If you’re not all already bowing to a certain someher on Netflix’s scrumptiously ’80s Stranger Things, arch those backs, because you, sheeple, have a new Kween in your midst. The world is full of a lot of Nancys — girls who’ll pretend to be your friend and then choose bros over hoes and leave you to sit alone by the pool to get eaten by large sphincter-flora. And the world is even full of Barbs — #important burgeoning queer feminist characters who get eaten first by large sphincter-flora. But clap your damn hand emojis, because one truly underappreciated character from all your favorite ’80s movies got. her. friggin’. moment. in Stranger Things. That’s right, it’s everyone’s 2016 literal-“it”-girl, This Shrub Next to Barb.
Now, Stranger Things, nostalgic show that it is, doesn’t go the extra mile to undermine some of the sticky gendered and botanical mores of the times. If the show were set today, certainly This Shrub Next to Barb would have gotten a lot more action — and that’s right, I mean both kinds of action. To clarify, that’s both the sex kind and the doing-impressive-things-in-a-TV-show kind. And obv if it were set today and a director who’s attuned to nonnormative sexual relations like Todd Haynes filmed it, it’d be sensitive, honest, non-exploitative, and show, finally, that this, people is the way shrubs “make shrub.” Like, there’d be a totally attractive but not exoticized bee, and that bee would be bringing the male gamete all up in This Shrub Next to Barb’s ovule, and it’s 2016 goddamn it, so she wouldn’t feel obligated to produce a diploid zygote, or if she did it’d be by choice, like in Juno, and that choice would be empowering.
But while This Shrub Next to Barb might not seem, at least in the show, like she’s given that much attention, she’s become an Internet sensation all on her own, and I do think the show, as an unmitigated work of nostalgia, rightly depicts what life would have been like as a shrub in the ’80s. As in:
It was not easy. You were ignored. You never got to be DJ at the pool party. You got peed on. Worse, you got sat next to by the Barbs of the world, and they were too self-involved to even engage. Us: Unassuming, invisible, forgotten, but just waiting for it to be our turn. Thanks to Stranger Things, this experience has finally been shown onscreen, candidly, and the image below is the perfect demonstration of why representation is so important, and why high school was so hard for shrubs:
Yeah. Swoon. For the shrub that is. But also feel your heartbreak for the shrub’s neglect. And also gag at Barb’s apathy towards the fact that she was literally sitting next to the coolest girl in school and didn’t know it.
Remember in high school, all of the so-called “cool” kids would be ostentatiously moving their arms and legs, not to mention ostentatiously simply having arms and legs? And you sat there, rotund, weighed down by dense foliage, scarred weekly by the gardener? You pathetic pariah, you were so desperate for affection that you even considered that one time you were sprinkled with processed chicken shit your first kiss. It’s okay. We all did. And looking back, it’s not pathetic, it’s bold. If only we’d known it then.
While the brooding art bros took photos, you photosynthesized. They said you had an eating disorder because you were always stuffing your chloroplasts with light, but you didn’t let that stifle your inner light.
You didn’t have the ability to think about being some kind of ironic style icon, firstly because you couldn’t think. And you were too asymmetrical, you could hardly contain your twisted, bounteous parts, chubby, lumpy, repulsive, and you wouldn’t have even fit into Barb’s iconic cerulean puffy coat — if she’d ever even asked. At best, you could wear an incidental squirrel. But you know what? Looking back, incidental squirrel was effortlessly chic. Other girls sprayed their hair to look like you. You had been wearing the ’80s ‘do since the mesozoic, or something. You were quintessentially uber-’80s before the ’80s even existed.
You had so much to say with so little, like when the wind blew and your leaves flapped and made sounds, or when the aforementioned person peed on you and the splashing made a wonderfully sardonic comment about the inanity of high school culture. You wished you could have sex-negatively scowled at Nancy like Barb for two episodes before being kidnapped by the puckered pink monster. But you shouldn’t have doubted yourself. Barb is a myth. We were all This Shrub Next to Barb. And This Shrub Next to Barb is the undeniable best character in Stranger Things.
Barb is a conspiracy cooked up by pop culture to make us feel bad for not having interiority or faces, to make us think we need to be Barbs when really we’re all This Shrub Next to Barb: broad-leaved, multi-stemmed, often deciduous. But here’s the thing we have that Barb never again will: life. Because of that worm thing that crawled out of her rotting corpse. To quote Beyoncé, “Barb, bye.” It’s 2016, and no one’s gonna impeach this bush.