If you haven’t yet watched Season 2, there are spoilers ahead!
Fatherhood, like many family roles, has experienced a number of changes over the years. These changes can be viewed in the many TV shows portraying fathers and their children. Some shows have shown traditional fathers, like Charles Ingalls (Michael Landon) on Little House on the Prairie, who was a farmer and mill worker and the head of the household, and John Walton (Ralph Waite) on The Waltons, who we watched guide his rural family through the Depression and World War II. Others have been portrayed as emotionally involved with their children, like Dan Conner (John Goodman) on Roseanne, who tries to provide for his family despite economic challenges, and Michael Kyle (Damon Wayons) from My Wife and Kids, whose uses his Michael Kyle Signature Moments to teach his family life lessons. The roles fathers play on TV largely echo the times, with fathers blending more financial providing and emotional interaction to varying degrees dependent on culture.
The father-child relationships in Stranger Things largely take a backseat to its other plot twists, but the relationship between Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) played an integral role in Season 2. Hopper and Eleven are not biologically related, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that their relationship falls into a parent-child one. In fact, a recent post suggests a connection between Hopper’s daughter with El.
Hopper demonstrates the type of fathering that began to be discussed and researched in the 1970s. Prior to this, fathers were generally expected to provide financially for their families and little else. We see an example of this type of father in Mike Wheeler’s (Finn Wolfhard) dad, who had no idea Eleven was living in the basement of his house or little else his son and his friends experienced. Beginning in the 1970s, the culture shifted to include expectations that fathers be emotionally invested with their children. This way of thinking about fathers goes beyond simple calculations of the amount of time spent with children and instead include processes like being attentive to and focused on the developmental needs of their children. This style of fatherhood has been named the new father, generative father, authoritative fatherhood, and responsive fatherhood.
There are many examples of Hopper engaging in this type of fatherhood. For example, Hopper sets El up in a cabin hidden in the woods to make sure to keep her away from Hawkins’ lab staff and the public, thus protecting her from additional experimentation or other harm. He also makes sure El knows the “don’t be stupid” set of rules, which is another layer of protection he sets up for her. Their relationship goes beyond protector-protected, however. Hopper is neither only disciplinarian who sets rules for El to follow, nor is he a simply of protector who tries to ensure her safety. Through various scenes, we can see them enjoying the time they spend together, from the waffles that are regularly stocked in the freezer because Hopper knows how much she likes them to the word-of-the-day that helps El understand her world to his regret about the major conflict the two experienced. Finally, the conflict that Hopper and El experience attest to the tension between closeness and independence is characteristic of many parent-child relationships, especially as children assert their independence, but that is a different topic and relates more to adolescent development.
TV shows, and the interactions between the characters, can be an important transmitter of culture. As father-child interactions shift within culture and historical time, it’s likely that fictional father-child interactions also change to reflect those changes. Stranger Things takes place at a historical period of fatherhood changes in roles, and expectations for the new father were just beginning to take root. Although few viewers are likely watching this show for the father-child interactions, it provides a nice backdrop to better understand the culture of fatherhood.