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  • Writer's pictureToni Oisin H.C. (QSO)

Why a Gay Romance Would’ve Been Perfect For Steve Harrington’s Character Arc

Give Steve a boyfriend, you cowards.

A six bar rainbow LGBTQ+ pride flag with a vectorised outline of Steve Harrington and Eddie Munson together in a campervan. The outline of the two men is translucent and glowing in white, blue, and yellow. The inside of the image of the boys in nondescript, containing a black pattern made of dots and lines.

Stranger Things 4 launched this summer, bringing with it some remarkable high and low points in modern TV. Quality control aside, with its return we had the joy of seeing some old friends, like El Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink), as well as meeting new ones, including the delightful Argyle (Eduardo Franco) and the ill-fated Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn).

More specifically, throughout this series, we got to spend a lot of time with the young adults of Hawkins (and Lenora Hills). The “Fruity Four” - that being Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer), Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke), Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), and Eddie Munson - in particular formed a new, important alliance, mirroring the original gang of four from the first series. That bond allowed us, the audience, to really dig into the way the characters who have been with us since day one have developed so far. Nancy has grown into a confident, powerful person who has shit to get done; although she was always pretty cool. But let’s talk about Steve for a minute.

Steve has had the character arc of the century. Despite the fact he was originally destined to be killed off in the first series (presumably for being an arsehole), Steve has really managed to dig his claws into the franchise with some fantastic sticking power as a character. First off, our impression of Steve was that he was a homophobic, egotistical, jock who was a total dick to girls. And, that impression wasn’t strictly speaking wrong in any way - he was all of those things. However, we’ve seen an immense amount of growth and self-reflection from the character over the past few series, ending up with him morphing into an ally to his lesbian best friend Robin (a lezbro, perhaps?) and a paternal figure to his ever-expanding selection of little nuggets.

Although Steve has developed and changed as a character in a litany of ways, one thing has stayed pretty much the same: he’s a floozy. Romantically oriented. Obsessed with the “babes”. I can’t call him a ladies man, because he isn’t always that successful (check Robin’s “YOU RULE/YOU SUCK” scoreboard from Stranger Things 3), and I can’t call him a hopeless romantic, because he’s largely just. Hopeless. But he always tries to catch the eye of the “babes” hanging around Hawkins.

But, despite his failing attempts at Lotharioism, he never seems totally satisfied by any of the women he gets together with. As Robin points out: “he dates all these girls, and he still doesn’t seem to know what he wants”. While the subtext of that statement is probably that he’s not interested because they aren’t his ex girlfriend, Nancy, there is another, debatably more interesting way that could be read: maybe dating all of these women isn’t enough for Steve.

Steve is constantly dissatisfied by his romantic endeavors with women, in addition to just all around having pretty poor luck with the girls these days. It seems like there’s an important key missing for him. It seems like Steve is almost looking in the wrong place to have his runaway heart fulfilled.

To be more explicit, Steve’s character arc would benefit from a gay romance. What better way to go on a journey of self discovery and development than through questioning your identity? It’s a rite of passage, almost.

To cast our minds back to season two, Steve was extradited from his social ingroup of the jocks, with the help of Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery). There were all kinds of political reasons why this happened, but ultimately it all came back to him becoming an outsider, and liaising with other outsiders, partially in an attempt to reject the kind of toxic masculinity that his former friend group pushed and that he had been lulled into extenuating before.

Fairly infamously, Billy pushes Steve down to the floor while playing aggressively during basketball, accusing him of “switching sides”. At face value, that’s referring to Steve’s actions in stepping away from his position as “King Steve”, star sportsman and homecoming king, but the verbiage is… Interesting, to say the least. “Switching sides” has the connotation of phrases like “batting for the other team”, making the scene feel like a homophobic slight towards Steve. Previously, this is similar to the way that Steve had tried to harass others, such as Johnathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) - who he shouted at for being a “queer” back in the first season.

Interestingly, Billy seemed to be the catalyst for the fandom’s calls for a gay or bisexual Steve Harrington in other ways, too. Harringrove, the ship name for slash pairing Billy Hargrove/Steve Harrington, is currently the most popular Stranger Things ship on fanfiction platform AO3, with over 8.5k fics. It’s kind of unsurprising, considering the long communal shower scenes, and Steve telling Billy not to “cream [his] pants” when seeing him. However, as of Stranger Things 4, another slash pairing has had a rise to fame: Steddie, the slash pairing for Eddie “The Freak” Munson and Steve “The King” Harrington.

