By Vanessa Maki
In the Stranger Things universe, there are a lot of straight people. The show is set in the ‘80s in predominantly white Hawkins, a fictional small town, where the only explicitly queer character, Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke), was introduced last season. But, does that mean there are no queer coded characters? No, it certainly does not. There’s one character in particular who set off queer coding alarms for many people within the fandom: Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery).
What exactly is queer coding? It’s a term used for characters that display traits/behaviors that suggest they aren’t heterosexual and or cisgender, without the character being explictly confirmed as queer.
Since Billy’s debut in Season 2, his character was always quite antagonistic, whether he was possessed by the Mind Flayer or not. It’s very common for antagonistic characters to be queer coded in all sorts of entertainment, especially sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, which are all genres that Stranger Things pulls from to tell its tale. However, it isn’t just Billy’s antagonistic nature that makes him a queer coded character.
Press rewind and go back to S2E1 (“Chapter One: Madmax”), when Billy made his first appearance in Hawkins. He steps out of his blue Camaro, in a relatively corny but very ‘80s way, as “Rock You like a Hurricane” by Scorpions plays. Having Billy be introduced with hair metal should say enough, specifically because it’s a subgenre that steps outside of traditional masculinity: from the big hair and excessive jewelry, to the make-up and overall flamboyance.
Right away it registers that Billy’s a “bad boy” that everyone will be ogling, which is precisely what three school-age girls do when they see him. The scene is set in the female gaze, which stands out because it’s more common for a scene involving objectification to be set in the male gaze. It’s also common for straight people to immediately presume a person they find attractive to be straight; setting up this introduction in this way paints a particular image of Billy.
Billy’s queer coding becomes more blatant during his interactions with Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), especially when they first share a scene in S2E2 (“Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak”) at a Halloween party. At this party, Billy takes Steve’s place as “Keg King” and does a stare off with Steve about it. The sexual tension of the moment is heightened by Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil” playing in the background. Once again, hair metal is used in a scene focused on Billy, and it’s a song about sexual satisfaction and a dangerously compelling individual.
The scenes that follow that one are on the basketball court, where Billy seems to shine and Steve isn’t remotely as confident — at least not while playing against a sweaty Billy. Immediately Billy displays his dominance, letting Steve how irrelevant he’s become now, while essentially grinding against him. The attempt to bring him down to ground-level doesn’t stop there and Billy trips Steve then shoots a basket that impresses the other boys. Instead of celebrating in some obnoxious/overly masculine way, Billy’s too busy screwing with Steve by licking his lips at him. Which is totally straight male behavior, right?
From the basketball scenes alone, it’s obvious there’s something about Billy that implies he’s not like the other boys , particularly when it involves Steve. It’s interesting how Billy’s one of the boys displayed as shirtless and sweaty (which looks like an after sex glow), especially when paired with lip-licking, which makes the scene even more hyper-sexual. This seems to create a sort of hypnotism that Steve only breaks away from when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) shows up.
Billy’s and Steve’s scenes only get more homoerotic once they are showering after practice. Even Joe Keery himself admitted that there is a homoerotic vibe. Billy’s persistence in regards to bothering Steve doesn’t halt, especially not when Tommy (who used to be Steve’s “friend”) mentions how Nancy peaced out with Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and it’s definitely still a sore subject. Billy doesn’t seem to care. He proceeds to tell Steve that a pretty boy like him doesn’t have anything to worry about, that there’s plenty of bitches in the sea and that he’ll be sure to leave him some.
Aggressive, hetero behavior isn’t always due to hidden queerness; a lot of straight men have no problem displaying stereotypically macho behavior. Sometimes homophobic violence isn’t linked to internalized homophobia or being closeted, for that matter. There are instances where ignorant behavior is literally just that. Nothing more, nothing less.
Billy Hargrove doesn’t really fall into these trappings. There’s an authentically flirtatious vibe he reserves for Steve, especially in his body language. Not to mention, we never see Billy going out with any girls, or “bitches” as he likes to call them. Hyper-masculine misogyny can be a mask for men who are ashamed of their queerness. It can be used to deflect from behavior that’s not hetero (cue the fond gazing, pet names and teasing from Billy to Steve) and reinsert assumed straightness.
Then during S2E9, it’s revealed that Billy’s dad is abusive and violently homophobic. It becomes obvious why Billy behaves the way he does in general. Following the scene with his dad, Billy flirts with Mrs. Wheeler (Cara Buono) to get information about his missing little sister Max’s (Sadie Sink) whereabouts. The framing of that scene is also from the female gaze, and Billy’s very obviously using his attractiveness to get what he needs. Almost like survival sexual appeal, if you will.
What’s even more interesting is how we see both Mrs. Wheeler’s and Billy’s reactions after he leaves the Wheeler house. He’s no longer smiling after flirting with her, and she’s still in a dreamy state. This is a great example of taking off a mask when you’re queer, and it could easily be indication that Billy’s gay rather than bisexual, but nothing should be ruled out. Though within the Harringrove (ship name for Billy and Steve) fandom, Billy is seen as gay. This is the beauty of unpacking the queer coding of a character.
Unfortunately, the Duffers dropped the ball and never explicitly confirmed Billy Hargrove as queer. Not only would the fandom have exploded, but it would have established even more nuance in Stranger Things as a whole. Although, given that Billy dies at the end of Season 3, maybe it’s better that his queerness wasn’t labeled; writers are all too eager to bury their gays.