Analysis

Stranger Things Won’t Stop Besmirching Its Male Heroes

Stranger Things 3 was quite a treat. After receiving criticism regarding the depiction of women in season two, the Duffer Brothers made a slew of positive changes. They returned to the plot structure that worked so well in season one, figured out how to keep Eleven’s powers in check, and included two canonically queer characters. While it doesn’t quite meet the gold standard of season one, there’s a lot to love about the third installment.

But despite all the progress the Duffer Brothers have made, this show still hasn’t figured out how to depict its flawed yet lovable male protagonists, particularly in the context of its ’80s inspiration. The result is a show that forces sexist stereotypes on men and, in doing so, encourages the oppression of women.

Spoiler Notice: This article reveals many important character moments in Stranger Things 3.

Every Male Hero Is Sexist for Some Reason

Mike, Lucas, and Will in an empty black background After a spat at the mall, Mike and Lucas make a radical shift from “lying to your girlfriend is bad” to “the girls are mad because they’re unreasonable.”

For comparison, let’s take a brief side trip to see how Stranger Things 3 depicts its straight and queer characters interacting. Will tells Joyce that he’s never going to date. Later, Robin tells Steve that she’s interested in other women. Do Joyce or Steve respond by telling the queer characters they just haven’t met the right person yet? No, for two good reasons. First, because that’s not what queer viewers will want to see; they deal with it enough in the real world. Second, why would anyone want Joyce or Steve to say something like that? They’re our beloved protagonists; we want them to be kind and supportive. So what if it’s realistic for straight people in the ’80s to be dismissive? Heroes are never average people; they’re better.

The Duffer Brothers clearly understand this dynamic. Yet when it comes to women’s issues, they’ve spent three seasons ensuring that every male hero is dragged through the mud.

  • In season one, Jonathan takes pictures of Nancy without her consent – including some through a window while she is undressing. In season three, when they’re dating, Jonathan expects Nancy to accept the extreme harassment she is receiving at work.
  • In season three, Mike and Lucas have a conversation about how women must be another species, since they can’t understand why Eleven dumped Mike. This scene is weirdly out of character. The last time they talked, Lucas was pretty frank about how Mike had made the wrong choice in lying to Eleven.
  • In season two, Steve tells Dustin to get girls using stealth or aggression, like they’re hunting wild animals. Dustin takes his advice, and at the Snow Ball in the final episode, he tries to skip the whole asking part of dancing with girls. Thankfully, Dustin and Steve are better in season three, probably because a couple female characters are around to keep them from talking about women too much. However, Steve’s efforts to hit on women while he’s working suggests his outlook hasn’t changed.
  • Mike and Will both have arcs where they resent the young women who join their friend group – Mike in season two, and Will in season three. It’s easier to forgive Will; he’s going through a difficult adjustment because his friends are now dating and he doesn’t share their interest in it. Even so, if he wants to play D&D so badly, why doesn’t he invite the girlfriends to join his campaign?
  • Hopper spends seasons two and three trying to control the women in his life. More on him later.

Not only do these incidents paint the male cast with an overly broad and negative brush, but they also put more burden on the story. A flaw like sexism demands to be addressed, and as the plot heats up into exciting action, there’s less and less time to wrap up personal drama. That could be one of the reasons why the resolution for these problems feels so lackluster.

Stranger Things fails to send a clear message about this

While judging storyteller intent is always difficult, it seems most likely that the Duffer Brothers put in these sexist moments intentionally as a reflection of their ’80s source material. They know their characters have backward attitudes, and that’s why the story doesn’t usually reward its men for their bad behavior. Dustin fails to find a date at the end of season two, and Steve spends seasons two and three having his ego popped again and again. Mike only digs himself deeper with Eleven, and Hopper’s attempt to control Eleven in season two backfires.* Jonathan’s inappropriate photos are discovered, and it doesn’t look good for him.

However, in most cases the story also falls short of delivering a clear rebuke. Jonathan is punished for his gross photos, but he still hooks up with Nancy the following season. Dustin’s rejection at the dance is followed up by Nancy telling him “girls this age are dumb.” In season three, Steve acknowledges that he’s been shallow, but not that his notch-in-the-belt attitude toward women is unhealthy. Nancy and Joyce only get respect from Jonathan and Hopper by proving them definitively wrong about some random unrelated event. The men are nicer after discovering they were wrong, but we don’t see them take a hard look at their past behavior.