Although Steddie only started sailing back in May, coinciding with Joe Quinn’s arrival in the show, the ship has swiftly become the second most popular ship for Stranger Things on AO3, with a whopping 8.4k+ fics tagged with the boys (at time of writing). It's probably only a matter of time until the ship becomes the most popular in the fandom, considering the boom in content being made about them. If you’ve spent any time in fandom circles on Tumblr, Instagram, or Facebook lately, it’s likely that you’ve come across Steddie at some point, either as a gifset, illustration, fanfiction, fanmix, or some other type of gorgeous fanwork. But what makes the frissance between the pair so thematically perfect for Steve’s character arc?

From the jump, Eddie is introduced to us as an outcast, or, a “freak”. We see him throwing himself around the Hawkins High School cafeteria, shouting about the dangers of forced conformity, Satanism, and, well, sodomy. The synonymization of being a “freak” and being queer is deeply entrenched in homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. Of course, not exclusively so - alternative folk of all different walks of life have been tarred with the freak-brush and used as scapegoats for many a moral panic throughout history - but nonetheless, the hint that Eddie is, in some way, LGBTQ+ feels present from early on.

In case the subtext of Eddie being a freak who is apparently partaking in sodomy isn’t gay enough for you, check his outfit. Dangling from his left back pocket is a black handkerchief. Whether intentional or not, this evokes flagging or the hanky code; a signaling system used by men who have sex with men (and other LGBTQ+ individuals) going way back in history. As well as that, take a closer look at the pins on the front of his battle jacket. He dons a Judas Priest badge, who are well known for their gay, brilliant, leather-daddy frontman, Rob Halford. His outfit definitely sets off the old gaydar.

Understandably, queercoded Eddie doesn’t anticipate that he and the possibly-still-homophobic Steve will hit it off. As far as Eddie knows, Steve is still who he was in high school: a jock, the king, and a total dickhead. But they do hit it off, pretty much immediately (at least, after Steve has finished trying to hit Eddie with an oar and Eddie holds a broken bottle to Steve’s throat). This isn’t a surprise - Steve’s been on the character development arc of the century, as a product of essentially becoming a freak within the social circles he had been in before.

A key to Steve’s development as a character throughout the series is the growth in his willingness to look in the face of so-called “freakishness” and embrace it. He demonstrates this time and time again, whether he’s fighting monsters (“we usually rely on this girl who has super powers”), looking after a gang of certifiably weird kids, or buddying up with band geek Robin. It seems about time for him to fly his own freak flag a little harder, now he’s free from the shackles of high school’s hierarchy.

It’s easy to wonder who Steve really is, underneath the layers of Farrah Fawcett hairspray and the fantastic range of polo shirts. I think that there’s a lot left of Steve’s character to unfurl, as he hacks away at his repression and internalised homophobia. This seems like as good a way as any to complete the character arc.

As fans have pointed out, there are some scenes that could, with some tactical writing, become perfect foreshadowing for Steve’s curiosity, too. Most of this stems from dialogue shared between him and his two nearest-and-dearests, Robin and Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo). Basically the entire sequence in the Family Video store is crammed with quips that are difficult to ignore when looked at through a lavender lens. Dustin’s right - maybe Steve WOULD “have a little bit more luck if you spent less time trying to find a girlfriend, and more time trying to find Eddie”. He might be surprised by what he finds. Especially if he, as he says himself, likes to “attend to all customers equally, babes and non-babes alike”.

To dig into the queer connotations of that scene a little more, as Steve objects to Robin’s claim that he only pays attentions to customers who are “babes”, a young man (who happens to be a metalhead) walks into the shop, visible directly behind Steve’s shoulder in the shot. The man never interacts with any of the cast in that scene, but it feels like foreshadowing for Eddie (who is totally “a babe”, for what it’s worth) coming into Steve’s life, maybe even leading to some kind of crisis of sexuality.

