Stranger Things' Hopper

'Stranger Things' and the Debate Over Hopper's Flaws

The police chief's behavior is less admirable in season three, but is that such a bad thing?

Courtesy: Netflix

It’s been exactly five minutes that Stranger Things season three has been out, and the internet is already producing eye-rolling opinions about the formerly lovable, dad-bod chic, Hawaiian shirt-clad police officer Jim Hopper and his “toxic masculinity.” Spoilers abound, so read at your own risk. 

In Stranger Things' latest run, Hopper (David Harbour), who is now Eleven’s (Millie Bobby Brown) guardian, is going through a few things. For starters, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is now officially dating El, and the couple disrespects Hopper’s “leave the door open a few inches so I can check on you” rule right in his face.
Additionally, he still has the hots for Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), who inexplicably still lives in their quaint Ind. town of Hawkins, even after her son has been kidnapped to the Upside Down once, and then further possessed by a slimy demon. This, after her saccharine boyfriend, Bob, dies pretty horrendously from demi-dog bites in season two.

As police chief in a town where only neutral-to-bad things happen, Hopper certainly has his hands full. Not to mention his wife left him after his daughter died, and he has PTSD from Vietnam (revealed in seasons one and two, respectively). This isn’t an excuse, but rather, enough information to let you know that the internet has completely disregarded some poor writer’s extrapolation on his behavior, to assume he’s just suffering from toxic masculinity. In a matter of days, Hopper—the police chief who is used to having power or, at the very least, agency—has been mistreated by Mike in his own home (disobeying the smallest boundary ever set up), stood up by Joyce at the fanciest restaurant in their small town and, let’s reiterate, there’s another paranormal situation unfolding with incessant power outages, bloodied teenage lifeguards and a woman with psychoactive rats.

The internet’s frustration stems from Hopper pressuring Joyce into going on a date that she later ghosts on, and his deciding to drink heavily and run out of the restaurant without paying, along with addressing Joyce passive-aggressively from then on—while still helping her. Whomst among us has been forced to be cordial to someone who stepped on their heart, publicly, and then asked us for help?
We forget that flawed characters are the only characters.
They then consider him abusive for yelling at Eleven and cheering gleefully when Mike and Eleven break up. Because apparently someone on Earth exists with a father who cared the exact right amount about anything and never, ever overreacts. Oh, and when he dies saving the town, we kind of ignore that to focus on the aforementioned scenarios.

And it’s not that we can’t intellectualize everything and unpack his character and his choices, but what’s frustrating is that the implication, then, is that flawed characters are a bad thing. We forget that flawed characters are the only characters.

Evan Rachel Wood wrote a Twitter thread about how Hopper should be more sex-positive with his (supernatural) teen daughter and her smug boyfriend, which is really great in theory. But in reality, in the 1980s, when sex education was pretty much a box of expired condoms and a prayer, this doesn’t make sense and would feel untenable for the world. Now, perhaps the way that other progressive situations have played out on the show have given us a false sense of the world of the show having a specific point of view, rather than telling the events as they unfold in an unbiased fashion. (For example, new character Robin comes out as a lesbian to heartthrob Steve, moments after he confesses feelings for her, and he … acts like that’s nothing to unpack as a white Midwestern teenager in the '80s?)
Not all shows do that or have to do that. On a show where the police chief gets stood up by a woman—whom everyone but him sort of dismissed over the past few years as batshit insane—at a restaurant, if that police chief then says, “OK, you’re still grieving, good luck,” and backs out, nothing has happened to move the plot forward, his crush seems like a waste of minutes on the screen and the two characters have no real reason to be around each other. His job description does not include accompanying her on her exploration of magnets and her hunches about wrongdoing.

If Hopper were incredibly nonchalant about being disrespected (by a supernatural daughter he adopted out of the goodness of his heart), then his death would not reveal the note he wrote expressing himself, and Eleven’s emotional response to that loss would be less climactic. Had he not been seen in those aggro moments in the early episodes of this season, his choice to then shoot the Russians and wear their clothes as a disguise would seem completely out of character and over the top. A man who never explodes, never wears an ugly Hawaiian shirt and never kidnaps a Russian scientist to get some information is not a man who saves the town from … alien?—demonic?—weaponized parallel universes. He’s just a background character who dies when the Demogorgon wins and kills everybody.

The point isn’t that these critiques aren’t correct. A number of Twitter users have described feeling uncomfortable watching him taunt Joyce and have a hard time taking no for an answer. That’s fair, but I’d also rather have a character on a TV show do that than a person in real life, and understand that we don’t have to litigate fictional characters and feel a way about watching a show because it has a “bad guy.” The real root of this issue is expecting anyone at all to find their morality through the work of a select group of people who write for TV. Also, that Evan Rachel Wood is on a show where people literally pay to rape and murder sentient robots, and the idea of reading more than a paragraph about why the characters on that show aren’t role models makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Give the audience a little credit.

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