Nostalgia, Toxic Masculinity, and Geek Culture in ‘Stranger Things’

Netflix’s Stranger Things is filled with the nostalgia of ‘80s games, entertainment and blockbuster movies such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, and The Terminator. The show references a lot of popular and geek culture reminiscent of that time that has become very popular in today’s media. These film franchises were popularised and gained new fans called “geeks” or “nerds,” and became integrated into pop culture. From monster hunters to the supernatural phenomenon, the Duffer Brothers created the show for those who are looking to engage with the familiar images of geek culture. But where there are references to the popular era of nerd culture, there tend to be some issues. 

At its core, Stranger Things presents itself as a show that subverts toxic masculinity; unfortunately that is not the case. There are problems with how Stranger Things portrays the male characters as aggressive, hypermasculine characters who tend to use violence to get what they want. Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is a dedicated officer with a heart of gold who uses brute force and authority to break certain rules. While these hypermasculine characters exist in Stranger Things, not all of them are portrayed that way. Some characters such as the mature geeks and nerds are portrayed to be the opposite of the usual hero that uses knowledge to solve mysteries.

Stranger Things takes place during the anxieties of the Cold War and the Reagan-era military-industrial complex, which was an era that idolised male action heroes. Also, the characters are going through the journey of shared trauma of pain and resistance. The show is set against the backdrop of Hawkins, a small town where nothing ever happens— until Will Byers goes missing. Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp)— aka The Party— are best friends who spend their time playing Dungeons & Dragons. When Mike, Lucas, and Dustin discover El— the girl who escaped from the mysterious government building, Hawkins Lab— they are on a mission to find Will, who is trapped in another dimension, the Upside Down. 

The first issue arises with Hawkins’ very own Chief of Police, Jim Hopper. He does not care about his job, he regularly sleeps in and has a laidback attitude when it comes to the problems of Hawkins until Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) reports that her son Will has gone missing. Out of respect for his friend from high school, he sets off to find Will and reassures Joyce that they will find him. Hopper has also gone through similar trauma with the loss of his daughter, Sara. He is brash and erratic and displays toxic masculinity. In a scene where Hopper tells Joyce that the state troopers have found Will’s body, Joyce tells him that Will is still alive and that he has been communicating to her through the Christmas lights. Hopper does not believe her and dismisses her as someone who is grieving for their loved ones— an experience Hopper is familiar with. Here, Hopper empathizes with Joyce’s reaction to Will’s death, and he calmly speaks to her and does not shout at her. Later on, while Hopper is investigating Will’s case, he finds out that there is something mysterious going on behind Hawkins Lab. He visits the morgue and cuts Will’s body open to find out that it is a fake body with cotton stuffed inside it. He returns to Joyce and tells her that he believes that Will is alive, reassuring her calmly. 

Hopper (left) and Joyce (right) stand next to one another with their jaws dropped. Hopper is wearing a green and pink pastel shirt whilst Joyce wears a dark purple shirt with a dark orange ringer top underneath.
Image courtesy of Netflix

However, while he displays calmness and empathy towards Joyce, there are a few times in season one where Hopper attacks people to find out the truth. While trying to get information on who authorised Will’s body to be examined at the morgue, he attacks the state trooper who found Will’s body and beats him up behind the bar. In another instance, when Hopper is trying to find out whether Will’s body is fake or not, he attacks the guard outside the morgue room and finds the truth about Will’s body. This display of violent force and using his authority to get what he wants is significantly common in the second and third seasons of Stranger Things. His relationships with Joyce and the other characters also change dramatically, without explaining why he is behaving out of character. 

When Mike, Luke and Dustin are explaining to Hopper and everyone else how to defeat the Demogorgon using Dungeons & Dragons references, Hopper displays confusion because he is not familiar with the game. However, he listens without shouting at them and ridiculing them. There are times where he is irritated at their behaviour, but he does not make them feel bad about it. His understanding is that they are working towards the same goal, and that is what’s important. Unfortunately, when the story progresses into the next two seasons, Hopper’s characterization changes dramatically. 

In the second season of Stranger Things, El disappears after killing the Demogorgon and rescuing Will from the Upside Down, but Hopper is hopeful that she will return to Hawkins. Eventually, Hopper finds El and brings her to the cabin in the woods so that no one can find her. Hopper tries to adjust to this new environment and relationship by taking the role of the father figure to El. He tries to balance work and taking care of a preadolescent child. He teaches her a new word every day and teaches her morse code for them to communicate without being traced. Also, Hopper sets a new set of rules for her while she stays alone at the cabin. For Hopper, making sure El is safe and taking care of her are new challenges and they are difficult. El wants to go see her friends, but Hopper does not allow her to do so. Hopper yells at El — something he has never done in the previous season to any of the other characters — but here, he displays rage and frustration towards El’s demands.