At the end of the Family Video scene, the gang finds a potential lead for where the mysterious Reefer Rick - who they believe to be laying low with Eddie - may be hiding. It’s in no other place than “Lover’s Lake”. The lake forms a pivotal point not only for the wider story, but also specifically for Steve and Eddie’s relationship. They meet in a shack by the lake, in a totally bizarre sequence that begins with Steve trying to beat the shit out of Eddie with an oar. After a bit of back-and-forth, Steve ends up pinned to the wall by Eddie, in a long, intense staring contest. The tension in the scene is so thick that you could cut it with Eddie’s broken bottle. But, what is so striking about this scene isn’t necessarily the physicality of it all. Instead, it’s the way Eddie is appeased by Steve and Dustin convincing him that Steve is, actually “one of the good ones”, and may well be on his side.

The significance of Lover’s Lake circles back around near the end of Stranger Things 4 Part 1, when the so-called Fruity Four plunge through the portal into the Upside Down. Together, the gang ride out in a little boat - a ship, if you will - together across the lake, in search of the gate. We get an absolutely delicious sequence of Steve stripping off to heroically dive into the water while Eddie watches and frustratedly smokes a cigarette, after being pelted with Steve’s shirt. I’m not sure I even need to dig into why that’s a bit gay.

(The aforementioned stripping off also opens up the door for Eddie throwing Steve his battle jacket, a notoriously personal item of clothing which Eddie lovingly customised by hand, to cover up with. Don’t you just love warming up in your boyfriend’s jacket?)

Maybe more importantly than the half-nakedness is the selection of folks who take to the boat. The kids are left on land, while Nancy, Robin, Steve, and Eddie set sail. This leaves Steve in an interesting position, as he travels across one of Hawkins’ romance spots with his ex-girlfriend, capital P Platonic Pal (who he formerly crushed on), and, of course, Eddie. Given the significance Robin and Nancy hold to Steve, both as people whom he loves and as people he has had romantic feelings for, it’s difficult not to get stuck on Eddie’s presence.

This isn’t the only time Steve spends with Eddie in a location favoured by the teenaged sweethearts of Hawkins, either. Eddie hides out by Skull Rock, waiting for the rest of the group to find him after they have been separated. As soon as Eddie tells Dustin to find them at Skull Rock, Steve knows the way off by heart - to his own admission, because Skull Rock is Hawkins' top-rated makeout spot.

It’s clear that, to some extent, this coding or subtext is probably intended to be attributed to Steve’s evidently unresolved and complex feelings towards Nancy, who is also present in the vast majority of these scenes. However, even though that’s the case, it doesn’t mean there can’t be an alternative reason. It also certainly doesn’t mean that he can’t have feelings for more than one person at a time.

In a sense, longing for Nancy, desperately wishing she could be a part of his traditional family dream - six little nuggets and a Winnebago - when it goes against everything she wants, doesn’t feel much like the character development that Steve has gone through over the past four seasons. Instead, it feels like falling back into old patterns. Wouldn’t it be great to move on to new things, instead?

An important thing to note is that really, it doesn’t have to be useful to the narrative or overarching story for a character to be bisexual. It’s enough for bisexuality, or any other type of queerness, to be there incidentally. It’s enough to just want to see incidentally LGBTQ+ characters and it not be a big thing. But, even acknowledging that, this is the perfect opportunity for a bisexual character to enter Stranger Things in a way that even fits into the wider story at hand.

Bi Steve is quite a popular component of fanon, with tags like # Bi Steve Harrington and # Bisexual Steve Harrington both being highly popular on Tumblr. Stranger Things has walked some LGBTQ+ territory before, with sapphic Robin Buckley and, potentially, Will Byers’ (Noah Schnapp) feelings for his best friend, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) - who, let's not forget, are also branded as "freaks" and weirdos throughout the series. Why not go all out and let Steve in on the fun, too? After all, what’s “Strange” if not a synonym for “Queer”?

Sure, the popularity of Steddie as a ship is probably helped by the fact that both Joe Keery and Joe Quinn are total eye candy - and it would be fine if all the ship bubbled down to was people wanting to see two cute guys in love with each other. We still don’t have enough gay love on screen. But really, even when it purely boils down to narrative choices, it’s about time Steve got a goddamn boyfriend. To paraphrase the meme, sometimes a man hurts all the women in his life because his soulmate is actually a man.


Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.

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