Since the authorial endorsement of these actions is left ambiguous, the show isn’t offering meaningful commentary on ’80s films. It’s just normalizing sexism.

Tributes to beloved classics should be written like a eulogy for a loved one that passed away. Maybe the Uncle Ted who told you stories around the campfire also discriminated against women when hiring for his business. But if you care about Uncle Ted, you won’t mention the discrimination he practiced during his eulogy. You’ll accept that though you loved him, he was flawed, and you’ll focus on the great things he did instead. Mentioning the bad things he did in his eulogy would both smear Ted and suggest that you might be okay with discrimination. It’s no different when writing a story based on an earlier one.

Hopper Embodies Negative Male Stereotypes

Hopper throws the Mayor, who has a bloody nose, against the wall

Hopper is probably the most important male character on the show. He’s the only mature male protagonist in all seasons, and besides Eleven, he’s the only character who’s really prepared for a fight. Whereas the others team up to get things done, Hopper often goes off to accomplish things on his own, earning him a bigger share of the spotlight. And he’s a great archetype; as a small-town sheriff, he has a reason to get involved in the action, but he doesn’t have the resources to fight off secret military labs or otherworldly monsters.

Hopper’s complex personality has been neglected in favor of aggression

Even though Hopper has a variety of useful skills at his disposal, as the show has gone on, he’s increasingly been solving every problem with masculine aggression. That’s fine in an action flick, but Stranger Things heats up slowly – it doesn’t have many opportunities for fight scenes until about the halfway mark. Instead of showing off all his professional noncombat skills during early episodes, season three makes him into a violent bully. For instance, after Hopper’s interrogation of the mayor fails, he tortures information out of the mayor instead. Mythcreants has previously covered why these pro-torture scenes are so bad, but it’s also disappointing that Hopper wasn’t allowed to succeed with his clever attempt at blackmail or another social ploy.

In another scene, Hopper correctly concludes that if he lets a captured Russian go, the man will realize that going back to his bosses is too dangerous, and he’ll start cooperating. It’s a great win for the sheriff. But… why does Hopper throw the Russian around before letting the guy go? Since the Russian is willing to cooperate because he’s concerned about his safety, feeling physically threatened by Hopper would only make the guy less likely to come back. Are we supposed to believe that our beloved chief beats people because he gets angry and can’t help himself, and that’s okay? Or are we supposed agree that violence is the correct response to a smug captive demanding a cherry Slurpee?

Hopper has been reduced to a “man baby”

Hopper yelling

When Hopper isn’t engaged in violent bullying, he’s acting out the “man baby” stereotype. The man baby is a man who’s incapable of expressing his feelings or talking out problems like an adult. Instead, all he knows how to do is throw a fit, yelling at the people around him. It’s almost certain the Duffer Brothers made him into this stereotype on purpose, since a gross but always-right side character even calls him a man baby.

This is a condescending caricature of men, and it’s an especially big problem because Hopper spends much of his time in the second and third seasons yelling at the women closest to him. In real life, women often fear for their safety when men yell at them. This is true even if they know the man won’t hurt them – and often they don’t know that. Outside of fiction, yelling at women is an attempt at control through intimidation; it’s not how someone reasons through a problem.

Negative masculine stereotypes are not only unfair to men, but they’re also used to oppress women. There’s no point in holding men accountable, the attitude goes, because being terrible is how men naturally are. Then these negative male stereotypes put the burden on women to make up for men’s supposedly inherent failings.

This very dynamic plays out early in season three. Hopper shows up at Joyce’s workplace to complain about his parenting problems, which are caused by his inability to do anything other than yell at his daughter. Joyce then spends what is probably at least an hour if not more doing emotional labor, trying to council him on how to communicate. Naturally Hopper throws all her coaching out the window, because apparently it’s just unnatural for a man to have a sophisticated conversation about his feelings.

We’ve seen a better Hopper

Hopper wasn’t like this in season one. In the first episode of season one, we watch Hopper interact with Joyce for the first time. Her son has just gone missing, so she’s upset and she raises her voice a lot. Hopper deals with her calmly and patiently. We watch him question the boys, gruffer but still keeping a lid on his temper, and piece together Will’s last night in the right-side-up using his detective skills.