Repeatedly, El asks when she will be able to see her friends, and asks him whether she would be able to see them after a certain number of days. Hopper assures her that it is not safe for her to go outside yet. Later in the episode, ignoring Hopper’s concerns, El breaks the rules by leaving the cabin and goes to the school to spy on her friends. When Hopper finds out about this, he is furious and deeply concerned over the safety of El. Hopper then grounds El, as he commands her to never leave the cabin. He revokes her television privileges and Eggos, her favourite meal. Here, Hopper tries to teach El that there are consequences to her actions which frustrates her more. El says “You’re just like Papa,” because she had gone through the same treatment of isolation with her father figure, Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine). After Hopper threatens El, she eventually leaves the cabin.

Hopper and El sit opposite one another at a small table which is only lit by a lamp that is sat directly one the table. They are eating and in mid-conversation.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Additionally, Hopper is faced with a new threat in Hawkins as the anniversary of Will’s disappearance is approaching, and everybody is anxious. Joyce, Hopper, and Will are consulting with a new doctor who helps Will understand what he is going through, while also trying to stop the creatures from coming back from the gate again. Here, Hopper’s characterization is somewhat similar to the first season, and the way he treats Joyce and everybody else is pretty much the same. What is interesting is that when El returns from her adventure, Hopper and El talk about the reason for her disappearance and what caused it. Hopper admits that he has done wrong and wants to make things right with El, and apologizes to her for yelling at her. Hopper displays emotion and cries, which is unconventional for a character written as an ‘80s male action hero. He learns from his mistakes, and it seems as though Hopper and El will have a healthy father-daughter relationship from then onwards. 

Even Hopper’s relationship with Joyce takes on a more positive turn at the end of season two, when Joyce’s boyfriend dies. Hopper sympathizes with her and comforts her as she is mourning. Later when Joyce drops off Will at the school dance, she waits at the parking lot and Hopper joins her. They share a cigarette, reminiscing on their school days, and Hopper asks her how she is doing. While Joyce is mourning, Hopper responds with kindness, assuring her that things will be better every day and hugging her. However, this relationship and others changes in season three, where Hopper starts to act out of character.

When the third season of Stranger Things begins, we are introduced to El and Mike’s relationship. El is allowed to leave the cabin within the hours that she is permitted to meet Mike and their friends. There are some ground rules inside the cabin when Mike visits, such as how Hopper demands El’s bedroom door should be slightly open so that he can keep a close eye on them. Hopper yells at Mike and El to keep the door open and is uncomfortable at the thought of them dating, and he wishes to break them apart. To get advice on this problem, Hopper vents to Joyce and asks her how he should have the conversation about setting boundaries. He whines and asks Joyce to tell Mike and El, which is strange because in the previous seasons, Hopper is known to be understanding and listens to people attentively. Hopper’s characterization has changed dramatically, to a point where he has forgotten what he said to El at the end of season two. All the learning and emotional talk with his adopted daughter is nowhere present in this season. 

In the third season, Hopper’s relationship with Joyce also changes dramatically. The empathetic and understanding character is now replaced with a brooding and abusive character that tries to manipulate Joyce into going on a date with him. Hopper tells Joyce that this is not a date and ends up picking a restaurant that is known for its romantic atmosphere. Hopper dresses up and goes to the restaurant, but Joyce never shows up. On the other side of town, Joyce is preoccupied with a bunch of magnets that are not sticking to the fridge. Worried that this might be another case of the Demogorgons, she meets up with Will’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens) to understand why this is happening, and completely forgets about the date. The next morning, Hopper is angry about being stood up and when Joyce shows up at the cabin, he yells at her and dismisses her when she explains what is happening with the magnets. 

In the previous seasons, Hopper listens to Joyce whenever she comes up with strange and weird theories of whether or not Hawkins might be in danger. He believes her and puts himself in danger to help Joyce and the kids, no matter the cost. However, in the last season, Hopper is more concerned about Joyce not showing up for the date rather than the potential danger that Hawkins may be in. He is insulted that Joyce hung out with the science teacher and not him. Hopper’s erratic behaviour towards Joyce is consistent throughout the episode, and the other characters interpret this as the sexual tension between Hopper and Joyce when it is abusive behaviour. 

