When George Fenwick asked the cast of Stranger Things a simple question, Netflix wasn't happy.
The phenomenon that is Netflix's Stranger Things returned yesterday for its third season, bringing its flashy nostalgia and expert chills back to our screens for another eight episodes. The action picks up in 1985, with its younger characters now journeying into adolescence. And I've been curious to see how they would evolve as a result.
Myself, and many other viewers of Netflix's Stranger Things , have long suspected that the character of Will might be gay. This, I'll admit, has as much to do with my own hope of finding gay characters in TV shows as it does the show's plot. For the most part, Will's got other things on his plate, like getting kidnapped or possessed by monsters from other dimensions.
But throughout the series – and particularly after viewing the first four episodes of season three – I noticed increasing homosexual subtext and parallels in Will's character. He feels isolated from his friends after having his formative years taken from him by uncontrollable forces. Much of his struggles are wordless and internal, and he hides them from his loved ones for fear of judgment. I recognised my pre-adolescent self in there.
In season three, the clues are even more obvious: Will is devastated as his friends pair off in heterosexual relationships, and Mike even tells him: "I'm sorry you don't like girls."
Any gay kid can tell you that this resembles their experience – watching your friends enter into relationships while you're stuck in limbo, unsure why you're not feeling the same way towards the opposite sex. It's a lonely way to come of age.
Vulture writer Jen Chaney picked it up in her review of the third season: "It's implied, as it has been in previous seasons, that Will is gay, though it isn't explicitly stated."
The speculation has been such that actor Noah Schnapp has addressed it directly on Instagram before .
With all of the kids growing up in some way this season, it seemed an obvious question to ask when I had the opportunity to interview four of the actors from Stranger Things . After questions about the relationship between Max (Sadie Sink) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), who begin season three as a couple, I asked Schnapp whether Will's sexuality was to be explored this season. He gave a mature response that neither confirmed nor denied anything.
After the interview, I received word from Netflix's representatives that they were concerned over the question. They were unhappy I had asked a question unrelated to the show (even though it clearly was) to a child, and that Schnapp should have had warning he would be asked about such an important topic. They also made it clear that the character is not gay.
I certainly understand where Netflix's concern comes from – the wider context of queer representation is certainly a big topic for a 14-year-old to tackle. But Netflix's nervousness contributes to a wider problem regarding the treatment of queerness in the media. My questions about the heterosexual relationships between underage children on the show passed without comment. Multiple scenes in season three even feature 16-year-old Finn Wolfhard and 15-year-old Millie Bobby Brown making out.
When discussing homosexuality with 14-year-olds is deemed an issue – in a show that happily depicts heterosexuality in underage characters – the implication is that queerness is not appropriate for children.
That line of thinking is nothing new, and has troublesome implications. In Russia, the Elton John biopic Rocketman had homosexual scenes edited out so as to adhere to its "gay propaganda" law, which was passed in 2013 to "protect" children from "information advocating for a denial of traditional family values".
The state of Alabama in the US refused to screen an episode of the children's cartoon Arthur that featured a gay wedding, with Alabama Public Television programming director Mike McKenzie saying parents may reject the episode "either because their children are too young, or because of their beliefs … Our broadcast would take away the choice of parents who feel it is inappropriate".
These attitudes have persisted for decades. The implication is offensive and upsetting: that kids should not be exposed to queer content so as to "protect" them from homosexuality. Myself, and literally any gay person, are walking proof that that is a myth. I think about the cartoons I watched and loved as a kid – Aladdin , The Lion King , The Little Mermaid – and see heterosexual love stories in every single one. None of these had any effect on my homosexuality.
A question about homosexuality should be regarded with the same standard as heterosexuality. If I had directly asked about the show's efforts regarding queer diversity and inclusion, I'd understand the pressure this might place on one young actor. But to be met with such a reaction when asking a plot-based question about whether a character would have his sexuality developed – the same way his peers have – is dismaying.
has been criticised for its lack of queer representation before – homophobic slurs were thrown at its downtrodden kids in season one, without any effort to actually include gay characters or address the wider context of homophobia in the 80s.
Meanwhile, season two's Billy is one of the most queer-coded straight characters in recent television. (Actor Dacre Montgomery even went out of his way to describe the character as straight ). I know, based on the extensive spoiler list sent to journalists, that effort has been made to improve Stranger Things ' sexual diversity this season. But it's unfortunate to witness two seasons' worth of queer subtext for one character being so readily shut down.
It's clear Netflix cares about diversity and representation; their show Tales of the City has made enormous strides in regards to its queer representation, hiring queer writers and actors and casting trans performers in trans roles. The streaming service clearly holds diversity in high regard – but when that standard changes for other titles, and queerness is treated with alarm, I'm not sure they can wave that flag so proudly.