What happened to that Hopper? I want him back.

Male Heroes Are Controlling

A man driving looks angrily at the woman in the passenger seat

In Stranger Things 3, a similar sequence happens first with Jonathan and Nancy and later between Hopper and Joyce. The women are determined to do something they consider important: Nancy wants to continue to investigate the rabid rats in town, and Joyce wants to go to the fair to find the kids. The men are adamantly opposed to doing this. The women accept the men’s decision and resolve to do what they need to on their own. But nope, that’s not okay with the dudes either, so the men tag along.

Even though Jonathan and Hopper choose to come, they’re both furious about doing something they don’t want to do. When there’s fallout from the rat investigation, Jonathan blames Nancy for getting fired – even though he knew that was a possible consequence of his own actions. Hopper spends a bunch of time yelling at Joyce about how they’re at the fair for no reason.

When it turns out the women were right about looking for the kids and investigating rats, the men acknowledge it. In fact, it’s used to make both men treat the women better for the rest of the season. But what if the investigation or the fair visit ended up being unnecessary? Looking at this sequence of events, it seems these dudes were mad because the women weren’t doing exactly what they wanted. That wouldn’t have been okay regardless of the outcome.

Hopper and Mike treat Eleven like a prize

Mike locked in car, eyes wide and mouth open The terrified look on Mike’s face when he discovers Hopper has trapped him in the car. Is this supposed to be funny?

In the beginning of season three, viewers are treated to a showdown between Hopper and Mike. Hopper tells Joyce that he hates Mike and doesn’t like how much time Mike is spending with Eleven. Then Hopper locks Mike in a car with him, and threatens to stop him from dating Eleven unless Mike does what he says, and also doesn’t tell Eleven why, leaving Mike to lie to her.

This “father threatens boyfriend” trope has played out over and over again in popular stories, and it’s incredibly toxic. Who a woman dates should always be the woman’s choice, but in these scenes, the father is mad because he sees his daughter’s sexuality as his property, and the boyfriend is threatening to take it. It’s patriarchy in action, which is why the trope never happens between mothers and girlfriends. By depicting this showdown, Stranger Things has reduced Eleven to a man’s possession.

Don’t get me wrong – as a parent, Hopper may be justified in thinking that Eleven is spending too much time with Mike. But that’s a conversation between Hopper and Eleven – there’s no reason to include Mike. Instead of having that conversation, Hopper controls her by going behind her back.

Unfortunately, not only is this one of the worst examples of male heroes being sexist, but unlike most others, it has authorial endorsement. Threatening Mike gives Hopper exactly what he wants; he even celebrates by turning on some music and singing. I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall, but then when Mike tells Eleven what happened, she defends Hopper. What??? Eleven spent all of season two resenting Hopper’s control. She certainly didn’t respect his three-inch door rule in early episodes. And we’re supposed to believe she was okay with Hopper manipulating her that way?

Later, Mike apologizes to Eleven for monopolizing her time. This is complete nonsense. Eleven chose to spend all that time with Mike. Attributing it to Mike once again makes it feel like she’s an object for others to fight over.

Men demand that Joyce date Hopper

Joyce looks alarmed The look on Joyce’s face when Hopper asks her out for the second time. How romantic.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Eleven that Hopper decides to control. He also doesn’t accept Joyce’s choice not to go to dinner with him. So he asks her again, and this time he lies to her, telling her it’s not a date when it obviously is. Luckily this doesn’t work out for Hopper, because Joyce forgets to show up. After all, to her it’s just a meal between friends. Then Hopper yells at her about how she’s supposed to move on from her last relationship. Thankfully, Joyce stealthily leaves the room while he’s doing this.

But lest we think Hopper might have learned a lesson, later Joyce asks him to a dinner date at the same restaurant. Hopper never apologizes for refusing to take no for answer or for lying about his intent.

Let’s not forget the super creepy guy who appears in seasons two and three to tell women and the men who mistreat them that they should have sex. It happens with Nancy and Jonathan in season two, and then Joyce and Hopper in season 3. Both times, this guy’s creepy insistence that other people have sex is validated by the story. The Duffer Brothers must think he’s funny. I don’t know what this character’s ’80s inspiration is, and I don’t care. If he shows up again in season four, he’d better get murdered immediately.

