Mild spoilers for season four of Stranger Things ahead.
Stranger Things is Netflix’s nostalgia-packed golden child. I remember having mixed feelings about its third season, feelings which can be summed up in two words: Billy Hargrove. But while the abusive, yet redeemed-in-death racist was very much a low point, we also got its highlight in Robin Buckley. Ah, Robin Buckley — what a pleasant surprise she was. A highlight that would grow and further catch my attention in season four, where throughout she spoke to both my lesbian and neurodivergent identities.
Robin was a delight to watch in her season three debut. She was funny, had great chemistry with fan favourite Steve Harrington, and her unique skillset as a polyglot who was familiar with Starcourt Mall proved invaluable. Not only that, but her coming out scene was handled with a lot of care and respect: she wasn’t outed, she wasn’t coerced, she did it of her own volition — and she was accepted. Steve even went out of his way to make her laugh after the fact! It was especially welcome because I remember worrying the two would get hastily paired up. After all, Steve had lost in the love triangle between himself, Jonathan, and Nancy. Years of forced heterosexual romances in TV had me worried, was Robin just going to be his consolation prize? Instead, she trusted him with her identity, Steve accepted her wholeheartedly and their friendship bloomed. It blew me away and honestly left me overjoyed.
Stranger Things isn’t — and honestly shouldn’t be — lauded for its progressive approach to queer rep. Will Byers has been in a “will they or won’t they” (haha) with coming out since the first season, and even Robin herself isn’t groundbreaking. She’s a skinny, white, conventionally attractive lesbian. That said, something about her felt different from other queer characters I’ve seen. I found myself not only relating to her struggles as a closeted lesbian, but to what felt like those of a neurodivergent young woman without the words to truly express or grasp it. As an autistic person, as much as I do look for LGBTQ representation in pop culture, I look for neurodivergent stories a bit more. It makes me feel less lonely, and more understood — and season four Robin pinged that radar.
She started as I remembered, a snarky, stylish-in-a-tacky-lesbian way band nerd, now with a new job at the local video store, and a new crush Vickie, a fellow band kid. I kept watching and in episode two, she confides the following: “I have this problem, where it’s like, I should stop talking. Then I guess I get nervous, and the words keep spilling out.” That’s the first thing where I was like, “Okay, been there.” But I didn’t think anything of it. Don’t we all get nervous around cute girls? And then, in a later episode, she’s paired up with Nancy Wheeler, and her character’s given a chance to shine in contrast to Nancy’s straightlaced nature. They share this exchange in episode three, which gave me genuine pause:
Robin: Did I come off as mean, or condescending or something?
Robin: Alright. . . . You don’t know me very well. I don’t really have a filter or a strong grasp of social cues. So if I say something that upsets you, just know that I know it’s a flaw.
Still, I didn’t really think anything of it until one scene locked it in, the one at Pennhurst Mental Hospital, where Robin borrows Nancy’s clothes. She complains about how tight Nancy’s blouse is, how itchy she is, and all her sensory discomforts. When it comes time to convince the hospital warden to let them in, she cuts loose, giving an impassioned speech, simultaneously complaining about her sensory issues, and overall throwing social cues to the wind. And it works — the warden’s convinced. Plus, later on, when they bolt, Robin confides that she has “terrible coordination,” and that she didn’t learn to walk until six months after most kids.
It was around then that my allistic, neurotypical sister asked: “Is Robin autistic?” I had to stop myself from punching the air in sheer celebration. If others see it, I’m not reaching. Finally, finally, an autistic lesbian on TV! Someone I saw so much of myself in! Her bluntness, her inability to read the room, her clumsiness, all things I saw in myself, all things I’d been told were symptoms to hide. She dealt with them too, and nobody saw her as any lesser for it. Hell, in the case of the warden, they actually came in handy.
I was so thrilled, I even went back to season three, to see if there’d been earlier hints. Sure enough, while Robin wasn’t as open about all of her struggles, she’s a self-proclaimed “loser” who spent her time in high school observing, not doing. As an autistic lesbian, it’s like looking in a mirror — high school was a minefield of heterosexual and neurotypical norms, and I acted much the same. I kept to myself, watching other kids flirt and kiss and go to parties, because I didn’t feel like I could act on my own desires and urges.
Now, let’s assume Robin’s neurodivergent behaviour is intentionally written as such — that she is autistic. That would be huge. To have someone so much like me be portrayed as likable and capable, in one of Netflix’s biggest shows ever, is thrilling. Doubly so, as her autistic traits have been some of her strengths. We’re so rarely given that kind of positive portrayal, rarely anything beyond a one-off, a background character, or a painful stereotype. Besides that, I can genuinely count all the queer autistic characters I’ve seen on TV on one hand, none of whom have been in anything as major as Stranger Things. If this was intentional, it’d be a game changer.
Unfortunately, I don’t have my hopes up. Stranger Things takes place in the 1980s, and our understanding of autism has changed in the past forty years. To us, Robin may seem neurodivergent, but back then, she was just quirky. I genuinely can’t imagine anyone else recognizing her as neurodivergent, herself included. Even in my own adolescence, in the 2010s, after my parents had sat me down and told me I was autistic, some part of me still denied the possibility that my brain was different, that my brain was disabled. I was a teenager literal decades after Robin would’ve been, and I still had this idea of autism as exclusively being nonverbal, being obsessed with trains, or being something you grew out of.
Besides, her not being a cis man means her odds of being assessed for autism would be low. Even in the 1990s, it was still assumed that autism was eight times more common in boys, a ratio now lowered to three in one, due to progress in recognizing autism in girls & AFAB folks. I would know, my own diagnosis journey has been long and complicated, and I still get the ever-classic refrain of “you don’t look autistic” on the regular, something cis autistic men in my life have never dealt with.
So, can I praise the Duffer Brothers for a great autistic character? I don’t know. It’s very possible that they weren’t even going for an autistic character, or a character with ADHD, or any other kind of neurodivergence. Sure, she’s clumsy, and not the best with social cues, but for all I know, the Duffer Brothers just gave her those traits as quirks. They’re both, to my knowledge, neurotypical, and neither’s given any indication that Robin was intentionally written this way. If representation isn’t confirmed, wasn’t intentional, and was written by people outside the marginalized group they’re representing, should it still be celebrated? Or is that below the bare minimum? I’m not sure there’s a simple yes or no answer for any of that.
However, I know this much — Robin Buckley in season four of Stranger Things made me happy. I loved seeing a character go through what I do on a daily basis, yet never fail to be funny, charming, and competent. I loved seeing someone who struggles with social cues befriend the most popular boy in school and go on all kinds of adventures. I loved that she was queer, and allowed to have crushes on girls. Whether purposeful or not, the fact of the matter is that it felt special and downright affirming. BUT if the Duffer Brothers ever do confirm she’s one of us — I’m never shutting up about it.