me that this character gets to play such a time-consuming role on this show when his repulsive oppositional actions have little to no impact on major outcomes of the plot.
There’s nothing stopping Jonathan from assuming a role as the voice of reason to his mother’s more illogical outbursts WITHOUT belittling her (see: Jim Hopper), apologising to Nancy when he knows he’s in the wrong (see: Steve Harrington), or helping out someone simply because they need help with no expectation of reward (see: literally most of the other characters). More importantly, there is nothing visibly preventing Jonathan from receiving any permanent consequences for his negligent and harmful actions which prompt the question: Why is he permitted to coast through the narrative in such a disrespectful way without growth, or redemption?
The answer? Because men always are.
I can tell you right now that Jonathan Byers is not the guy I secretly want to be with, be alone with, or even know. Jonathan lives in a world where all his actions are forgiven and so has no use for frivolous things like self-reflection or sympathy. He is a watered down product of the same patriarchal values that shaped the actions of men like Johnny Depp, Woody Allen and worse, has allowed society to become systematically complicit in allowing the abuse of women to go unchallenged, uncharged and unpunished. I hate Jonathan Byers because he is indicative of white male entitlement and a society that not only allows this entitlement but rewards it to the mass detriment of marginalized people.
The thing I find so hateful about Jonathan Byers is that nobody really hates him. Despite the harmful abusive things he has done, he soldiers on as a victim of mostly self-inflicted hardship that he himself inflicts on others, none of which contextualized in the story so that young people watching see this behavior as wrong.
Jonathan gets the girl, a new camera and the love of his brother and mother in the same fashion that child abusers receive and maintain illustriously revered film careers, misogynists run multi-billion-dollar film studios, serial rapists become presidents and women are oppressed in a system designed to benefit the men that invade our autonomy, privacy and bodies because they believe they’re entitled.
Jonathan Byers is a PG13 watered down version of this type of unchecked misogyny and his actions are in no way equal or akin to the crimes mentioned above, but his actions do stem from the same ingrained patriarchal framework that men have reinforced any way they can for as long as western culture has existed. Popular fiction has always been used as a way to both reinforce established systems and values, and challenge them. But if the values and systems we promote are ones that allow men to behave in harmful ways toward women and reward them for it, rather than encouraging reflection, atonement and redemption then the Jonathan Byers of the world will continue down their unchallenged paths to further strengthen systems of abuse, ableism, and misogyny to become producers, directors, writers, thinkers, and presidents.
That’s why I hate Jonathan Byers.
Happy new year to all! I hope your 2017 has been (if nothing else) survivable and that 2018 is kinder and easier!