Even so, we don’t need to make fun of his baldness. I also don’t want to hear any short jokes or fat jokes in the next season. We shouldn’t be policing the way men look any more than we should be doing it to women.

Positive Moments With Men Are Left Offscreen

Hopper hugs his daughter, Eleven Why did we have to wait for the last episode of the season for this?

Depicting men well isn’t just about not stereotyping; it also matters whether men are allowed to show characteristics that are traditionally associated with women. But Stranger Things 3 leaves out moments of men as nurturers, moments that are critical for setting up the personal drama that happens in the season.

Billy’s relationship with Max is bizarrely altered

I haven’t mentioned Billy previously because he’s an antagonist. In season two he’s the embodiment of toxic masculinity, and his fall in season three seems planned as karmic comeuppance for his bad deeds.

But for some reason, the Duffer Brothers didn’t want their viewers taking cathartic joy in his fall. Instead, the demise of Billy is told as a tragedy. While we witness a flashback of Billy as a child, the primary sign of this is how upset Max is. She desperately wants to save Billy, and during his self-aware moments, he’s clearly upset that he might hurt Max or otherwise let her down.

This is completely out of character for them both. In season two, Billy was just abusive. He resented her, and she was scared of him. There was absolutely nothing positive about Billy and Max’s relationship.

Billy could have turned his act around between seasons, but Stranger Things 3 doesn’t include a single moment where Billy acts like a loving big brother. Imagine: in the first episode, Max comes home and finds that Billy has bought her a bunch of stuff. She tells Billy thanks, but he can’t buy her trust; it’s going to take time. Billy says his therapist told him that too. He’s prepared to give her as much space as she needs, but even if he has a lot of making up to do, shouldn’t his kid sister have the best of everything?

Instead of a scene to show how their relationship has changed, we watch Billy humiliate a boy at the pool for being fat. That shows Billy is still abusive, and it makes crying over him look like an endorsement of his behavior in season two.

Hopper’s parting letter feels like a retcon

While Billy was abusing Max in season two, Hopper was engaging in huge fights with Eleven. There were a few moments of bonding between them, but it was overshadowed by Hopper’s “man baby” routine, which only escalated the conflict, until Eleven practically tore down the entire cabin.

Skip to season three, where Eleven is holed up in her bedroom with Mike, Hopper is yelling at them to keep the door open three inches, and Eleven is shrugging it off. Instead of having a conversation with his daughter, Hopper threatens Mike. Then Eleven spends time away from Mike, but not with Hopper. It isn’t until the end of the season, when everyone’s holed up in the mall, that we actually see Hopper tenderly taking care of Eleven.

This is especially disappointing because we need more popular stories with positive father figures. The idea that men aren’t good parents has made parental leave inaccessible to many men, discouraged men from being caregivers of their children, and then because they aren’t the primary caregivers, they’re less likely to get custody after a divorce. Meanwhile, women are saddled with more than their share of child-rearing and then punished at work for taking time off to take care of their kids.

In the season’s epilogue, Eleven reads a letter that Hopper wrote to her and Mike in the first episode. It shows a Hopper that is nothing like the man we’ve known for the last two seasons. Whereas he told Joyce he just hates Mike, in the letter he says he misses spending time with Eleven. Then he lists a bunch of bonding activities they supposedly did together. What? When did they do that? Why didn’t we see it?

This problem would’ve taken only a minute or two to fix. First, we’d see Hopper put the finishing touches on dinner and lay it out next to a game he’s set up for them to play. Eleven comes home, and his face lights up. Then Mike comes in, and it falls. Hopper offers to set up a place for Mike to join them, but Eleven declines in favor of spending time alone with Mike, grabbing a waffle to take with her into the bedroom. Alone and clearly frustrated, Hopper puts away the game. Then when he snaps at Eleven and Mike, viewers understand he’s doing it because he’s hurt and he misses her.


Because our culture has treated men and women like opposites, it means that for every stereotype about women, there’s another one about men. If we only look at how women are depicted, we’re addressing just one side of the problem. Yes, we can make our kickass heroines defy the toxic men around them, but why should they have to?

