It's a tale as old as non-segregated television time. There's a group of white kids in the center of the action, but they also hang out with one person of color (most commonly black) who is often steeped heavily in stereotypes and basically just there to say, "Hey, we're a diverse group!" They might drop a couple of one-liners, but they never really take center stage or do anything meaningful for the story.
The Token Minority trope, a problem that Hollywood has been trying to overcome — especially in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign a few years ago — is a trap that Stranger Things Season 2 easily could have fallen into given its cast and the early '80s setting in small town Indiana. The Token Minority trope plagued '80s television and movies, including classics like The Goonies (in that case, a token Asian character) and Alien which were clear inspirations for Stranger Things. But the show never got close: In fact, one of the stand-out features of the series' sophomore effort was that it didn't let nostalgia recreate one of the most overplayed racial faux pas of all time. The series not only highlighted the toxic trope, but then it cleverly subverted it without making the audience feel like they were receiving a lecture on diversity and inclusion.
Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) is the only black member of the Party, the tight knit group of middle school Dungeons and Dragons geeks that ground the Netflix series. While Lucas' character wasn't as tangential to the first season's plot as Tokens normally are — his thoughtful hesitation about trusting Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) created a necessary friction within the group of friends to build to the plot's climax — the show never drew attention to the fact that Lucas was the only kid of color in the group or questioned what that meant. He was important to the story, but by ignoring even the subtle politics of Lucas' race within the group — because unfortunately, race is relevant at every age, in every time period, in every situation in America — Stranger Things dodged the trope, but did nothing to negate it in its first season.
The series got to work in correcting that oversight in the second episode of Season 2 with an argument about Halloween costumes that every suburban poc will recognize. The crew decided to go as the Ghostbusters, but both Lucas and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) arrived at school as Venkman, originally played by Bill Murray in the iconic film. Mike threw a fit because he assumed Lucas would be Winston, Ghostbusters' own token black character, played by Ernie Hudson. Winston was the only non-scientist of the paranormal fighting group and thus of no interest to Lucas, a young explorer in his own right. Lucas didn't mince words when calling Mike out for presuming he'd dress up as that character purely because of his skin color.
The decision to put the argument in the series was a conscious choice by the creative team, even though its a touchy subject for adolescents.
"Everyone's favorite character back then was Venkman...It felt like it could have very well been an argument the Duffer [brothers, show creators] had when they were kids," executive producer Dan Cohen recently told TV Guide on the Stranger Things premiere red carpet. "It felt like a very natural thing for those kids to go through and Lucas has every right to not be that character if he doesn't want to."
The exchange between the two friends highlights the similarities between the Party and the Ghostbusters while simultaneously showing how they are different. Lucas is every bit as smart as his cohorts. They hang out together because they are all equally invested in the A.V. club, video games and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Lucas' involvement in those activities makes him an equal member of the group, rather than someone obviously added in just to check off a diversity box. Lucas is not a prop (that's kind of Will's bag this season), nor is he just comic relief.
Instead, Lucas actually moved from C-plot to B-plot this season (the main focus of the show is, and should be, the other-dimensional monsters terrorizing the town). He was the first of the the Party to develop a genuine romantic relationship, since Mike and Eleven only flirted (save one kiss) in Season 1 and were separated for most of Season 2. Max (Sadie Sink), the badass new girl in town, became the center of both Lucas' and Dustin's (Gaten Matarazzo) affections. She, herself, eventually transcended her own romantic interest trope and became a savior of sorts for the Party — but she wouldn't have been involved at all if it weren't for Lucas' character development.
Stranger Things separated Lucas and Dustin by having them go after Max with completely different approaches. Dustin took Steve's (Joe Keery) woefully immature advice of pretending not to care about Max. It still would have been easy and believable to pair her with Dustin, the show's lovable goofball and fan-favorite character. Everyone loves him, so why wouldn't she? However, Lucas followed his gut and went out of his way to make Max feel like part of their group when none of the others would. He was more mature and developed a real bond with Max, and thus he is rewarded with not only her affection but a kiss in the most heartwarming scene of the series — the middle school Snowball dance.
It's 2017 and while Twitter might say that pairing a red-haired white girl with a black boy wouldn't be considered progressive but rather totally normal and not worth commenting on — it isn't nearly as normal as you'd think, especially in this time period. Stranger Things would have done a disservice to its audience if it had pretended it was. It's not subverting a trope if you simply pretend that skin color isn't a thing, but it also would have been overkill to have the 12-year-old boys discuss the nuanced politics of interracial dating in the 1980s. That's not this show.
The series made the more subtle move of positioning Max's stepbrother Billy (Dacre Montgomery) as the primary roadblock to Max and Lucas' budding relationship. Billy never out-and-out said he doesn't want Max hanging out with a black kid, but his unnatural aggression toward Lucas throughout the season, culminating in a physical attack in the finale, showed the danger of Lucas pursuing his crush in a way his friends would never and will never have to think about.
"We talked about [Billy] really being a human monster and really having some intense feelings in him and wanting to lean into that," Cohen explained. "What's great about his character actually is that as mean as he is, you see where it comes from later on in the season with that interaction with his family, but yes, he clearly has some intense feelings that can be bigoted."
Billy's low-key racism is explained by the fact that he's abused by his father. It's a classic case of a lower class white kid feeling the need to belittle someone else to make himself better, but that doesn't change the stakes for Lucas. Stranger Things doesn't spend a lot of time talking about why Billy hated Lucas, but it's enough to show that the series hadn't lost sight of the fact that things are more complicated for Lucas than the rest of his friends, even at the innocent age of 12.
If this show were actually written in the '80s instead of just set there, its doubtful any of this nuance would have existed for Lucas. That's the danger of the Token black kid trope. It robs those characters of agency and identity, simultaneously. Too often the trope has limited actors of color to roles with no grit or ones that existed purely to service the characters played by their white co-stars. Stranger Things Season 2 pulled off a deft combination of illuminating the creative trap, sidestepping it and elevating one of their only characters of color without erasing his race or distracting from the primary plot. Lucas was instrumental in defeating the Shadow Monster and the other relics of the Upside Down without the show ignoring that his experience in all of this is different from the others, even if it wasn't explicitly discussed. The upgrade in Lucas' importance to the plot and his detailed character development subverted the trope and created a more authentic, and thus more compelling, story. Things will only get more interesting in Season 3 when Lucas' and Max's parents find out they're dating.
And in the end, Cohen was right: Lucas had every right to want to be Venkman, and so does every kid of color out there being shoved into a box based on their skin color. Here's to hoping all the kids out there cosplaying Stranger Things want to be Lucas, not just because he's black, but because he's awesome, smart, and is the best with the ladies.
We know at least Dustin wishes he could be Lucas, and that's pretty bitchin'.
Stranger Things is now streaming on Netflix.