Stranger Things and the Danger of Nostalgia

The hit Netflix series Stranger Things is a love letter to iconic pop culture media of decades past. But there are dangers in leaning too heavily on nostalgia because media makers can sometimes end up reproducing harmful patterns along with their retro aesthetics, especially when it comes to action hero masculinity and belligerent romance conventions from 1980s entertainment.

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The hit Netflix series Stranger Things is a love letter to iconic pop culture media of decades past. The Duffer Brothers create this spectacle of nostalgia by borrowing liberally from movies and movies and TV shows from the 1970s and 80s.

They appropriate and masterfully remix everything from overarching themes to specific plot points, from lighting techniques to snippets of dialog. But there are dangers in leaning too heavily on nostalgia because media makers can end up reproducing harmful patterns along with their retro aesthetics. This is especially true when it comes to masculinity and romance conventions in popular entertainment. Some of the unintended consequences of uncritical homage come into sharp focus with the character of Jim Hopper in season 3 of Stranger Things. In addition to his new look, inspired by Tom Selleck’s Hawaiian shirts from the TV show Magnum P.I., Hopper undergoes a sudden and dramatic personality shift. He moves from a deeply flawed but introspective character in the first and second seasons, to an entitled, aggressive, verbally abusive one for much of the third.

Hopper’s increasingly belligerent interactions with Joyce are particularly troubling. Their dynamic is borrowed from well known bickering couples of the 1980s, notably Sam and Diane’s love/hate relationship on the sitcom Cheers. It’s an extremely unhealthy dynamic played off as an endearing form of “sexual tension.” I’m not going to use that term in this video though because what is often presented as “sexual tension” in Hollywood entertainment is, in reality, red flag behavior for an abusive relationship.

The framing of interpersonal hostility as a precursor to romance didn’t begin or end with Cheers. That pernicious pattern is part of a very long tradition in media going all the way back to the golden age of cinema. But in the 1980s love/hate romances could be found everywhere. Harrison Ford essentially built his whole career on belligerent romance, especially Indiana Jones. To understand why the Duffer Brothers’ decision to pay homage this particular media convention feels so jarring, we need to take a quick look back at Hopper’s character arc in the first two seasons. Hopper begins the series as a man adrift, an alcoholic struggling with the unresolved trauma of losing a daughter and a marriage. He’s resigned to going through the motions of being chief of police in a town where nothing ever happens. He’s also a bit of an asshole with a propensity for solving problems by punching them in the face. Hopper’s character arc in season one is all about regaining a sense of purpose. And through his quest to unravel the mystery around Will’s disappearance, he begins to reestablish connections with the people around him.

Season 2 sees Hopper continuing along that trajectory. He’s figuring out how to navigate his own fears, while at the same time trying to be a father again. He still loses his temper and fails in balancing work with caregiving, but he has made progress and remarkably he manages not to fall back into alcoholism or face punching. He’s also learned to treat Joyce’s feelings with a measure of sensitivity. The last episode in season two gives us this heart-to-heart in which Hopper is openly vulnerable in sharing his feelings with Eleven.

Flash forward to the beginning of season 3, and all that character development has been thrown out the window in the name of paying homage to the 1980s cowboy cop archetype. But resurrecting that brand of action hero masculinity brings with it a veritable minefield of unhealthy behaviors. This new Hopper is a domineering powder-keg who no longer has any patience for the women in his life. He’s obsessed with sabotaging Eleven’s teenage romance with her new boyfriend Mike. Joyce, for her part, implores Hopper to calm down and talk it out. And we see her doing a lot of emotional labor for him in an effort to facilitate a healthy heart-to-heart about boundaries. It’s all for naught though because this version of Hopper has forgotten how to express his feelings. He suddenly can’t ever fathom the idea of openly communicating with his adopted daughter, even though we just saw him doing exactly that at the end of the previous season.

The old Overprotective Dad trope is played for laughs but it’s all about patriarchal control. It’s rooted in the idea that young women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions and therefore need older man to step in and “protect them” from themselves. Having devolved into someone who’s unable to express himself, except through anger and rage, Hopper relies on intimidation to scare Mike into staying away from Eleven. This is just one of many instances where he relies on violence, or the threat thereof, to resolve conflicts. Consistent with 1980s conventions of tough guy manhood, Hopper’s violent outbursts are undertaken in a remarkably casual and humorous manner, even when engaging in torture or murdering a bunch of people.

Hopper’s aforementioned dysfunctional relationship with Joyce is another example of his dramatic regression. Even after Joyce says she’s not interested, Hopper tries to trick her into a date by pretending it isn’t one. When she then doesn’t show up for their “not date,” he becomes angry and resentful. Recall that over the prior two seasons, he learned to respect Joyce’s intuition because her ideas about the Upside Down have always turned out to be correct. But this new Hopper angrily ridicules her for her investigations into paranormal phenomena. His entitlement to a romantic relationship escalates from not respecting her wishes to demeaning her feelings, and then, in fits of jealousy, trying to police her friendships with other men. Instead of framing any this behavior as cause for alarm, it’s all written to be part of an endearing “will they or won’t they” scenario.