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Comments

  1. Justin Snowden

    I would have loved Season 3 so much more if Hopper was a well written character, but they just kept flipping him between Absolute Jerk and Action Hero. Also, Winona Ryder deserves so much more than they give her.

  2. Matt

    I dunno, I think you’re misreading the Billy arc. Here’s how I see it. He was abused as a child, so now he takes it out on other people. He’s a terrible person and knocks other people down so he can feel powerful. When he encounters the mind flayer, he loses all that power, being controlled like the mind flayer like his father. This humbles him and he fights for control to avoid hurting the people he cares about, namely Mrs Wheeler and Max (Not that Billy and Max have a healthy relationship, but he does care about her). He then sacrifices himself to the mind flayer. A typical “redemption by death” arc, very Darth Vader-esque. I never got the impression that what he did was okay.

  3. Paul C

    Excellent analysis. I am going to memorize what you said near the beginning: “So what if it’s realistic for straight people in the ’80s to be dismissive? Heroes are never average people; they’re better.”

    They’re better!

    I think I need to keep that always in mind.

  4. Dvärghundspossen

    I like Stranger Things overall, but yeah, Hopper is weirdly written, and there are some issues…

    One thing I talked about with friends the other day is the trope where the male characters in a show get to be insecure, stupid, mess up etc, whereas the female characters are always so confident, competent, have their shit together etc. I think Stranger Things have shades of this. Final Space, which we’ve watched a few eps of on Netflix, seems to have this in spades, with perfect female space hero Quinn among a bunch of bumbling men…

    So my issue with this is that superficially, it seems feminist to have the women be better than the men. You could argue that it’s sexist against men, but it might seem like you’re doing well by women if you write characters like this. But to me, it signals that the writers have some kind of problem with women…
    a) Making women way better than men comes off to me as if you’re overcompensating; you can’t see women as just regular people, but you wanna be woke and feminist, and so you exaggerate in the opposite direction of seeing them as bimbos and damsels in distress.
    b) When women are portrayed as super confident in the relationship arena (like how Max, WEIRDLY, seems confident and in control all he time in season 2 with a whole bunch of boys more or less stalking her while she’s also brand new in school and abused at home), I always think this is because the writers buy into this shitty idea that women have all the sexual power and all the relationship power because women are the ones pursued, who can pick and choose, whereas men do the pursuing. And there’s just so much wrong with this idea. For starters, only a minority of girls/women are popular enough to have scores of boys/men pursuing them, and even IF you’re in that position, it can be super weird and just really hard to know how to deal with it, rather than a feeling of “haha, I’m the queen of this situation, I have all the control.”

    • LeeEsq

      I think that writers are often stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to this issue. If the portray too many female characters as average or even bellow average and too many male characters as average or above average, people are going to accuse them of sexism. However, what you wrote above is also true. The inability to depict average or even incompetent female characters, means that you aren’t relating to women as regular people. From the writer’s point of view, showing women as generally or always more competent than the male characters is safer because they are correctly guessing that most people would read “yeah, go girl power” than “you aren’t showing women to be average and/or incompetent because you can’t relate to women as regular people.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        I think you have a point, and it seems plausible that writers often think along these lines. Still, a lot of shows do manage to pull off this balancing act, so it’s clearly not impossible.

        Off the top of my head, Doom Patrol and Umbrella Academy both have seriously flawed female team members in their respective superhero groups, Legends of Tomorrow has team leader Sara Lance who’s a real badass, but often too impulsive as well… and when the team was just coming together again after having been scattered through time, first thing a few of the men had to do was to rescue Sara in the seventeenth century from being burnt at the stake as a witch after having slept with most of the wives in the village. The guys are just like “haha, classic Sara” and swoops in to the rescue.
        Moving away from superhero shows, there are dramedies like Crazy Ex-girlfriend and Orange is the New Black that focus a lot on female characters, and they’re seriously flawed and messed-up, but in a HUMAN way, not in a sexist look-how-stupid-women-are way.

        Seems to me the key is just to have men and women be similarly flawed. It’s cool if everyone is mostly a badass hero, it’s cool if everyone is a seriously flawed anti-hero, it’s cool if everyone is more or less a bumbling fool – or if you mix all three categories on the male as well as female side.

