'Stranger Things 2' and the Shadow Monster of Masculinity
With the great ego-demolishing men of Hawkins, Indiana, "Stranger Things 2" offers a disarming spectrum of masculinity and its many-tentacled harms.
Photos courtesy of Netflix
FYI This post contains spoilers.
Holy Joe Keery, Stranger Things 2 is the best thing that's happened in this shithole of a year.
Stranger Things is a near perfect show and season two manages an expertly-crafted deep dive of its universe and characters with clarity, relatability, logic, and heart. While some have called it sexist for its "token female" dynamic and depictions of caregiving, the series manages to explores its characters' motivations and machinations with equal depth, gravity, and humanity.
It may not boast a women-majority cast, but the series doesn't necessarily suffer for it. Set in the era that birthed iconic teen stereotypes in pop culture (misunderstood outcast, "king of the school" jock, doe-eyed and studious goody-goody) and pioneered the exploration of high school as its own world, Stranger Things 2 artfully inverts these tropes—all the while challenging conventional notions of masculinity by offering a complex look at its effects.
Employing the beloved and effective "kids and adults unknowingly and simultaneously solve the big problem together" method of season one, we see two pairs of male characters (daddy Jim Hopper and superhero Bob Newby; America's sweetheart Steve Harrington and mysterious yet hunky psycho Billy Hargrove) face off against the biggest shadow monster of all: toxic masculinity.
The first season left the audience unsure about our feelings for Jim Hopper, the Hawkins chief of police who went full X-Files and saved Winona Ryder's Joyce from the insanity of gaslighting. Narcing on the kids in exchange for a rescue mission to the Upside Down revealed a great deal about Hopper that season two confirmed: Ultimately a "good guy," he is also authoritative, secretive, and makes decisions unilaterally. Plus, he's got a temper.
Hopper's obvious foil is Bob Newby, Joyce's new boyfriend played by Sean Astin, who Samwise Gamgee's it up. Bob is an earnest, communicative man who's not afraid to show his vulnerability: He tells Joyce he doesn't like scary movies and confides in Will that he suffered from nightmares as a child. He's selfless and generous with his skills, ideas, and time, depicted most succinctly in the scene where he solves the mystery of a "treasure" map. Bob, the vulnerable softie whose death we saw coming from the moment he was introduced, is an almost too on-the-nose inversion of the maverick police chief. It's Bob's generosity and kindness that save Hopper from a tunnel of shadow vines from another dimension, and ultimately, the entire cast from the demo-dogs.
In season two, Hopper's arc to Bob-like enlightenment is almost comically metaphorical in illustrating the importance of overcoming his "masculine" flaws. Unable to keep his promises to his pre-pubescent non-daughter—or communicate effectively with her—he lashes out in rage before metaphorically choking on his own masculinity and literally choking on phallic tentacle-vines on a mission he stubbornly tackles alone. Hopper only truly succeeds as a hero in the finale, after admitting his deepest fears and insecurities to Eleven in a car ride to the apocalypse.
Describing himself as a "black hole" that might somehow be responsible for the death of his cancer-ridden daughter, Hopper tells Eleven that he's afraid to lose her. "I've just been scared that it would take you, too. I think that's why I get...so mad." It's in this tender moment where he begins to serve as a father figure in a traditionally maternal way. Crushing our hearts with a heavy combination of fear and hopefulness, Hopper's journey to let go of his former family and Eleven's journey to find her own ends with the two holding hands.
While our large adult sons Hopper and Bob have stories that illustrate overcoming the most damaging aspects of toxic masculinity, the teen boys are shown grappling with "boys clubs" and learning "how to be a man." Like Hopper and Bob but more literally, teens Steve and Billy are pitted against each other as competitors this season.
Steve Harrington started season one as the mean jock stereotype, which was immediately shattered the night he met the Demogorgon. Now, Steve has blossomed into the internet's boyfriend, saving the world and its most precious Dungeons & Dragons players. He's grown to be kind and earnest, and we see him grappling with pushback to these qualities. Though Billy and the other jock-bullies mock him for "turning bitch," Steve is the protector and leader of a much more important group of kids facing off against an army of bloodthirsty, psychic, multi-toothed flower-monsters from another dimension. Steve even takes on a surrogate dad/brother role to Dustin, letting him in on his secret to the perfect coif and driving him to the Snow Ball. How can anyone emerge from season two without carving "Mrs. Steve Harrington" all over their trapper-keepers?
Steve's nemesis, Billy Hargrove, is Max's psychotic and likely racist older brother. He's depicted as the archetypal 80s hunk, scored with "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and styled in a barely buttoned-up shirt, impossibly tight jeans, a single dangling earring, long feathery hair, and the creepiest, most piercing eyes in Indiana. Able to seduce unwitting MILFs like Mrs. Wheeler with so much as a handshake, Billy's story also shows the true cost of being the "king of the school."
Though Billy gets a rock star's introduction, we immediately learn he's a piece of shit when he berates and abuses his sister in his car and plays a game of near-fatal Chicken with the kids. When we finally see Billy totally alone, he gasses himself up in the mirror while blasting rock, exhaling cigarette smoke out of his nostrils like some sort of water dragon. Perfectly framed by his poster of a pinup girl, Billy shakes his ass, winks at himself in the mirror, and even dabs some cologne on his junk. But his party and world come crashing down when his father returns home and we learn the source of Billy's destructive behavior. Angry with his son for not knowing his step-daughter's location, Billy's mustachioed dad calls him a "faggot" and slams him into a bookcase (in the same exact way Billy later hurts Lucas).
Stranger Things 2 gives us potent male tears in this scene and many others, as well as new windows on the fragile masculinity of the show's characters. From Hopper's impotent man-rage at a telekinetic child (but really at himself) to Bob's soft, dedicated heroism and brutal slaughter, we see an unusually candid spectrum of the ways men can be horrible and (in part) purified through emotional growth, personal trials, and empathy.
In another example of shaky evolution, season one saw Steve getting in touch with his feelings and desires, and we suspect that after his fight with the Demogorgon he casts high school politics aside (to his own benefit and his peers' disapproval). Season 2 Steve has his flaws but repeatedly shines with a burgeoning maturity: his lack of jealousy or anger toward Jonathan or Nancy, his mentorship of Dustin, and his protection of the show's extremely precious children. We want that same transformation for Billy, who might find a healthier way to deal with his anger or, after an other-worldly experience, the courage to stand up to his monster of a father. Unfortunately, Billy is stuck where he is until next season.
If Billy can emulate any of Hawkins, Indiana's great ego-demolishing men (Hopper, Bob, and Steve), then he, too, can end the cycle of abuse and overcome the monster of masculinity to invert the beloved 80s tropes that made us fall in love with Stranger Things in the first place. And it'd kick ass to see him fight a Demogorgon.