Stranger Things, Erica Sinclair, and the Representation of Black Women in the Science Fiction Genre

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a second year Master’s student at Sarah Lawrence College in Women’s and Gender History. Her interests include popular culture, LGBT+ history, and the history of movements through music. 

Spoiler Alert: This blog contains spoilers from season three of Stranger Things. 

On October 27, 2017, the highly anticipated second season of the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix original series, Stranger Things, premiered. Coated in mid-1980s nostalgia and four puffs (no more, no less) of Farrah Fawcett hairspray, audience members crowded around their iPhones, tablets, laptops, and television sets to consume the strange events that would unfold. Prior to its release, comedians and fans questioned where Lucas Sinclair’s, one of the only main characters of color, family was. Surely, he wouldn’t be the only person of color in Indiana, right? Ergo, season two episode two, titled “Chapter Two: Trick or Treat, Freak.” The Duffers introduced us to his parents, Mr. (Bradford Haynes and Arnell Powell) and Mrs. Sinclair (Tara Wescott and Karen Ceesay), and his younger sister, Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson). For the first time, women of color appear in the series. 

Priah Ferguson as Erica Sinclair Photo Courtesy of The Mary Sue

Once season two came to a close, audience members and fan theorists took to the internet to exclaim that they needed more of Erica Sinclair in season three. No longer a background character in the third installment, Erica becomes a key player in battling the Mind Flayer, tracking down the Russia lab, and navigating dangerous terrain. Premiering on July 4, 2019, every episode features the tactful, witty, and bold young woman. A multidimensional character, she defies stereotypes of nerds and nerd culture, asserts her worth, and demands the respect that the other characters don’t always give her. Within and outside of this Science Fiction universe, Erica Sinclair speaks to an audience of young Black women and girls that take on the white patriarchy that seeks to undermine their worth and importance. 

Looking at the history of black women in SciFi, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lieutenant Uhura, a bridge officer, on Star Trek in 1966. She was the first Black woman cast in a supporting role, and it spoke to the young Black people that tuned into the program that hadn’t seen themselves represented in popular culture. While she wanted to leave the program to become a Broadway actress, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked for her to reconsider, as the show had become a staple in his own home. Nichols ultimately remained on Star Trek, knowing that she was changing the way that young Black men and women viewed themselves based on her prominent role that subverted Hollywood stereotypes. Similar to Lieutenant Uhura, Erica Sinclair subverts the notion that Black women must fall into stereotypical roles and that the role of hero belongs to white faces. Without her, the Upside Down wouldn’t have closed in Hawkins, as she knew exactly how to guide each character to where they needed to be, and they wouldn’t have been able to break into the Russian lab. In short, Hawkins would be no more. 

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura, Photo Courtesy of Paste

Erica Sinclair and Lieutenant Uhura are only two of the countless examples of Black women utilizing the genre of Science Fiction to challenge the stereotypes that they are commonly written into. As the genre is predominantly white and male, authors Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkins, and Nora K. Jemisin use their platform with the genre storytelling of SciFi to provide their audience with empowering characters of color. Their novels showcase the importance of representation in all formats; whether television, movies, and/or written formats. Butler uses her authorial power to craft stories about Black women who face a challenge shrouded in historical accuracy of the dangerous white heteropatriarchy, navigate it, and come out on the other end to challenge these structures that are placed upon Black women in history and contemporarily. She is one of the most, if not the most, influential Black woman author of Science Fiction and Afrofuturist literature in the 20th and 21st century. 

Her works have been adapted into a variety of formats in theatre and in graphic novels in order to reach a broader audience. Undoubtedly, there is a growing interest in Afrofuturist popular culture, with the release of Black Panther (2018) and Sorry to Bother You (2018). It speaks to the importance of representation of Black men and women in the Science Fiction genre, especially in works that are not considered “indie” and enter mainstream popularity. The SciFi genre broadly promises a world where any and all things are possible, and characters like Erica Sinclair, Lieutenant Uhura, T’Challa, and Okoye are showcasing that exact ideology to young Black men and women. They subvert racist stereotypes and their presence in popular culture empowers their audience. Science Fiction, through these characters and by representing Black men and women, has the ability to challenge injustices and provide commentary on society, culture, and politics, even if it appears detached from the 21st century – 1980s Hawkins, Indiana. 

For more on Afrofuturism, please listen to The Afrofuturist Podcast .