  5. Tina

    THANK YOU for your analysis of Hopper. You exactly nailed all the problems I had with him. As a further note to your last point, it feels really disingenuous for Hopper to say he “just misses spending time with Eleven” when he’s totally cool letting her spend all day with Max.

  6. Silverware

    God, I hated the third season for these reasons. Like, everything else was fine, but the way characters acted was so uncomfortable I wanted to cry. I hated how Hopper and Jonathan dismissed Joyce and Nancy, even after two seasons of paranormal shit happening around the town! Two seasons! They looked stupid and malicious, ignoring women because they wanted to show their dominance or something. Hopper never screamed like that and never threatened to harm a child in the first season. I miss that Hopper. I liked first season Jonathan too, even tho creepy photo taking was bad.

    While I appreciated Eleven and Max’s time together, I didn’t like Max herself, she kept dunking on Lucas, they’re not good for each other. I didn’t like Erica, she’s not Girl Power or whatever, she’s a bully and a jerk, and she keeps dunking on Lucas. By the way everyone keeps dunking on poor Lucas.

  7. LeeEsq

    This might just be me but Stranger Things is a period piece of sorts, so a lot of the behavior can be explained by this is how people behaved and thought during the 1980s. At least to the extent the audience can deal with it, which is why we don’t see Steve acting in disgust when Robin reveals she likes girls to or nobody bating an eye at teenage interracial dating in rural Indiana during the height of Reagan.

    “Men are from Mars, Women are for Venus” was published 1992, so the “males and females are separate species” is really in line with how teenagers from the mid-1980s would think about these things. Even today, you have lots of people that still think this way, even people who are ostensibly liberal. I think we can deal with at least some accurate depictions of how people thought back then. Requiring every show we like to conform completely to what we see as being true seems a little Stalinist.

  8. Arietha

    I’m guessing you either weren’t born before the 80s, or if you were your own privilege inured you to the prevalence of these gender issues during that period.

    If anything, the show downplayed how widespread toxic masculinity was at the time.

    You also seem unaware of the usual effects long term trauma, paranoia, and alcohol abuse have on people.

    I think the problem you’re seeing here is that Season 3 was simply more realistic than the previous – and ignoring that both major adult leads (Hopper and Joyce) display SEVERE mental health issues.

    The fact that you see Hopper’s as ‘besmirching’ and don’t apply the same notion to Joyce just indicates you’ve internalised negative expectations of female mental health.

    In other words, you feel that a viewer would be viewing Hopper especially negatively for his aggression issues but wouldn’t apply the same level of negative judgment to Joyce for her neurosis because, well, ‘that’s what women do’.

    This is the prevalent social narrative about female mental health, and it’s centuries old, so I would suggest taking a closer and harder look at it. It’s an expectation our society places on women especially, and it’s very hard to escape. We force women in our society to internalise this notion and apply it to themselves and other women, while it becomes an easy lever for men to use to disempower women.

    If anything, the show downplays the expected health issues these people would be suffering. Hopper lives in an isolated cabin with a ward that he has invested his grief issues into, and as she matures he finds all his unresolved toxicity catalysing around her romantic activities – while his own loneliness and emotional mutilation sees him basically forcing himself at Joyce because he’s in too much pain (and in the 80s most men had no way out from that) and that’s all he can do.

    Meanwhile Joyce is in deep mourning still from losing the love of her life, the trauma of what happened to her vulnerable child, and the stress of being a single mother working a retail job in a failing sector.

    This season was positively rose-tinted if you examine it even vaguely in terms of realistic character development.

    • Adriano

      All true.

      • Adriano Tenorio

        Sorry, could your guys edit out my email from the previous post, please?

  9. Dvärghundspossen

    I was born in 1977, and I agree with this article about Hopper. The problem isn’t that he has rage issues and stuff. There are loads of great movies and shows about people having issues and behaving badly (we saw Herzog’s Stroszek, from 1977, just the other day! It’s a great movie about mostly terrible people!). The problem is that Stranger things portrays Hopper as a cool and fun anti-hero for having these issues. Russian guy (whom Hopper keeps calling “Smirnoff” in a painfully unfunny running “joke”) even compares him to Rambo!

    I actually quit the show with two eps left because I found myself hating Hopper SO MUCH I couldn’t even stand watching anymore. Not because I hate watching people with rage issues per se, but because the narrative simultaneously holds him up as super cool.

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