When actress Evan Rachel Wood (among others) pointed out the toxicity of Hopper’s behavior on Twitter, she received an avalanche of defensiveness from fans who simply couldn’t see what the big deal was. While it might be entertaining to watch fictional characters verbally sparring with each other, when media frames disrespect and ridicule as evidence of romantic interest, it can reinforce the idea that mistreatment a normal part of courtship. It can also lead people, including authority figures, to dismiss or downplay the seriousness of emotional abuse. The truth is that psychological, emotional, and verbal abuse is just as real and can be just as harmful as physical violence. Media frequently advances the myth that volatile or domineering men just need a woman to soften their rough edges and temper their aggression. But intimate partners are often the ones who bear the brunt of men’s rage. Guys like Hopper don’t need a relationship. What they need is therapy.

If you were holding out hope that the Stranger Things writers may have been going for some sort of critical commentary about unhealthy relationships, the final episode in the season makes it clear that is not the case. In a page lifted directly from 1980s romcoms, Joyce ultimately responds to Hopper’s belligerent entitled attitude by … asking him out. This plot point perpetuates the idea that controlling or aggressive behavior is somehow a sign of love, attraction, or passion. It’s the kind of twisted logic that can lead people to remain in unhealthy or abusive relationships.

Hollywood writers like to use combative interactions between love interests because it’s an easy shortcut to dramatic tension. But there are many many ways to write interesting conflicts. For example, tensions can arise from external pressure on relationships; things like shared traumatic experiences, which is something Stranger Things has in spades. There’s no good reason to keep writing romantic tension as something drawn from interpersonal hostility.

When you really think about it, we very rarely see healthy relationship dynamics modeled on-screen. That said, Stranger Things does give us one example of what a positive romantic relationship looks like. Bob “The Brain” Newby is Joyce’s love interest and dad joke aficionado from season 2. Bob is loving and affectionate, he listens to Joyce and he respects her feelings, while still honestly communicating his own wants and desires for the relationship. This is, essentially, the exact opposite of how Hopper treats Joyce in Season 3.

Bob’s genuinely loving nature is refreshing for male love interests but it’s also very unusual. In fact it’s so unusual that we, as the audience, almost automatically assume his compassionate persona must be some kind of trick or cynical ploy. We’ve come to expect sensitive or loving male characters to ultimately be revealed as either selfish cowards or to have secretly been evil all along. If a man does turn out to be as warmhearted as he initially appears, he’s almost always killed off as a way to up the stakes for the other characters. It’s the dysfunctional violent tough guys like Hopper, who are framed as “having what it takes” to conquer otherworldly threats and survive. A trend that helps normalize cultural ideals around aggressive masculinity.

One of the reasons so many people have trouble recognizing abusive behavior in popular media is because it’s often done by the “good guys”: these are men who are otherwise written to be charming, righteous, and valiant. And like abusers in the real world, these fictional men don’t act in violent or controlling ways all the time. Their abusive behavior comes in waves, often preceded by moments of kindness, and then followed by expressions of remorse. Since Hopper is one of the “good guys” we’re supposed to want him and Joyce to get together in the end. Despite his rage, his jealousy, his control issues, and his propensity for violent intimidation, we are nonetheless always meant to be in Hopper’s corner. And that’s because Jim Hopper is not a one dimensional cartoonish oaf. We have, after all, been shown glimpses of his introspective, caring, and vulnerable sides during the two previous seasons.

There are also a couple scenes near the end of season 3 that are very clearly designed to reinforce to viewers that Hopper really is a “good guy” deep down inside. The first comes when he seemingly gives his life to save the world and the people he cares about. I’ll make a whole video essay about the heroic sacrifice trope in the future. For now though, I’ll just say selfless acts are not necessarily a negative thing, but for troubled male characters like Hopper, the grand heroic death is often written to be a shortcut to redemption. And a shortcut that doesn’t require men to actually do the slow painful work of personal transformation.

The epilogue flashback at the end serves a similar narrative purpose. In this scene we hear Hopper’s inner-voice as he mulls over how to share his feelings Eleven. The voiceover is meant to remind us that is a man who is at least capable of being sincerely, caring, and vulnerable. The trouble is, good intentions don’t mean anything without the follow through. And Hopper never actually follows through in having that heart-to-heart with his adopted daughter. Like we saw with his apparent death, this flashback is designed to absolve Hopper of the emotional damage or harm he caused throughout the season. All without having him actually apologize or make amends for his behavior.

I want to be clear about something, the problem isn’t that male protagonists are sometimes depicted as having anger issues or engaging in unhealthy behavior. Character flaws are human and therefore a key ingredient in creating stories about relatable people. The question is how are those flaws framed? Are unhealthy behaviors romanticized, excused, or rationalized? Or are they presented as a cause for serious concern? And critically, do these men learn grow, and change over time?

In action-adventure stories like Stranger Things, we rarely see male heroes learning how to change their behavior, how to effectively communicate, or how to build and maintain healthy lasting relationships. At the end of Season 2 it appeared as if Hopper might be able to break free from the constraints of 1980s action-hero manhood. Unfortunately when media makers rely so uncritically on nostalgia for inspiration, it prevents them from imagining new possibilities for male characters. As a result, we risk encouraging men to remain stuck in the past, held hostage to retrograde ideals of masculinity.

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