Dr Brenner talks to a young El, who has a series of wires places on her head. He is wearing a shirt and tie and has his hand on El's shoulder. In front of El is a glass of water.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Apart from Hopper, other characters display toxic masculinity. Dr Martin Brenner— the chief scientist who works at the Hawkins Lab— uses El to conduct experiments on telekinesis, which leads to opening a portal to another dimension called the Upside Down. He is positioned as the primary villain in season one, and we learn about El and Dr Brenner’s history. He is manipulative, calculating and ruthless when it comes to getting the results that he wants. El possesses powers that include extrasensory perception and portal manipulation— amongst other things— but she is reluctant to perform the experiments. To do that, Dr Brenner places El inside an isolation tank. While it is clear that she is scared, this does not stop him from testing the experiments on her. Dr Brenner views El as an object — a weapon that he can use to defeat the communists in Russia rather than a child of his own, even though El calls him “Papa”. 

Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) a newcomer in the second season of Stranger Things is the stepbrother of Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink), a geek and new addition to The Party. Their family and both Max and Billy are adjusting to the new town. Billy is the stereotypical ‘80s bully, with a mullet, tight jeans, and dangling earrings. He presents himself as the “king of the school” and is depicted as sinister and racist, deliberately putting himself and Max in harm’s way. In a scene where Billy sees Lucas and Max hanging out when he demands that Max not do that, he confronts Lucas, pushing him to the shelf and threatening to kill him. At home, things are different. His father is angry and shoves him into a bookshelf when he is unable to locate his stepsister, and calls him “sensitive” for showing emotion. Billy’s father also insults him for the way that he dresses. 

In the third season of Stranger Things, Billy’s destructive behaviour and childhood are explored. When Billy is possessed by the Mind-Flayer — a new villain that is haunting the town of Hawkins — El and her friends try to save him from the big bad villain by diving into his mind. It is revealed that Billy is a sweet boy who loves his mother, and when she leaves her husband because of the abuse, Billy’s father turns to his son and abuses him. This is why Billy becomes a bully. At the end of the season, he sacrifices himself to save El and Max. At the end of season three, Billy is given a redemption arc. Here, the audience is supposed to sympathize with Billy’s death because they are presented with Billy’s backstory and childhood trauma. All of these decisions are clumsily executed, and it gives the idea that if his father had not abused him, Billy would not have turned out this way and that he is worth redemption, completely forgetting how terribly he treated Max and her friends in the previous season. 

A head and shoulders shot of Billy, who has a curly mullet and a small moustache. He is wearing a pale blue shirt.
Image courtesy of Netflix

While Stranger Things portrays Reaganite masculinity during the anxieties of the Cold War era, two characters do not display those characteristics. These characters are not cops, monster hunters or scientists— they are nerds and geeks. Scott Clarke is the science teacher of Hawkins Middle School. Throughout the show, he helps out The Party with information on how to defeat the Demogorgon and Mind-Flayer, which he disguises as science projects. In season two, Bob “the Brain” Newby (Sean Astin) is introduced as Joyce’s boyfriend. Bob works at Radio Shack and is a tech genius who knows his way around any electrical gadget. He attempts to act as a father figure to Will and his brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), and advises Will on how to deal with the Mind-Flayer, unbeknownst to Bob. Bob is kept mostly in the dark about the incidents of season one, and he does not know the full extent of Will’s problems until the end of the season. His heroism is presented in the form of a drawing by Will at the end of the second season, which meant that he saw Bob as a superhero. Also, it highlights the difference between the hypermasculine characters such as Hopper and Billy, and Bob’s heroism based in the context of ‘80s male action heroes at that time. 

What is important to note is the reason behind Bob’s death, which ultimately means that hypermasculine characters like Hopper survive and Bob — who is only seen as a geek or a nerd who is affectionate and nurturing — eventually sacrifices himself to save the others. Both Bob and Mr. Clarke are characterised as more mature and caring. At the end of the second season of Stranger Things, it is revealed that Bob is the founder of The A.V. Club — a club that The Party is also a part of — and he is written as an important figure of geekdom in Hawkins.

 The Duffer Brothers created this world of Hawkins that encapsulates a unique coming-of-age show with monsters. While incorporating pop culture references, the show is a case study of the different hyper-masculine and nerd characters that are portrayed on the show. These characters range from neglectful and manipulative father figures to characters that have a more positive role as a father figure to the kids. Regardless of characters like Bob and Mr. Clarke, the show concentrates on the hyper-masculine portrayal of ‘80s male action heroes. Maybe the real villain of Stranger Things is not the Demogorgon or the Mind-Flayer — it’s toxic masculinity.