Late in the pilot of “Stranger Things,” Netflix’s sleepy ode to the 1980s, bad boy Steve Harrington visits good girl Nancy Wheeler for a late-night tryst. Like so many bad boys before him, he scales the walls of her house and finds her sitting at her desk, flipping through flash cards. He taps on the window and gestures her over; she reluctantly obliges. He crawls through the opened window, stumbling over some furniture, and in no time they’re engaging in some heavy petting on Nancy’s bed. “Steve, come on,” she says, pushing him away. “Are you crazy? My parents are here.” Steve presses the matter but doesn’t force it — he’s a good bad boy — and with that they’re back to studying.
It’s a pitch perfect scene in a pitch perfect series, one that crystallizes a notion of intimacy peculiar to the pre-digital age: A not-so-innocent innocence, one charged with the erotic, but not with the explicitly sexual — a milkshake spiked with vodka. And it’s in no way a singular notion. In the film and television of the 1980s and ’90s, the bedroom window was a catalyst for platonic and romantic relationships alike. It was a sign of close friendship (Sam entering Clarissa’s on “Clarissa Explains it All”) or something more (Joey entering Dawson’s on “Dawson’s Creek”). And the manuever was surely true of the preceding decades as well, though with hardly the same cultural resonance.
But today, the bedroom window holds its power only in period pieces like “Stranger Things,” "Paper Towns" and “Girl Meets World.” This shift is owed to function as well as form: Entering through the bedroom window is no longer a believable dramatic device, nor the honest symbol of intimacy it once was.
Once upon a time, the TV and movie bedroom was a platonic space — clinically, hands-above-the-covers, nearly puritanical — long before it was ever sexual. For this, we have to thank the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. A set of morality rules enforced by the industry from 1930 through 1968, it forbade “any inference of sex perversion” and mandated that “special care be exercised” around behaviors including “deliberate seduction of girls,” “man and woman in bed together” and “the institution of marriage.” Of the many acts the Code forbade was “excessive and lustful kissing,” which meant no onscreen kiss lasted longer than three seconds. These guidelines naturally constrained the romantic possibilities of the bedroom.
“Under the Production Code, you couldn’t even go into the girl’s bedroom,” explained Thomas Doherty, a film historian and professor at Brandeis University. Dohrety points to the 1937 screwball comedy “The Awful Truth,” in which a divorced couple realizes they are still in love and scramble to reunite before the divorce is finalized, as an early example of window-entry. “Everyone in the audience knows he can’t go in after 12:01, because that’s against the Production Code,” said Doherty. “You can’t sleep together and not be married. So there’s this whole tango over how he’s gonna get in her bedroom.”
Doherty argues that even in the golden age of bedroom window scenes, the raunchier moments are tempered by the generally wholesome morals of 20th century teen drama. “I think that sort of coming-in-by-the-window thing, at least the ’50s to ’90s iteration, is assuming that you’re not really doing anything,” he said. “You’re not gonna wake up next to the girl, you’re doing your homework or having an intimate conversation or something. The fact that she’s let you into the space, it’s not a sex thing. What they’re doing is sharing a private erotic zone.”
That zone is no longer. Well, no longer in the bedroom, that is. Millennials may or may not be having less sex, but they’re certainly texting 100 percent more than they were in the 1980s. It's just a sign of the times: A Romeo seeking his Juliet’s attention needn’t show up at her balcony; he can send her a Spotify link rather than lug a boombox to her yard.
“The teenage spaces for sexual availability have expanded,” said Doherty. “People are exchanging intimacy over the phone — texting, sexting, sending selfies.”
This may be tied to a broader loosening of sexual mores, a cultural shift from “Dawson’s Creek”-era sensibilities to the age of “Pretty Little Liars.”
“I think there are more parents who know the kids up in the room are probably not doing their homework,” Doherty observed. “The erotic charge of going into the girl’s bedroom through the window isn’t as intense today because that isn’t a private female space the guy enters. I think rather than go through the window, he’s more likely to go up the stairs. The parents know he’s there.”
It’s perhaps a tad problematic to assign prescriptive cultural explanations to narrative devices. The human brain likes to find patterns even when it’s looking at random noise; “Degrassi” and “Clarissa Explains It All”, two shows which heavily featured through-the-window hijinks may employ similar devices, but they are the products of different periods with different concerns. However, they do share one attribute: the financial incentive every television series has to reuse certain sets.
Mark Sandberg, a Berkeley film professor who has written extensively about architectural metaphors, says the bedroom window entrance shouldn't be read into too much.
“The choice to isolate this as a trope might end up giving it too much independence from context — too much autonomy — as if it has a life of its own,” he said, “which when I think about how literature and film actually work, it probably does not.”
Fortunately, there’s a ready narrative explanation for it, as well as its decline: it’s simply the most logical way of getting teenaged characters, who may be interacting without their parents’ knowledge or consent, in the same room.
“Fiction creators have a repertoire of possible situations, possible ways at their disposal to do entrances when required by the narrative,” Sandberg said, “and for certain purposes they choose the window.”
Even “Stranger Things” makes the case for this interpretation, dispassionate as it may be. Nancy and Steve finally sleep together later in the season, in his bedroom — which she comes to up the stairs and through the door. In “Stranger Things,” at least, the bedroom window is a tease, tantalizing and chaste, a taste of what’s to come.