Shannon Purser is Done With Playing Stereotypes

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Barb is back from the dead.

“I have to ask about Stranger Things,” I tell Shannon Purser, the 21-year-old actress whose character on the Netflix hit instantly became a fan favorite.

Her nervous laugh tells me that she’s less than excited at this prospect (I can’t exactly blame her), but she graciously humors me when I ask about how the show’s success impacted her.

“I think we were all very surprised by the reception that the show got and how it blew up so quickly,” says Purser. “Specifically, I did not anticipate my character getting the amount of attention that she did.”

In the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, Netflix’s sci-fi series Stranger Things debuted in 2016 and was an overnight success. Now gearing up for its third season, the show is set in the 1980s and centers around a group of kids grappling with paranormal events. Purser portrayed Barb, a high school girl who is brushed off when confronting her best friend’s worrisome and superficial behavior. Though Purser’s character dies in the third episode of the series, the internet exploded with Barb-inspired articles and memes. Essentially, Barb became the poster child for #relatable.

Naturally, Purser’s life changed dramatically as a result. “It was certainly an adjustment because I went from being so happy that I had finally gotten a job and then people are calling and want you to fly out to LA and do all this stuff. It was definitely a 180.”

But Purser isn’t letting Barb be the end-all and be-all of her career. Since Stranger Things, she’s taken on a supporting role as Ethel Muggs in the CW’s highly popular series Riverdale (back for season three on October 10th) and stars as the title character in the Netflix original movie Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, which premieres September 7th. In the film, Purser portrays a teenager who, in a case of mistaken identity, strikes up an internet romance with the most popular boy in school. She enlists the help of a popular girl to keep up the charade, which results in an unexpected friendship.

Movies about teenage years have long been culturally impactful, but they seem to be having a moment right now. Comedian Bo Burnham’s recent film 8th Grade has continued to receive rave reviews, reaching not only young adults but viewers of all ages.

According to Purser, this is due in part to the fact that teenage years are universally challenging.

“I think there’s sort of this connection in the fact that it’s a time when you’re feeling all these new emotions and you feel uncomfortable in your own skin,” she says. “And so I think this kind of film can really bring people together, because, you know, misery loves company. We can sort of be embarrassed together. And I love that.”

Because Sierra Burgess involves two teenage girls on opposite ends of the popularity spectrum, it would have been very easy for the plot to turn into a cat fight. But instead, the characters are able to find common ground and eventually become friends; a refreshing aspect of the script that attracted Purser to the role.

“I think a lot of teen movies fall into that trap of falling into tropes and stereotypes and you know, we have enough movies where there’s two girls picking on each other and I think women can use as much support as we can get right now, especially from other women. And even though there’s definitely some conflict between my character and Veronica, the mean girl, I think in the end you see this really beautiful friendship start to form. Which I really love.”

“I feel like it’s so important to connect with young people,” Purser continues. “The movies that I saw when I was that age were really instrumental in my life and so I really want to put out content that is positive and uplifting and that younger people can relate to.”

Purser is connecting with young audiences not only through her work, but through her newfound platform. Since amassing a social media following, she’s opened up about mental health, body image, sexuality, and other important issues young people today face. In May, Purser also penned an essay for Teen Vogue detailing her experience with OCD and depression and encouraging readers with similar issues to get help.

While Purser agrees there’s pressure on celebrities today to be transparent on social media, she says that speaking out about mental health came naturally.

“It’s very personal to me and it’s something I’ve been through. And even though acting is my career and I love it, I feel very lucky to have the platform that I do and I want to use it to help other people and to talk about things that need to be talked about.”

As a person which anxiety myself, I’m curious to know how being thrust so abruptly into stardom has affected Purser’s mental health. “It’s certainly a new kind of anxiety,” she says with a laugh. “In some ways, it has definitely exacerbated it and in different ways than I was anticipating. So, definitely still seeing my therapist and keeping an eye on it.”

“This industry is a hard one for people who are mentally healthy,” she continues. “And while I’m in a much better place mentally than I was in the past, I’m definitely keeping tabs on it.”

It likely helps that Purser resides in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and when not starring in Netflix originals, is a regular 21-year-old person. “Like everybody else, I’m into skincare and I love to moisturize and do sheet masks,” she says when we get to talking about her favorite products and trends (she loves Charlotte Tilbury and Anastasia Beverly Hills). “I’m very into the fresh-faced beauty now. I used to like do the whole Instragram ‘beat your face’ and contour and it’s beautiful but it’s a lot of work. And I have freckles, so I like to show them off.”

So, what’s next for Purser? It seems the world is her oyster; she’s already been part of a Netflix mega-hit, starred in her own film, and appeared on television shows. She also mentions that she’s “dabbling in music right now”, and while any solo projects might not be official yet, you can catch her singing an original song in Sierra Burgess is a Loser.

Regardless of her professional pursuits, I find it likely that Purser will continue being a voice for her generation. It’s easy to point a finger at young people today for being technology obsessed, but those like Purser are utilizing social media with good intentions: to bring people together, to share stories, to bridge gaps in understanding.

“There’s still a stigma around mental health,” she says. “And if I can add my voice to it and help somebody feel like it’s not as scary and taboo, I think that’s an accomplishment.” 

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Photos / Shanna Fisher
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story / Catherine Santino
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