In the days after the release of Stranger Things 2 I’ve been noticing a wave of comments, statuses and threads all touting how much better people liked Steve Harrington’s development, that he went from being a jerk to being a “good person” in one short season. I’ve even seen some comparing Steve from Season 1 to Billy in the new season.
Um, no. Let’s stop right there.
Steve and Billy are not comparable in any way, shape, or form and the distinction is important. Billy is a physically abusive, disrespectful, manipulative monster who not only emotional and physical abuses his step sister but straight up assaults children he doesn’t even know. In fact, there are even hints that Billy is a racist, targeting Lucas specifically and outright calling him dangerous. To compare Billy’s actions to Steve’s arc of growth and maturity is, in some ways, damaging.
Let’s take a closer look at Steve Harrington at the beginning of the show. Steve is proclaimed to be this super popular kid, but unlike most 1980s media, he’s not outright mean and shallow and he doesn’t go flouting it around. He is clearly crazy for Nancy, following her into the bathroom to set up a date and never acting like she should be grateful to him for bestowing attention on her. When she clearly tells him that she needs to study, he respects her enough to actually help her study and not push her. He never belittles Nancy for her intelligence nor pushes her to dump Barb as a friend or change how she looks. He only engages in intercourse with Nancy once she initiates it, and doesn’t treat her poorly or differently afterward.
That’s not to say the Steve doesn’t make mistakes. Breaking Jonathan’s camera is a big one, but you have to understand that given Steve has no idea what Jonathan intended to use the photos for (like blackmail or to shame Nancy), it’s understandable that he would get mad and destroy the tool used to take the photos. By the end of the season, however, he helps purchase a new camera for Jonathan, even if he doesn’t take credit for it. He also doesn’t take Nancy seriously when she expresses concerns about Barb, one of the few times he was not emotionally supportive, but then immediately apologizes and attempts to make it right.
The stunt with the marquee where he calls Nancy a slut is downright rotten — there’s no excusing it, considering that it was done with the intent to hurt Nancy in the most public way possible. Arguably, Steve’s friends Tommy and Carol are the bigger jerks and Steve fails by giving in to them and their malicious idea. And even worse, he continued to yell at Jonathan and provoked a fist fight because of it. Still, after realizing what an awful jerk he was, he apologizes and cleans up the graffiti on the theater. He even then goes to find Nancy to make amends, only to find himself on a monster-fighting squad, but such was the 1980s.
The trend is clear – every time Steve messes up, he apologizes and then takes action to correct it. He doesn’t always do it with the most grace, but he is always sincere. That’s why I was glad Nancy stayed with him at the end of season 1, because she sees in him the genuine and kind and tries to do the right thing whenever possible. He’s not perfect, but no one is, and he’s no less deserving of love and affection because of it.
Now, back to my previous point — the issue with dating Steve in Season 1 is that it ultimately reinforces the idea of “the good guy should get the girl.” We sympathize with Jonathan not only because of the loss of his brother and the ever-growing despair of his mother, but also because he’s framed as a sweet, sensitive teen who is looking to make a connection. And that’s what the creators wanted. May I also remind you that he took photos of Nancy in an intimate moment without her consent, developed those photos at school, and when confronted, does not apologize for it. He is also the last person to see Barb alive and does nothing with that information for a long time and is emotionally distant. That’s not to say he’s a bad person, just that he’s not perfect either.
Both Steve and Jonathan are typical teenage boys who are maturing. They are confronting difficult feelings, they are working through issues, they are doing the best they can and are both generally good people. We all make mistake, especially when we are still trying to suss out right from wrong and how to react to hard situations. Jonathan is more mature because of the difficult he has led, but Steve is no petulant child throwing tantrums and exaggerating his importance. He does not cast down others, even though his friends tend to do so. Even so, before the end of Season 1, he sheds these two jerks and sides firmly with Nancy and Jonathan in their quest to take down the Demogorgan.
Now let’s look at Billy. One of the first acts he does is threaten to mow down small children on bikes to emotionally abuse his sister into not making friends. Let’s make it clear — he threatened to, at a minimum, seriously hurt a bunch of children in order to punish his little step-sister. Among Billy’s other acts, he frequently threatens Max with bodily harm, grabs her roughly and drags her around, and threatens her and the guys when she starts making friends. He insults people, is overly aggressive, and is demeaning to everyone he meets. He’s basically as close to a Stephen King bully as we get.
And, of course, the most damning act of all is when he picks up Lucas and attempts to beat him up for act of befriending/being romantically interested in his sister. There is no comparable act of Steve’s in season 1 because only a real and true asshole would do this. We do see how physically and emotionally abusive Billy’s father is, but guess what? There are, unfortunately, many kinds who go through abuse and who do not become abusive in turn. Even still, Billy is old enough to know what what is and is not permissible even when adults are not around.
Steve in the early part of season 2 remains supportive and kind to Nancy, going with her to Barb’s parents for dinner, attempting to help her through her trauma, and even stepping back when it’s clear she needs space. I think because we finally get to see Steve interacting with the younger group that we get to see him for who he really is: supportive, protective, a leader, and downright fearless when he needs to be. I mean he gets the shit beaten out of him by Billy protecting a kid he barely knows. And when it is clear that Nancy has fallen for Jonathan, he never guilts or screams at her – he accepts it, is happy for her, and mourns the end of the relationship in his own way.
If Steve is damned by his relationship to Nancy, then he is redeemed by his friendship with Dustin. Dustin, who we see lacks a father for whatever reason, finds an older brother in Steve, and Steve happily supports him by giving him hair tips and driving him to the dance, on top of risking his own life to make sue Dustin and his friends make it home alive. In this we see that Steve’s good traits do not only appear when he’s in love, but that he’s a good guy overall. The only closure we get with Billy’s character is him giving a seething but restrained look when he walks by Max getting ready for the dance, so it doesn’t look like much real change has been made there. Steve grows and builds on a good foundation, Billy doesn’t and remains bitter and abusive.
So the next time you look to bash Steve, just remember that we all did things in our childhoods we’d rather forget. And that he never tried to murder any kids.