Intertextual resonances between Sappho 31 and Stranger Things 3.7

He must feel blooded with the spirit of a god to sit opposite you and listen, and reply, to your talk, your laughter, your touching, breath-held silences.

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν // ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι // ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί- // σας ὐπακούει.

These four lines are some of the most widely read, translated, and appreciated of all those written by Sappho.

The fragment, number 31, describes the jealousy of Sappho as she watches her female love interest sitting face-to-face with a man, whom she thinks must have some divine luck to to find himself in such a position.

And although the unnamed man is introduced by Sappho as being “ἴσος θέοισιν”, as if she is about to begin typical love poem to him, this framing is quickly subverted, with the man acting instead as a “contrast figure” for Sappho’s (L/l)esbian love.

I recently watched the third, and hopefully final, season of Stranger Things. The latest installment to the Netflix original was everything I could have hoped for: constructed nostalgia, glitzy product placement, and a handful of newly lovable characters. (Poor Alexei 😭).

But above all, the most striking scene happens towards the end of the season, in episode 7. The brief dialogue sees the show’s first queer character, Robin, sitting opposite Steve in a bathroom stall. Just like Sappho deceivingly presents herself as admiring the god-like man in Fragment 31, Robin is established from her first appearance as an easy insertion into a traditional, different-gendered relationship format. Indeed, Steve even asks her:

Why are you obsessed with me?
Steve Harrington

But in both cases this shared theme of jealousy is overturned into something new; and perhaps in many cases into a realisation of our own biases.

Not only do the two share the same basic framing concept and tone, but there are also powerful resonances of imagery and character between the two. Sappho’s “ἴσος θέοισιν” (equal to the gods) easily maps onto Steve Harrington’s godlike privilege, appearance, and (recently lost) near-celebrity status within Hawkins.

Moreover, in an unexpected way, we also become Sappho, as the viewer of a new interpretive framework, watching Steve and Robin, as the one “ὐπακούει” (hears) the other, and they share in “γελαίσας ἰμέροεν” (laughing delightfully).

Even the Sapphic images of “χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν” (a fire running under the skin), and “ἐπιρρόμβεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι” (ears buzzing) seem to mirror the intense narcotic state Steve and Robin are experiencing, an equivalence exposed by Robin herself as she tells Steve that he is confusing drugged-up euphoria for love:

I think he’s on drugs. And he’s not thinking straight.
Robin Buckley

Watch the full Steve-Robin exchange here. Read more of Sappho’s poetry here.

Dylan Brookes
(he/him/+) eternal classics student.

1. Just a little joke. While Sappho was almost certainly a Lesbian (born on the island of Lesbos), to call her a lesbian is historically difficult (although still rewarding). Continue reading.